I never really got my head around the idea of celebrating a deceased person’s birthday, but today it was different. Today I woke up and checked my mailbox as usual and there, among the flood of newsletters and spam and social media notifications and promotional messages practically begging for me to press ‘unsubscribe’, there were two subject lines that stood out, setting the tone of the day: “Happy 100 Birthday, Charlie Parker!” exclaimed JAZZIZ; “Celebrating 100 years of Charlie Parker” cheered Louder, the New York Times’ music-centred newsletter, while the Jazz Times magazine focused on ‘Charlie Parker 1945’.
So yes, celebrating a deceased person’s birthday might be kind of a paradox, but a centennial? That’s different. A centennial is the celebration of a legacy, not a lifetime, and the legacy of Charlie Parker cannot be understated. For all of us who have found in jazz the roadmap to making sense of the world, Charlie Parker (along with Thelonious Monk) has been the one who taught us a way to perceive music and the world of sound; he taught us how to listen.
Bird’s role in creating the be-bop dialect – and rewriting the grammar books of the jazz language – aside, his art (and this is the case for any artist) affects any listener in a different way. For me, his music will always be connected with my relocation from Athens to Australia; the moment I was boarding on the plane, by an act of ironic coincidence, my MP3 player (which had been set to ‘shuffle’ mode) decided to accentuate the event by playing ‘Now’s the Time’.
Speaking of coincidences, last week some people were celebrating the birthday of another deceased great – Argentinian writer Julio Cortazar. Among those people, was my friend and former colleague Tina Mandilara, who wrote a beautiful essay on him (it’s in Greek – good luck), reminding me of being a teenager and reading the Pursuer (you can find it here), his brilliant story of a jazz genius named Johnny Carter, based on Charlie Parker; there’s a passage there on the perception and illusion of time, that has probably influenced my thinking more than I would dare to admit.
There’s a little video inspired by this story, with illustrations by another great Argentinian artist Jose Antonio Munoz. He is the one who introduced me to Charlie Parker, before I read The Pursuer – and before my interest in jazz began to take shape. Along with writer Carlos Sampayo, Munoz created one of the best comic book heroes ever – hard boiled detective Alack Sinner. Their stories owed more to Bukowski than to Raymond Chandler, with the artist’s signature use of chiaroscuro reflecting the contrast between light and darkness, good and evil, all bound together by the one thing that you can’t experience reading a graphic novel; sound – and particularly the sound of jazz (their Billie Holiday semi-fictional biography, featuring Alack Sinner, of course, is a must-read.)
In one of the stories, a young woman goes to a juke box and puts on Charlie Parker’s ‘Cheryl’ twice in a row, which leads to Sinner approaching her and having a discussion which includes the aphorism “You can’t listen to ‘Cheryl’ just once; it’s a sickness; Charlie Parker is the sickness.”
I immediately started looking for ‘Cheryl’, but in pre-internet times, that was not the easiest thing. Before I got there, I listened to other Parker’s tunes, mostly thanks to Clint Eastwood and his seminal film Bird – the sequence where he goes to record with a string section has stayed with me, along with his rendition of ‘Laura’, which is still one of my most beloved things in the world.
I could go on and on and on, and talk about Roberto Benigni’s hilarious monologue as a Roman taxi driver in Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth, where he imagines Beethoven meeting Parker at ‘Hotel Genio’ (genius); or the times I’ve seen Lou Donaldson pay tribute to the master, including ‘Ornithology’ or ‘Anthropology’ in his live sets; not to mention the countless tributes taking place around the world at the moment.
But I’d rather stay in Australia and listen to the miraculous Michael Griffin playing his version of ‘Donna Lee’.
Here in Melbourne, Zvi Belling recently released the debut album of his project ZEDSIX, a brilliant fusion of jazz and hip-hop, or “boom-bap and “be-bop.” This is ‘One of the Few’, featuring a few bars from ‘Billie’s bounce’. How great is this?
No doubt about it, Bird Lives.