Why do the best musicians always die so young?
It’s a rhetorical question, of course. For one thing, the best musicians don’t always die young—we just fixate on the ones whose lives and careers are cut tragically short. For another, the reasons are painfully obvious. The fame and attention bestowed up on our most successful musicians brings with it attendant hazards that can easily conspire to overwhelm the incautious.
This is a complex problem that has recurred throughout history, beginning with the great-granddaddy them all, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He lived fast and died young, of complications resulting from treatment for syphilis. Although most scholars, critics and fans place his body of work on a footing roughly equal to Beethoven, in the realm of popular imagination, Beethoven’s stolid reputation places him squarely in Mozart’s unerringly brilliant shadow. Mozart got the Academy Award-winning Amadeus, whilst Beethoven got, um, Beethoven. [Editor’s note: Immortal Beloved, starring Gary Oldman, was a fine, if not comprehensive portrait of Beethoven.]
There is simply no way to truly compete with the dead, especially the ghosts of those whose lives were cut tragically short. Hence the eternal cults of personality which endure around pop musicians such as Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix and Curt Cobain, and even lesser talents such as Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin. Their undeniable contributions to rock and roll history will forever be accompanied by the shadowy promise of what could have been.
Which brings us very neatly to Charlie Parker. Parker represents perhaps the single most damning premature loss in the history of jazz. So many of jazz’s founding fathers were blessed with relatively long lives—Louis Armstrong lived to be 70, Duke Ellington 75—that it seems especially harsh to consider the cruel fates of so many of the second generation jazzmen. Parker himself died at the tragic age of 34, felled by heroin. John Coltrane, despite having kicked heroin a full decade before his death, was killed by liver cancer at the ripe old age of 41. Billie Holiday made it to 44 (although it must be noted that her last decade was as sadly unprolific as ‘Trane’s last decade was impressively fertile).
We, the proverbial survivors, are given the artifacts with which to attempt to understand the lives that these people lived. The fantastic and morbid circumstances surrounding their deaths will forever fire our imaginations in ways that the work of their surviving counterparts can never truly equal. If there was an alternate universe where Bird had kicked the heroin and went sober for the remainder of his life, what would these unfulfilled recordings have sounded like? What sort of influence would their presence have exercised on the music we already know? You might as well pine for the Beatles’ reunion, or to see the release of the Beach Boys’ Shine.
Wait a minute, that’s probably not the best example.
Although they are of little use for the established music fan, I continue to maintain that while the Millennium Collection series does represent a morally ambiguous strip-mining of the given artists’ legacies, the single-disc compilations are also an invaluable resource for young and aspiring music aficionados. If you love jazz, you probably have at least a few inches of Charlie Parker CDs on your shelf to choose from, and you certainly don’t need this disc. If you’re new to the music, this is a good and economical way to dip your toes into one the most influential and kinetic bodies of work in the jazz canon.
Parker’s incisive and focused alto saxophone remains one of the most distinctive sounds in all of jazz, alongside Miles Davis’ muted trumpet, Benny Goodman’s clarinet, and Theolonius Monk’s muscularly intellectual piano. The 12 tracks on this CD were recorded between the years of 1947 and 1953, and represent Bird’s most prolific and influential period. You can hear the very fabric of jazz being slowly shaped and reformed in the rhythm of these songs.
His work here with contemporaries such as the aforementioned Monk, Dizzy Gillespie and Buddy Rich represented the cutting edge in jazz performance and theory. There’s transformation in the air, as the energetic, band-oriented jazz that dominated the early 20th century is slowly supplanted by a more studied and singular approach, centered around the talents of individual musicians playing almost in competition. The songs are jauntier and less equestrian in nature, loping along in the sly fashion that came to be called bebop.
Parker’s signature tune, “The Bird”, is the disc’s first tune. You can still hear the echoes of early jazz, reaching back to the swing sounds of the 1920s. But there’s something more as well, a singular preoccupation with the crisp, intimate sound that already sets Parker’s work here apart. By the time 1953 rolls around, this new sound has already evolved into a completely defined organism. “Now’s the Time”, recorded that year, features a much more relaxed beat, in combination with the angular melodic improvisation which came to define the style. You can even hear echoes of the future as well, as 1951’s “Loverman”, with it’s blues-influenced melancholy, implies the post-bop modal concentration that Miles Davis would bring into being with 1959’s Kind of Blue.
Of course, Bird would never live to see 1959, let alone 1969 or 1989. It’s a shame, because even this cursory compilation serves as ample witness to the fact that Charlie Parker was one of the most agile and intelligent musicians of his time. It is useless to ponder what might have been: better to celebrate what was, for a brief and shining moment, wonderfully realized.