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JAZZ : Still Chasin' the Bird : Charlie Parker would have turned 75 Tuesday. Sadly, he didn't even make it to 35, but he so influenced the vocabulary of jazz that a new generation of players speaks his language while striving for his eloquence.

August 27, 1995|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

'Bird Lives!" read the graffiti that appeared in New York City the day after Charlie Parker, contemporary jazz's most vital figure, died on March 12, 1955.

"Bird Lives!" Uptown, downtown, from Harlem to Greenwich Village.

Charlie--"Yardbird" or, more succinctly, "Bird"--Parker was gone. The primary force behind the emergence of be-bop as the dominant jazz style of the 20th Century, had died, suddenly, if not unexpectedly, of lobar pneumonia at the age of 34.

When Parker's worn and overweight body arrived at Bellevue Hospital he was identified, perhaps understandably given the ravages of two decades of heroin use, as a man in his early 50s.

But the idealized image remained: a round, smooth-skinned face, darkly mysterious, yet amiable and inviting when he cracked his gold-toothed smile. His was a face that had experienced the thousand humiliations endemic to being an African American artist in mid-20th-Century America.

Like all black jazz musicians in the '40s and '50s, Parker lived and worked in a world still rife with segregation and racism, even in the hip environs of Manhattan.

It was hardly surprising that in 1954, at the peak of Parker's influence, the cover of a Time magazine issue surveying the new jazz of the decade featured pianist Dave Brubeck--a talented but safe white player who was becoming a burgeoning star on the college circuit. (No doubt Brubeck, who always has acknowledged the saxophonist's mastery, was as startled by the honor as Bird, who was no doubt disappointed by the implicit dismissal.)

Nor was it surprising that when Parker died, a minority of New York City newspapers acknowledged his passing with obituaries. Worse, while he was alive, he was constantly confronted by the sight and sound of the literally thousands of imitators who--without obligation to pay residuals or royalties--copied his every note.

As Charles Mingus once put it: "If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there's be a whole lot of dead copycats."

But how could he not have been copied? Parker played like one who had been touched by the gods of music. He was without doubt the source of inspiration to hundreds of players.

In performance, he was the master of all he surveyed, a confident, slightly corpulent figure, gazing Buddha-like over the shimmering neck of his alto saxophone, his eyes peering through to some strange, distant land as he spontaneously poured out a legacy of jazz that would last beyond the millennium.

"When he died," notes Village Voice jazz critic Garry Giddins in "Celebrating Bird," his excellent Parker biography, "Charlie Parker was arguably the most influential musician in the country. His ideas became fodder for movie and television scores, as well as arrangements for pop and rock-and-roll shows."

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Far-reaching and long-lasting as his influence may be, however, Parker's 75th birthday, on Tuesday, will receive strikingly little attention: a few radio shows with musical retrospectives, a small number of reissue albums and dedicatory efforts, and several notices in the print media.

Late last month, three nights of star-studded concerts at Carnegie Hall celebrated the achievements of Frank Sinatra, as the singer approaches his 80th birthday in December. Yet, although it is arguable that the revival of Sinatra's career in the '50s was energized by bop-tinged arrangements by Billy May, bop-influenced soloists and modern rhythm sections deeply affected by Parker's music, there will be no similar festivities for Bird's birthday. No Carnegie Hall celebrations, no Music Center tributes, no major reissues of Parker recorded collections, no TV movie of the week or PBS documentary (not even a rerun of Clint Eastwood's dramatically controversial but musically gripping 1986 feature film "Bird")--none of the commemorative events one usually associates with the 75th anniversary of an eminent artist.

This, despite the fact that jazz in the '90s has been invigorated by a growing generation of emerging players whose first encounters with Parker had decidedly revelatory effects.

"I first heard a Charlie Parker record when I was 15," recalls saxophonist David Sanchez. "It's hard to describe my reaction. I didn't know he could do those things on the saxophone, how he could just let the spirit and the feelings come through. I couldn't believe that improvising could be so perfect. That's how strong my reaction to Parker was. That's how I realized that jazz was something I really wanted to do."

Many young players reveal a surprising awareness, not only of Parker's artistic influence on their own playing, but also of the lack of affirmation that his music received while he was alive.

"Some people say there's a definite influence from Charlie Parker in my playing," says James Carter, one of the most heralded young saxophonists of the decade. "And I understand that. But I just think it's too bad Bird couldn't have been recognized better while he was still in existence."

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