Charlie Parker: The Man and His Music

August 29, 1975, marks the 55th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth and follows, by five months, the 20th anniversary of his death. There will be the usual tributes on radio, a memorial concert at Avery Fisher, and acknowledgements in jazz publications. Yet to most Americans, Parker’s name means little and his music less. Critics and musicians have placed him in that inviolable musical trinity with Ellington and Armstrong, and still he remains the most elusive of our native-born geniuses. Some observers, having noted the belated recognition of Scott Joplin and Billie Holiday, suggest that Charlie Parker’s time will come as well.

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But this seems unlikely. True, Supersax, a band that plays transcriptions of Parker improvisations but without Parker’s expres­sive immediacy, is enjoying moderate popu­larity. Steely Dan, a rock group, has record­ed “Parker’s Band,” a stringing together of Parker cliches, which, in the absence of a liner annotation, is unlikely to be recognized as such by most of its fans. There is abundant movie material in Parker’s story and several books have been inspired by him, but there is little in his music to provide a foothold for mass acceptance, despite his own commer­cial recordings with strings and Latin rhythm. For that matter, the popular successes achieved by Ellington and Armstrong were unrelated to their best work. Moreover, if Parker was the pivotal figure in the founding of modern jazz, he was also the central force in moving jazz from the dance floor to a plateau where it had to be attended as an art or not at all. Parker was not a self-conscious revolutionary and though he evolved his music logically from prevailing jazz styles, he brought the music into an elitist arena where few swing fans were prepared to follow.

The music Parker innovated in conjunc­tion with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and others is still known by the onomatopoeia bebop. But bop was not created in a vacuum. Such epochal Parker-Gillespie masterpieces as “Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Koko” define a very different tableau from that imagined by Lester Young or Roy Eldridge, yet the styles of the younger players were originally mod­eled after their idols. Bop became a tradition unto itself when a new wave of players came along drawing exclusively on the achieve­ment of Parker’s generation. The originators of bop, however, were intimately involved with the playing of Young, Eldridge, Art Tatum, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Charlie Chris­tian, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Blanton, Teddy Wilson, and other masters of the swing period. They must certainly have recognized the falsity of some of the claims made on behalf of bop.

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It is easy enough to recognize bop as a style of music different from, say, swing or avante-garde, but attempts to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of bop can be treacherous. We hear a great deal about the complexity of bop, for example, yet nothing in its fabric was foreign to Ellington. Much has been made of the intensity and speed demanded by most bop compositions, but speed was also endemic to Eldridge, Tatum, and Armstrong. Bop musicians have been credited with first superimposing their own compositions on familiar chord progres­sions; but earlier examples of this practice include Benny Moten’s “Moten’s Swing” (based on “You’re Driving Me Crazy”), Sidney Bechet’s “Shag” (”I Got Rhythm”), and Ellington’s “In a Mellotone” (“Rose Room”). Most dramatically, bop musicians are said to have been the first to improvise on chords, rather than simply embellishing the given melody. Almost any handful of classic jazz recordings from the ’30s will refute this.

Another area of confusion concerns the relationship of bop to the big bands. The instrumentation of the Charlie Parker Quin­tet — sax. trumpet, piano, bass, drums — became the standard instrumentation for jazz until the ’60s, but it wasn’t the nature of the beast that required a small-group context nor did the musicians reject big bands entirely for musical reasons. The key figures in bop were actually trained in big bands: Parker with Jay McShann, Gillespie with Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon with Armstrong, Max Roach with Benny Carter. Economic considerations have played a de­cisive role in every phase of jazz. The shoestring labels that recorded bop were hardly able to offer a musician the freedom to hire 15 men for a record date. But bop, like most schools of jazz, aspired to larger en­sembles. Gillespie formed a big band as soon as he could get the backing, Woody Her­man’s second herd was a bop band, and Tadd Dameron, the preeminent composer-ar­ranger of the movement, wrote for orches­tras whenever possible. Parker himself toured with a string ensemble of his own vo­lition.

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The distinguishing characteristics of bop are immediately recognizable. The absence of vibrato and tonal coloration is necessitat­ed by the blazing tempos and the many-noted character of the solos. The techniques with which a bop solo is constructed might be discussed in jargon like flattened fifths, the higher intervals of chords, diminished scales, and chromaticism, but while the musician has to understand these terms, the listener doesn’t. In order to hear the melo­dies of a bop improvisation, one simply has to become familiar enough with the idiom to hear the component phrases of a solo. There is no greater melodist in jazz than Parker.

The central innovation in Parker’s music was rhythmic. Swing rhythm was exemplified by the Basie band’s brisk 4/4, with each beat evenly accented. The soloist seemed to be confined by the bar lines, or, in the case of an advanced player like Lester Young, to float above the chomp/chomp/chomp, knitting his melodies into four-bar phrases, and booting them along with riffs. Lester’s two choruses on “Honeysuckle Rose,” from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall con­cert, are representative of his alternation of rich, fluent melodies and repeated rhythmic phrases. By contrast, listen to Parker’s 1946 “Lady Be Good” solo, recorded at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. Essentially, he adopts blues diction to the pop song form, but in his use of space (the first phrase is followed by a full rest) and in his variety of note-values (from whole notes to 32nd notes), he opens up the time, establishing rhythmic freedom rather than coursing over the 4/4.

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With the arrival of bop, the bassist be­came the time-keeper and the drummer was free to dispense “bombs” in response to the soloist. Young improvised in a situation governed by the time, while Parker made himself the focal point around which the time coalesced.

Parker’s need for an alert drummer is seen in the performance of his blues, “Cheryl,” at a 1949 Christmas eve Carnegie Hall concert — available on several pirate labels but never legally issued. In the fifth measure of the fifth chorus, Parker ends his phrase on the third beat. He repeats this for several measures until the drummer, Roy Haynes, responds by accenting the third beat and suspending the fourth. They play in this fashion throughout the following chorus. Another aspect of his music — the sometimes satiric quoting of familiar melodies to en­hance his solos — is illustrated by the same piece: he paraphrases Armstrong’s “West End Blues” cadenza, an ingenious reminder that all styles of jazz are bound by the blues. (On the studio version of “Cheryl,” he quoted the New Orleans standard “High Society.”)

Neither Parker nor Gillespie considered themselves revolutionaries in the sense that they wished to destroy anything. If their music was rhythmically unsuitable for jit­terbugging, it was nonetheless an inevitable and heartfelt extension of the jazz they had grown up with and cherished. Critical feud­ing in the press, esoteric discussions of technique, and even the fashionable accou­trements of the period — goatees, berets, shades, and drugs — obscured, for many, the blues-based strain underlining their music. Parker might well have voiced the “confes­sion” once expressed by Stravinsky: “The novelty of the ‘Rite’ consisted, not in the writing, not in the orchestration, not in the technical apparatus of the work, but in the musical entity. I was made a revolutionary in spite of myself.”

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Parker’s mature style was intimated in his earliest recordings, with the Jay McShann orchestra. On “Swingmatism” he played 16 bars and a pickup measure replete with Lestorian triplets and a rounded intonation. With “Jumping Blues,” his personality became more apparent. His chorus begins with one of the many phrases that would become the meat, and eventually the cliches, of modern jazz. Little Benny Harris, the trumpeter-composer, extracted this phrase and extended it into “Ornithology,” a classic bop theme based on “How High the Moon,” (The first few notes in both are the same.) Parker’s recording of “Ornithology,” five years later, revealed his fully matured ability to dance into solos with rhythmic ideas that complemented those of the composition. Ironically, he brought the “Ornithology” lick back to the blues when he re-recorded “Now’s the Time” in 1953, tossing it into the theme statement. The solo on this version of “Now’s the Time,” an especially gay and insouciant invention, begins with another phrase which had become a cliche, the one he had used to begin the original version of that blues, in 1945. Parker knew he had become an “academy” and he enjoyed it.

Charlie Parker’s chief legacy is his records, and there is a sizable number of them considering the brevity of his career. Won­drous as the individual masterpieces are, the sum of his work is even more impressive. He was nothing if not an expressive player and the more we listen to him, the more vivid his vision becomes. For if there is a light side to his music — the clean order and virtuosic structuring of solos, the lovely ballads­ — there is also a dark, nightmarish side. Parker was a heroin addict most of his life. His body was so ravaged at his death that a doctor, filling out a report, estimated his age at 60 rather than 34. The horrors he lived were transfigured into music. The best known example is “Lover Man,” recorded during the breakdown which landed him in Camarillo for a year. He could hardly stand or fill his horn with air, yet he created fleeting moments of dynamic tension and surprise. In his 26th to 27th measures, he tenuously shapes a comely melody that sways and finally dips to the lowest note of the solo. This yearning, frustrated side of Charlie Parker is revealed more fully in some of the private tapes and broadcasts now surfacing. It is disgraceful that the work of a great artist should be shoddily pack­aged, indifferently treated, and unpaid for, but this emerging cache of tapes cannot go unattended simply because they’re being issued illegally. There is a newly discovered 1949 Brooklyn broadcast of “Cool Blues” which tells us much about the longing in Parker’s music, and prefigures the breakthrough in expressive techniques of Ornette Coleman.

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Even Parker’s legitimate recordings are in dubious hands. The Dial sessions have been expertly issued in a six-volume variorum edition by Spotlight, a bootleg outfit. The Savoys remain scrambled. Too many of the Verves, including “Lady Be Good,” are unavailable.

Charlie Parker’s music was delirious, funny, wise, terrifying, tragic, funky, sad, exultant, wistful, haunt­ing, electrifying. His is one of the monumental achievements in contemporary art, and still it is consigned to the shadows. ■


Public Enemy: The Devil Made ‘Em Do It

Public Enemy’s 1988 It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back opens with roiling crowd buzz from a live snippet recorded at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. Then an air raid siren cuts through the din, a keening wail that still meant something in a town where the Blitz was well within living memory.

In his review from that summer thirty years ago, Greg Tate’s prose rivals the sonic intensity of the album under discussion and informs us up front that PE’s disk “demands kitchen-sink treatment.” And we get it — every other sentence is pullquote-worthy:

Nation of Millions is a will-to-power party record by bloods who believe (like Sun Ra) that for black folk, it’s after the end of the world. Or, in PEspeak: ‘Armageddon has been in effect. Go get a late pass.’”

“Hiphop being more than a cargo cult of the microchip, it deserves being debated on more elevated terms than as jazz’s burden or successor.”

“PE producer and arranger Hank Shocklee has the ears of life, and that rare ability to extract the lyrical from the lost and found.”

Tate’s review agitates as much as the music: “PE wants to reconvene the black power movement with hiphop as the medium. From the albums and interviews, the program involves rabble-rousing rage, radical aesthetics, and bootstrap capitalism, as well as a revival of the old movement’s less than humane tendencies: revolutionary suicide, misogyny, gaybashing, Jew-baiting, and the castigation of the white man as a genetic miscreant, or per Elijah Muhammad’s infamous myth of Yacub, a ‘grafted devil.’

“To know PE is to love the agitprop (and artful noise) and to worry over they whack retarded philosophy they espouse.”

Below are the original pages as well as the full text of the article. And just for the fun of it, we’ve included the full-page ads between the Tate opener and the jump page to capture the musical flavor of the moment: Kiss at the Ritz and Stevie Wonder doing eight shows at Radio City Music Hall.

The Devil Made ’Em Do It

by Greg Tate

Granted, Charlie Parker died laughing. Choked chickenwing perched over 1950s MTV. So? No way in hell did Bird, believing there was no competition in music, will his legacy to some second-generation beboppers to rattle over the heads of the hiphop nation like a rusty sabre. But when Harry Allen comes picking fights with suckers adducing hiphop the new jazz, like hiphop needs a jazz crutch to stand erect, I’m reminded of Pithecanthropus erectus, and not the Charles Mingus version. B-boys devolved to the missing link between jazzmen and a lower order species out of Joseph Conrad. “Perhaps you will think it passing strange, this regret for a savage who was of no more account than a grain of sand in a black Sahara. Well, don’t you see, he had done something, he had steered; for months I had him at my back — a help — an instrument. It was a kind of partnership.” Page 87.

Hiphop being more than a cargo cult of the microchip, it deserves being debated on more elevated terms than as jazz’s burden or successor. Given the near absence of interdisciplinary scholarship on the music, the conceptual straits of jazz journalism, and hiphop’s cross-referential complexity, the hiphop historian must cast a wider net for critical models. Certainly Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back (Def Jam) demands kitchen-sink treatment. More than a hiphop record it’s an ill worldview.

Nation of Millions is a will-to-power party record by bloods who believe (like Sun Ra) that for black folk, it’s after the end of the world. Or, in PEspeak: “Armageddon has been in effect. Go get a late pass.” In Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese offers that the failure of mainland blacks to sustain a revolutionary tradition during slavery was due to a lack of faith in prophets of the apocalypse. This lack, he says, derived from Africa’s stolen children having no memories of a paradise lost that revolution might regain. Machiavellian thinking might have found its way into the quarters: “All armed prophets have conquered while all unarmed prophets have failed.” But the observation that blacks were unable to envision a world beyond the plantation, or of a justice beyond massa’s dispensation, still resonates through our politics. Four decades after Garvey, the cultural nationalists of the ’60s sought to remedy our Motherland amnesia and nationhood aversions through dithyrambs, demagoguery, and a counter-supremacist doctrine that pressed for utopia over reform pragmatism. Its noblest aim was total self-determination for the black community. For PE, that, not King’s, is the dream that died.

The lofty but lolling saxophone sample that lures us into the LP’s “Black Side” could be a wake up call, a call to prayer, or an imitation Coltrane cocktease. Since we’re not only dealing with regenerated sound here but regenerated meaning, what was heard 20 years ago as expression has now become a rhetorical device, a trope. Making old records talk via scratching or sampling is fundamental to hiphop. But where we’ve heard rare grooves recycled for parodic effect or shock value ad nauseam, on “Show Em Whatcha Got” PE manages something more sublime, enfolding, and subsuming the Coltrane mystique, among others, within their own. The martial thump that kicks in after the obligatto owes its bones to Funkadelic’s baby years and Miles Davis’s urban bush music. But the war chants from Chuck D and Flavor Flav that blurt through the mix like station identification also say, What was hip yesterday we save from becoming passé. Since three avant-gardes overlap here — free jazz, funk, hip hop — the desired effect might seem a salvage mission. Not until Sister Ava Muhammad’s tribute-to-the-martyrs speech fragments begin their cycle do you realize Public Enemy are offering themselves up as next in line for major black prophet, missionary, or martyrdom status. Give them this much: PE paragon Farrakhan excepted, nobody gives you more for your entertainment dollar while cold playing that colored man’s messiah role.

PE wants to reconvene that black power movement with hiphop as the medium. From the albums and interviews, the program involves rabble-rousing rage, radical aesthetics, and bootstrap capitalism, as well as a revival of the old movement’s less than humane tendencies: revolutionary suicide, misogyny, gaybashing, Jew-baiting, and the castigation of the white man as a genetic miscreant, or per Elijah Muhammad’s infamous myth of Yacub, a “grafted devil.”

To know PE is to love the agitprop (and artful noise) and to worry over the whack retarded philosophy they espouse. Like: “The black woman has always been kept up by the white male because the white male has always wanted the black woman.” Like “Gays aren’t doing what’s needed to build the black nation.” Like: “White people are actually monkey’s uncles because that’s who they made it with in the Caucasian hills.” Like : “If the Palestinians took up arms, went into Israel, and killed all the Jews it’d be alright.” From this idiot blather, PE are obviously making it up as they go along. Since PE show sound reasoning when they focus on racism as a tool of the U.S. power structure, they should be intelligent enough to realize that dehumanizing gays, women, and Jews isn’t going to set black people free. As their prophet Mr. Farrakhan hasn’t overcome one or another of these moral lapses, PE might not either. For now swallowing the PE pill means taking the bitter with the sweet, and if they don’t grow up, later for they asses.

Nation of Millions is a declaration of war on the federal government, and on that unholy trinity — black radio programmers, crack dealers, and rock critics. (“Suckers! Liars! Get me a shovel. Some writers I know are damn devils. From them I say I don’t believe the hype. Yo Chuck, they must be on the pipe, right?”) For sheer audacity and specificity Chuck D’s enemies list rivals anything produced by the Black Liberation Army or punk — rallying retribution against the Feds for the Panthers’ fall (“Party For Your Right To Fight”), slapping murder charges on the FBI and CIA for the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X (“Louder Than a Bomb”), condoning cop-killing in the name of liberation (“Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos”), assailing copyright law and the court system (“Caught, Can We Get a Witness?”). As America’s black teen population are the core audience for these APBs to terrorize the state, PE are bucking for first rap act to get taken out by Washington, by any means necessary.

Were it not for the fact that Nation is the most hellacious and hilarious dance record of the decade, nobody but the converted would give two hoots about PE’s millenary desires. Of the many differences between Nation and their first, Yo! Bum Rush the Show, is that Nation is funkier. As George Clinton learned, you got to free Negroes’ asses if you want their minds to bug. Having seen Yo! Bum Rush move the crowd off the floor, it’s a pleasure to say only zealot wallflowers will fade into the blackground when Nation cues up. Premiered at a Sugar Hill gala, several Nation cuts received applause from the down but bupwardly mobile — fulfilling Chuck D’s prediction on “Don’t Believe The Hype” that by treating the hard jams like a seminar Nation would “reach the bourgeois and rock the boulevard.” But PE’s shotgun wedding of black militancy and musical pleasure ensures that Nation is going to move music junkies of all genotypes. “They claim we’re products from the bottom of hell because the blackest record is bound to sell.”

PE producer and arranger Hank Shocklee has the ears of life, and that rare ability to extract the lyrical from the lost and found. Every particle of sound on Nation has got a working mojo, a compelling something other-ness and that swing thang to boot. Shocklee’s reconstructive composition of new works from archival bites advances sampling to the level of microsurgery. Ditto for cyborg DJ Terminator X, who cuts incisively enough to turn a decaying kazoo into a dopebeat on “Bring the Noise.” Putting into effect Borges’s rule that “The most fleeting thought obeys an invisible design and can crown or inaugurate, a secret form,” PE have evolved a songcraft from chipped flecks of near-forgotten soul gold. On Nation a guitar vamp from Funkadelic, a moan from Sly, a growl abducted from Bobby Byrd aren’t just rhythmically spliced-in but melodically sequenced into colorful narratives. Think of Romare Bearden.

One cut-up who understands the collage-form is PE’s Flavor Flav. Misconstrued as mere aide-de-camp to rap’s angriest man after Yo! Bum Rush he emerges here as a duck-soup stirrer in his own right. Flav’s solo tip, “Cold Lampin With Flavor,” is incantatory shamanism on a par with any of the greats: Beefheart, Koch, Khomeini. “You pick your teeth with tombstone chips, candy-colored flips, dead women hips you do the bump with. Bones. Nuthin’ but love bones.”

Those who dismiss Chuck D as a bullshit artist because he’s loud, pro-black, and proud, will likely miss out on gifts for blues pathos and black comedy. When he’s on, his rhymes can stun-gun your heart and militarize your funnybone. As a people’s poet and pedagogue of the oppressed, Chuck hits his peak on the jail-house toast/prison break movie, “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos.” The scenario finds Chuck unjustly under the justice (“Innocent/ Because I’m militant/Posing a threat/ You bet it’s fucking up the government”). Chuck and “52 Brothers bruised, battered, and scarred but hard” bust out the joint with the aid of PE’s plastic Uzi protection, “the S1Ws” (Security for the First World). Inside the fantasy, Chuck crafts verse of poignant sympathy for all doing hard time. (“I’m on a tier where no tear should ever fall/Cell blocked and locked I never clock it y’all.”) His allusion to the Middle Passage as the first penal colony for blacks is cold chillin’ for real. Chuck’s idea of a lifer, or career soldier, is also at odds with convention: “Nevertheless they could not understand that I’m a black man and I could never be a veteran.”

As much as I love this kind of talk, I got to wonder about PE’s thing against black women. And my dogass ain’t the only one wondering — several sisters I know who otherwise like the mugs wonder whassup with that too. Last album PE dissed half the race as “Sophisticated Bitches.” This time around, “She Watch Channel Zero!?” a headbanger about how brainless the bitch is for watching the soaps, keeping the race down. “I know she don’t know/Her brain be trained by 24-inch remote/Revolution a solution for all of our children/But her children don’t mean as much as the show.” Whoa! S.T.F.O.!* Would you say that to your mother, motherfucker? Got to say, though, the thrash is deadly. One of those riffs makes you want to stomp somebody into an early grave, as Flav goes on and on insinuating that women are garbage for watching garbage. In light of Chuck’s plea for crack dealers to be good to the neighborhood on “Night of the Living Baseheads,” it appears PE believe the dealers more capable of penance than the sistuhs. Remember The Mack? Where the pimp figures it cool to make crazy dollar off his skeezes but uncool for the white man for sell scag to the little brothers? This is from that same mentality. And dig that in “Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos,” the one time on the album Chuck talks about firing a piece, it’s to a pop a female corrections officer. By my homegirl’s reckoning all the misogyny is the result of PE suffering from LOP: lack of pussy. She might have a point.
* Step the Fuck Off!


Braxton Doing Bird Doing Bebop

“When I first heard Charlie Parker — the record was Bird on 52nd St. — that record frightened me. It frightened me, and it was the most exciting music I’d ever heard…”

Those were musician and composer Anthony Braxton’s words in a 1988 biography about him, Forces in Motion, by Graham Lock.

It’s now hard to believe that the 72-year-old Braxton — a fearless musician who created the music he felt compelled to make, popularity and commerce be damned — was ever frightened of anything, especially of a portly man in pinstripe suits. But sepia-toned photos of Parker don’t fully illustrate that he was a Kansas City rebel with a cause, a Beat prior to Kerouac, and two beats ahead of hippies and punks.

Even a young Braxton was sophisticated enough to recognize Parker’s musical intellect, which was as mathematically precise as it was wildly inventive and subversive. (Admittedly, to my own very untrained, early-teen ear taking alto saxophone lessons at the venerable Palomba Academy of Music on Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, Parker just sounded old, like something my father listened to. At the time, I only wanted to sound like Grover Washington.)

In October 1993, five years after the biography was published, Braxton took a sextet to Europe to reconsider and renew the music of Charlie Parker, and by doing so, re-examined the insurgent nature and dynamic language of bebop. In 1995, the Swiss label Hathut Records released the two-disc Anthony Braxton’s Charlie Parker Project 1993 from that week-long engagement. Now, 25 years after that European tour, comes the complete project, Anthony Braxton’s Sextet (Parker) 1993, a limited-edition eleven-CD set just out from the Tri-Centric Foundation and New Braxton House Records. It includes the entire tour through Cologne, Germany; Amsterdam; Antwerp, Belgium; and Zurich; and a 26-page booklet with photographs and an extended essay by Stuart Broomer, who uses Braxton’s quote about first hearing Parker as his epigraph.

Anthony Braxton and pianist Misha Mengelberg, who formed part of Braxton’s sextet during the Bird tour.

Over the past fifty years, since his searing 1969 solo recording For Alto — in which he dedicates pieces to John Cage, Leroy Jenkins, and Cecil Taylor — Braxton has produced one substantial volume after the next in his career: his beginnings with the AACM in his hometown of Chicago; his work with the group Circle; his classic 1980s quartet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, drummer Gerry Hemingway, and bassist Mark Dresser; his Ghost Trance Music of the 1990s. And those are just a few.  

If an eleven-CD set devoted to Parker — or anything, for that matter — sounds like spinach, or eleventh-grade trig and algebra II, it may seem even more so coming from the scholarly Braxton. From 1990 to 2013, Braxton was a professor of music at Wesleyan University. In 1994, a year after this Parker exposition, he was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Lester Young may have been famous for his porkpie hat, but no one in jazz rocks a professorial cardigan like Anthony Braxton.

Of course, Braxton never limited himself, or let anyone else limit him, simply to “jazz.” He’s almost been his own, to borrow an algebra term, superset of jazz, as much in the new music and improvised music realms, where he’s composed a number of orchestral works, chamber pieces, and operas, such as 1981’s Composition no. 96, dedicated to Karlheinz Stockhausen; Composition no. 102and Trillium R. (He’s also perhaps the most recorded musician of all time, in or out of jazz.)

Braxton has always been committed to innovation and preservation. Beneath the chilly exterior —Composition no. 96 and Composition no. 94 for Three Instrumentalists (1980) are typically austere album titles for Braxton — is a deep appreciation for the jazz canon, whether it’s for lesser-appreciated explorers like Warne Marsh and Lennie Tristano (Eight (+3) Tristano Compositions 1989 for Warne Marsh), or Parker and Thelonious Monk (see Six Monk’s Compositions 1987), or even standards, as in his Seven Standards 1995 and 9 Standards (Quartet) 1993.

Twenty-five years after that latter release, Sextet (Parker) 1993 is a progressive yet affectionate examination of what was born nearly a half-century before: an iconoclastic interpretation of an iconoclast.

Braxton is among the most important altoists since the war, along with Parker and Ornette Coleman. (A 1971 photo of Braxton and Coleman playing pool appears in Val Wilmer’s 1977 book, As Serious as Your Life: Black Music and the Free Jazz Revolution, 1957–1977.) But he is known to play a wide array of woodwind instruments (the sopranino and C-melody saxophones and E-flat clarinet among them). On this eleven-disc set he picks up the soprano saxophone, flute, and contrabass clarinet, which he breaks out on a growling, minimal, wholly original take on “Scrapple From the Apple,” on disc two. It’s almost funny when he plays the melody on the otherworldly contrabass. He plays piano as well — off-kilter, abrupt, and blunt — on “Autumn in New York” and “Yardbird Suite,” on disc three. (Two years after his Bird homage tour he would record Solo Piano (Standards) 1995.)

His exceptional sextet here is made up of the Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg, who passed away last year and was a star in Europe’s free-jazz scene, if under-recognized stateside; Ari Brown on tenor and soprano saxophone; the late trumpeter Paul Smoker, an astute listener and accompanist to his reedmates; the experimental bassist Joe Fonda; and Pheeroan akLaff, well-known in downtown New York musical circles, on drums. (Han Bennink, another European all-star, is behind the kit on disc seven, a concert from Zurich; we only learn of the setting in passing from Broomer’s essay. The sequence of the set is not clearly stated, though this box set is not a day-to-day, concert-by-concert, document.)

For many, jazz in the 1990s was a time to look back at old masters. Don’t forget Robert Altman’s 1996 film, Kansas City, which had cameos from many of the day’s “young lions.” None, though, rejuvenated the past quite like Braxton.  

His band created both the lyricism and neurosis of the original melodies and complex harmonies — whether on the familiar “A Night in Tunisia,” “Hot House,” “Koko,” or “Darn That Dream” — and then stripped them down and freely improvised on them. The Cuban-flavored “Repetition” (penned by Neal Hefti, popularized by Parker) is heard five times in the span of the eleven-disc set, but Braxton’s arrangement, and rearrangement, never makes it feel repetitive. The version on disc nine is especially spry, with Braxton’s alto at turns gorgeous, jittery, and finally guttural. The improvisers push the music beyond bebop’s own harmonic confines into open, unmapped terrain, and venture through tempestuous squalls, long quiet interludes, or back to the perfectly brisk theme, whether sweet or sour. Think of this as avant bop, to the eleventh power. Sextet (Parker) 1993 will stand out as one of Anthony Braxton’s indispensable achievements, an astounding interpretation of an astounding oeuvre. It’s Bird set free.


Indie Drama Low Down Proves It’s Hard to Be/Watch a Heroin-Addicted Jazz Dad

Adapted from Amy-Jo Albany’s memoir about growing up with her father, Joe, the jazz pianist best known for playing with Charlie Parker, Low Down stars John Hawkes and Elle Fanning as a father-daughter duo with a lot of love and even more problems.

A charming, gifted musician with a heroin problem, Joe does his utmost to shield AJ from the darker shades of their life — random visits from his parole officer, junkie friends whose addictions are even worse than his — but he’s too much of a mess to maintain the illusion, and she’s too smart to believe it anyway. Jeff Preiss evokes early-1970s Los Angeles with an initial nostalgia that slowly turns grim.

The back-and-forth tonal shifts could certainly be described as jazzy, and every individual player has chops, but the ensemble cast (which includes Glenn Close, Peter Dinklage, and co-producer Flea) is done no favors by a script that gets them more and more out of sync.

There are too many notes that, while not false, are neither satisfactorily resolved nor left interestingly unresolved. Joe and AJ drift back and forth from one another, she a wellspring of emotion every time he breaks a promise or squanders another opportunity. You can see him wonder what he did to deserve such a loving, forgiving daughter. After a while, so do we.


Rudresh Mahanthappa’s Bird Project

Bird lives when Indian-American alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa opens a weeklong residency at sax kinsmen John Zorn’s black box performance space The Stone: Here, Mahanthappa recontextualizes Charlie Parker in a more contemporary aesthetic, touting Bird’s genius as a synthesizer of pop, jazz tradition, and his own revolutionary harmonic innovation, bebop. This reincarnation of Bird’s longtime quartet features avant-garde pianist Matt Mitchell as Al Haig, bassist Francois Moutin as Tommy Potter, and Rudy Royston as Roy Haynes.

Tue., Jan. 7, 8 & 10 p.m., 2014


Paquito D’Rivera

It’s almost fifty-eight years to the day that Charlie Parker’s joined the Hot Seven in jazz heaven, but Bird lives, as the saying goes, in this case through consummate Cuban multi-reedist Paquito D’Rivera, who brings an Afro-Cuban flair to standard bebop repertoire. Cue the violins as he recreates Parker’s seminal 1950 collection of ballads, Charlie Parker with Strings, a well-suited complement to D’Rivera’s diaphanous sound. Parker was no stranger to Latin clave, having recorded with Machito and Chico O’Farrill, and D’Rivera mines that catalogue with an uncanny, virtuosic style that channels the ghost of a legend.

Fri., March 8, 7:30 p.m., 2013



They bow to the Bird because, for all his virtuosity and mind-melding ’40s bebop reinvention, his real gift was accessibility; his melodies reached the ether, but never outmaneuvered the audience. The wonderful, annual Charlie Parker Festival celebrated him on familiar grounds: Today’s spread at Marcus Garvey Park ushers in fleet pianist McCoy Tyner, avant-garde ivories fellow Jason Moran (his hip-hop forays are something to behold), Parker-worthy saxophonist JD Allen, and others. Tomorrow’s offerings at Tompkins Square Park, a stone’s throw from Bird’s stoop, boasts labyrinthine pianist Vijay Iyer (the Voice’s 2009 jazz poll winner), suave statesman vocalist Jimmy Scott, and more.

Sat., Aug. 28, 3 p.m., 2010



(Clint Eastwood, 1988). Wary but adroit, a movie legend tips his hat to a real one. Clint Eastwood’s epic tribute to Charlie Parker is a true labor of love. Among other things the movie features what remains Forest Whittaker’s career performance.

Sun., Sept. 21, 4:30 p.m., 2008


Having a Riot at Tompkins Square

In 1986, when the photographer Q. Sakamaki moved to the East Village from Japan, his street could get very noisy—guys acting as lookouts for drug dealers would yell when the cops were approaching, not to mention the occasional barrage of gunfire to interrupt a sound sleep. Two decades later, it’s still noisy, “but now it’s people hanging out at bars,” Sakamaki tells me. “My street now, East 4th Street, is a super-hot place—there are even traffic jams.”

It’s the 20th anniversary of the Tompkins Square Park riots, and I’m sitting at the Pick Me Up Café on East 9th and Avenue A with Sakamaki, who has just published Tompkins Square Park, a book of his stunning photographs of the neighborhood from those days of revolutionary mayhem. It’s a beautiful afternoon, and the café, though artfully time-worn and downmarket, is full of fresh faces, a far cry from the louche denizens of these streets in the years when Sakamaki first lived here.

Was he at the notorious police riot of August 6, 1988, when the city moved to close the park at 1 a.m., and a group of anarchists, squatters, homeless people, and other East Villagers fought back? “No, I came home late that night. I was hanging out with fashion people, clients from Japan. I heard the helicopters, but I thought it was just some criminal activity, or maybe a homicide. Back then, every weekend there were shootings. I saw bodies in the street.”

Sounds delightful, Q.! So, why did you want to live here, anyway? “In the middle ’80s, it was so hip! The underground subculture—that’s why I came! More art, more music—it attracted lots of people. So many things in the ’80s were so free. Freedom—we were in control of our dreams! Now it looks like a materialistic area, very similar to Japan. We lost something. For me, it’s very sad.”

When he wasn’t shooting his disarming portraits of the community, Sakamaki was hanging out in nightclubs. “The Pyramid on Avenue A, underground clubs in the meat market—black, fashion, gay scenes. But the clubs weren’t mixed—it was total segregation, not a melting pot. But as a Japanese, I could go anywhere! “

While Sakamaki, like any other sane person, is happy that there isn’t blood running in the streets anymore, he admits a bit wistfully that “I prefer the old days—maybe I’ve lived too long here. I used to love to wake up, and be so happy to bring my camera out with me and think, ‘I want to shoot more landscapes of the Lower East Side,’ even though it was easy to be mugged—even killed. Now it’s no problem, but it’s a different feeling. On the other hand, people who have been here longer than me say, ‘Oh, the ’60s! It was much better then!’ “

Does he think the neighborhood still holds any power over the imaginations of young people? “Oh yes, they still want to have adventures! It still represents a cool place. In their minds, it’s a romantic place, like Paris in the ’20s and ’30s.” As someone who wanders the Boul’ Mich looking for Anaïs Nin and Gerald Murphy, I know just what he’s talking about.

We finish our coffee and walk out onto Avenue A, where Sakamaki points out the site of the Pakistani deli that was torched by demonstrators during the Memorial Day riot of 1991, a hideous act that coincided with the closing of the park for over a year. “The police would shut the street between 6th Street and 9th Street, and everyone would hang out, drinking beer—almost like a party,” Sakamaki remembers. “They would arrest people even for just drumming on a garbage can.”

We go our separate ways, and I decide to walk around the perimeter of the park to see if any traces of the old days exist—or whether there’s anything new that’s even a little captivating. I pass Blue, which despite its shabby appearance I happen to know sells expensive wedding dresses, because a friend made me go with her once when she tried these things on—a harrowing experience. (What’s with all these bridal shops popping up in the East Village anyway? By what weird calculus have these formerly bohemian byways become Wedding Gown Central?) I’m happy to see that at 113 Avenue A, the strikingly fetid candy store is still open for business. And here is Vazac’s on the corner of East 7th and Avenue B (a/k/a Horseshoe Bar and 7B), which the producers of the Rent movie pretended was the Life Café because the real Life Café, a few blocks north, was deemed insufficiently squalid.

Across the street, a fancy store named Amaran has a stone statue of the Buddha marked down from $889 to $689 (though, to be fair, silk pillows are only $39). At East 8th Street, the former home of the 1926 Talmud Torah Darche Noam (it’s carved over the door) now houses, among other tenants, Ashtanga Yoga Shala—a testament to the varieties of religious experience. On the corner of East 9th—also called Armando Perez Place for the late Puerto Rican community activist who was murdered in 1999—the infamous co-op Christadora House, a detested symbol of gentrification, stands its ground. (I went to a party in an apartment here once, and I must say it had a lovely view.) Up the street, not one but two plaques honor the home of 1950s bebop icon Charlie Parker, a hipster who no doubt would have been appalled by the neighborhood in the 1960s.

I round the corner and pass the Life Café, where the gratingly cheerful awning reads: “More than good food, enjoy life every day,” and a sign invites Rentheads to explain why they love Rent to a video camera. East 10th is mostly residential, and the locals certainly have strong views: In one window, a tenant has placed a picture of the president with the word “Thug” (like 90 percent of Americans—who live far from the East Village—don’t agree with this by now?). Further down the block, a sign says: “Farm animals have feelings too!” (Maybe they do, but so what?)

At 147 Avenue A, the former headquarters of the East Village Other—a salty underground newspaper of the hippie era—is now occupied by a store where you can purchase “Respect Your Mother” tote bags (Earth, get it?), 100 percent unbleached coffee filters from a company called If You Care, and even an indoor-composting worm bin for $65. (I mean, I’ll buy anything, but really. . . .)

I’m happy to report that—carbon footprint be damned—on this steamy day, the shop has the A/C going full-blast.

I decide to take a peek in the park itself before heading home. Lucky for me, it’s early, since a sign on the gates lists a raft of forbidden activities, including rummaging through trash bins—like anyone does this by choice?—along with the news that the park closes at midnight, or a whole hour sooner than the 1 a.m. curfew the community so bitterly resisted 20 years ago this week.


Jackie McLean 1931–2006

In that same way the skinny young Sinatra was his own Hirschfeld caricature, Jackie McLean’s sound on alto saxophone was so distinct it made the critic’s work easy. It was lean and penetrating, broad and technically always a little flat—qualities that might seem contradictory until you hear him on “Love and Hate,” from Destination Out (1963), or “Strange as It Seems,” from New and Old Gospel (1968). Funny I should pick two ballads to represent such a slasher, but slow tempos were where McLean, who died March 31 following a long illness, really let it rip. The obits hit all the right biographical notes—his early dependence on heroin after caddying for Charlie Parker; his sideman dues with Mingus and Blakey; his part in Jack Gelber’s The Connection; his role in bringing Tony Williams, Bobby Hutcherson, and Grachan Moncur III to Blue Note (loosening the reins on hard bop in the process); his many years as a teacher at Hartt College in Connecticut; that fierce attack of his, seemingly impervious to age. But what I remembered was a friend of mine, an alto saxophonist whom McLean took under his wing in the early ’70s, telling me it was like gaining an endorsement from “the mayor of New York”—the one active figure lionized by that era’s hard boppers and avant-gardists alike. Christmas just wasn’t the same last year minus his annual homecoming gig fronting Cedar Walton’s trio at the Village Vanguard.