August in Chicago means heat and humidity; days growing shorter, slowly but inexorably; and the equally inevitable realization that the Cubs are through. But to jazz fans, August in Chicago means “Charlie Parker Month,” the annual celebration conceived by Jazz Showcase entrepreneur Joe Segal to honor one of the 20th century’s indisputable artistic geniuses.
As a 21-year-old saxophonist in New York in the early 1940s, Parker began to assemble and codify a series of breakthroughs that culminated in the jazz style later dubbed bebop – the first true game-changer in jazz since Louis Armstrong made the idiom a haven for improvising soloists in the 1920s, and still the essential dividing point between traditional and modern jazz.
But the game Parker changed went beyond jazz itself. Since jazz was America’s popular music at the time – a legacy of the big-band swing era that bebop would supplant – his influence soon permeated the entire culture. His achievements have become the stuff of myth – just like his outsized appetites, his addiction to heroin, his frequently bizarre behavior. But his is one case where the myth cannot overshadow the reality.
Parker’s invention of bebop (in tandem with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie) stands with other avant-garde art – the paintings of the abstract impressionists, the plays of Brecht, the poetry of Ginsberg, the films of Godard – in anticipating and reacting to the challenges of the post-WWII world.
What’s more, he swung like mad. He played with gale-wind force at torrential speeds, and those soaring flights, which seemed to defy gravity as well as convention, gave credence to his admiring epithet, “Bird.” (That was the shortened form of “Yardbird,” a nickname he most likely earned in reference to his fondness for chicken. But it was his high-flying imagination that made it such an appropriate sobriquet.)
Flame-keeper Charles McPherson (photo by Andrea)
Since Parker’s death in 1955, at the absurdly young age of 34, Joe Segal has dedicated a month in his honor; this marks the 55th such celebration. The first few took place in March, the month Bird died; several years later, recognizing the morbidity of that arrangement, he moved it to August to coincide with Bird’s birthday (August 29, 1920).
At the outset, Segal could concentrate entirely on those who’d played with Bird or at least had known him; as the years have passed and the ranks of original beboppers have thinned, that has become increasingly difficult. But this year’s celebration gets off to a rousing start with alto saxist Charles McPherson, performing with a Chicago-based trio through Sunday.
Born in 1939, McPherson is old enough to have heard Parker’s music when it was new, and he remains the last of Bird’s true acolytes – those who modeled their sound, instrumental technique, and creative process directly on Parker’s example. But the 12 years he spent working with the iconoclastic bassist and composer Charles Mingus gave him new perspectives to work with; today McPherson burnishes Bird’s memory rather than re-creating his style.
Ira Sullivan on flugelhorn, one of the six horns on which he excels.
The month’s other weekend headliners promise still different perspectives. Next week brings pianist Mulgrew Miller, whose music builds on the styles of McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock; both earned their stripes with jazz giants who themselves had known Bird (John Coltrane and Miles Davis, respectively). Miller stands among the indisputably grand pianists of the last 30 years. Grand, but too often overlooked — probably because he has carried on a noble tradition rather than creating an entirely new one.
After that comes Red Holloway, whose tenor work exemplifies the gritty, soul-splashed blues that occupied a central place in Parker’s music, where it easily co-existed with the music’s powerful intellectualism. The month ends on the same note of authenticity with which it begins, as multi-instrumentalist Ira Sullivan – who sometimes shared the bandstand with Parker when he performed in Chicago – returns home to record a live album with his colleague of more than 50 years, pianist Stu Katz. (More on that as the gig rolls around.)
In the spring of 1955, graffiti that proliferated around New York defiantly noted, “Bird Lives!”, a truth that has spread around the globe and through the decades. But that manifesto carries just a little more weight every August in Chicago – especially this year, the 90th anniversary of Parker’s birth.
Next week: a quick guide to the best Charlie Parker recordings.