Artists who innovate have a tendency to shock us when we enter their remit. The show is not for mere show, and it has a high pleasure quotient—the pleasure not only of discovery, but discovery imbued with greater risk, richer reward. We feel like those artists are taking chances on our behalf, and already we know, often within mere seconds, that those chances are paying out.
Louis Armstrong was an early jazz version of this form of expectation-scrambler and loop-knocker, but there were ways to get prepped for Louis—with the recordings of King Oliver, for example. Charlie Parker, though, emerged not just like a comet, but almost as if he were the first comet anyone had ever seen. He is the jazz analogue of newly discovered fire.
A century after his birth, on August 29, 1920, Charlie Parker remains the Mozart of this medium. He was a firebrand, an imp, a rebel, possessed of a virtuosity that rendered impossible scalar excursions for others into the stuff of his basic exercises.
Parker built up the possibilities of bebop under the cover of darkness, meaning during the time of the recording ban from 1943-45, when shellac was rationed for the war effort. He unsheathed his various grooves and chordal superimpositions in after-hours clubs with buddies, rivals, acolytes, wood-shopping in public, but not in front of an audience, a useful distinction for the young man from Kanas City who first lit out with bands at age 16.
Like Keats, Parker grew up faster than his peers, one of those people who was older from the jump. The recording ban was lifted, and Parker hightailed it to the studio for the Savoy label, the upshot being that America was soon introduced to bop, which went faster than anyone believed music had the right—or possibility—to go. Even a Parker bop ballad could be pure gas, the pedal not only flat up against metal, but passing through it to a road of endless possibilities.
Parker’s career, truncated as it was, breaks down into three categories: the cometary work for Savoy and Dial of the mid-1940s with their walloping brace of Modernism; the turn of the decade dalliance with strings, as Parker channeled his inner Stravinsky while somehow seeming to sound even more like himself than before; and the dates for Verve in the 1950s, high on mastery, but with less outright envelope-pushing, annexed by the coterie of live recordings that ranged from the legend-steeped “Dream Team” gig at Massey Hall in Toronto 1953—with Parker joined by Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Charles Mingus on bass, Bud Powell on piano, and Max Roach on drums—to any of a number of club gigs on which, in a given night, you could have heard the best music ever performed.
One such Parker gig—and one that encapsulates so much about this artist—occurred in the spring of 1950 at the New York City club Birdland, named for the man who regularly roosted there. Two factors to keep in mind at this stage of Parker’s journey: He’s deep into a life of struggle, for one. An early tour bus accident had compromised his spine, which meant painkillers, which meant early opioid addiction. Russian hockey players would be dogged by drink and deaths stemming therefrom; for jazz musicians, heroin was the all-too-common albatross. He’s had a nervous breakdown, is viewed as unreliable, though never less than mercurial.
Secondly, he’s taped a lot. There are far more concert recordings of Charlie Parker from the decade of the 1950s than any other jazz musician. Record labels made them, fans made them—fans with zealotry in their bloodstreams for the alto sax titan. Many of the tapes will sound scrappy, bootlegs before a Grateful Dead existed for anyone to follow around.
Some tapers sought out Parker’s permission to record, so that recording devices did not have to remain in overcoat pockets. You could amass a healthy love for Parker on these tapes alone, and I’d argue that with our finest artists, there is never a moment when they break character, if you will. That is, the “official,” go-to, canonized works of great art—the Sgt. Pepper, the Jupiter symphony, Parker’s own early Savoy and Dial sides—are no more revealing of what that artist is about than the offhand demo, the radio airshot, the “ordinary” club gig on a random Wednesday. A Delacroix can give you just as much in a journal entry as he could in Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. These artists don’t have moments as much as they are themselves art incarnate; what they create in what we think of as the gaps is where you’re going to locate the stuff they are most about, the proof of the idea that there is never an instance where anything shuts off. One cannot shut off, when one is something—one merely is it, and we watch. Or, in the case of when Charlie Parker was joined by a doomed Fats Navarro at Birdland in spring 1950, we listen.
Jazz is not unlike basketball in that two singular talents form singular duos at the top of rosters, what we could here call a band. As there is Michael and Scottie, Shaq and Kobe, Magic and Kareem, in jazz one focuses on Eric Dolphy and Booker Little, Billie Holiday and Lester Young, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines.
Parker’s partnership with Dizzy Gillespie is the medium’s best known. They were brothers in arms in a type of sonic revolution. Bebop wasn’t just a radical advance in harmonics—it was a musical culture war. If Parker and Gillespie didn’t meet the same level of resistance, say, of Russian Futurists in the 1920s, it was because of our form of government, not the reactions and views of the musicians who came before them. The swing artists derided bop; they liked control, whereas the new music careened. Or so the charges went. The boppers referred to what we’d now call “haters” as “moldy figs.” Quaint, but the shot told at the time.
Parker and Gillespie figured a lot out in tandem. We might think of John Lennon and Paul McCartney rehearsing at the latter’s house on Forthlin Road in the late 1950s, another duo who, for a time, had no opportunity to record. When Parker made masterpieces, Gillespie was often present, his contributions invaluable. That they are yoked in history, for all of their individual distinction, is undeniable.
But it was Parker who barnstormed, Parker who was likely to play with a configuration of musicians for a single evening, never to work with them again. Trumpeter Fats Navarro is not someone we think of as looming large in the Parker discography. For starters, Navarro wouldn’t have had a lot of opportunities. Many jazz men died young—we hardly talk of Eric Dolphy as having a tragic life because he made it to 36, almost an advanced age in these circles.
Navarro was to succumb even earlier than the “regular” tragic figure, when he died at 26 because of tuberculosis and, in no real surprise, heroin. He was overweight and talked in a high voice and was thus dubbed “Fat Girl” by his friends, the musicians who marveled at his technique. Gillespie had immaculate technique, everything you wanted in a trumpet player. Navarro didn’t have the same polish—no one ever has—but for flat-out emoting, conveying some central chunk of the human experience, one cannot be faulted for taking Fats Navarro over Dizzy Gillespie any day.
The material that Parker and Navarro recorded sometime in the spring of 1950 has been released under a variety of titles: One Night at Birdland, Bird and Fats, and a litany of others. We are not strictly sure of the actual date of the recording. The best guess consensus is May 17, but whether or not you accept the chronology depends on what you think a dying man is capable of. Navarro would be dead by July 7. Don’t forget—this is a lung disease, and trumpet may be the instrument that requires the most lung power. I recall when I first heard the harmonica player Little Walter near the end of his life in 1967, suffering from lung ailments, and how wheezy he sounded.
Either way, Parker would have known that Navarro was sick. Maybe he thought some enlivening music-making at Birdland would hit the spot, and conceivably he wished to create art with this other man before it was too late. More likely, Parker needed cash—his own vices required funding—and he hustled, he scrapped, he gigged. This was another evening. One which someone happened to tape.
Don’t mistake this for an official record label affair, with pristine sound. Think of it like a love project made by a collector, a completist. Listening to a cut like “Orinthology”—one of various song titles that reference Parker’s avian nickname of Bird—and you hear music that registers as the audible definition of virtuosity. Speed is one thing—Anthrax played with speed. Speed while navigating these chord changes is the stuff of Paganini.
A gig of this nature is taxing. It’s no mere “collect the paycheck” date. These men are making high art, not because they think anyone will ever hear anything from these proceedings, necessarily, but again, it’s that notion of never leaving off, of being something, rather than officially electing to create something. The art-making moments are potentially always about to happen with a Parker. He’s also that player who makes his ensemble-mates some degree greater than they already were before they walked in the door that evening.
On the aptly descriptive “Dizzy Atmosphere”—which Parker wrote with Gillespie—Navarro riffs on the idea of a relationship bequeathing song. The original version may have been considered definitive, but the one that has newly arisen gives pause. Your heart will open right up as Navarro quotes “All of Me” during his solo. The crowd is into what these two guys are doing. Parker is Parker. Molten. He’s thinking faster than everyone on the stage, and in some solos—like the ones he takes on “This Time’s the Dream On Me”—you could bag up enough ideas to stock an entire career of derring-do music-making.
On “Out of Nowhere,” it’s possibly to actually hear, while the music is still unfolding, Parker and Navarro exchanging some words of strategy. When Navarro rips into a real blazer of a solo, shouts of “Blow, Fat Girl, blow!” come from the crowd. This isn’t a stadium, it’s a nightclub, and people are losing their, well, you know.
Parker knows when to give Navarro his head, as the old saying went, not laying out but laying back, providing obligatos slightly off the beat, subtle lighting, in the terms of a cinematographer. One is going to say that Parker’s chief gifts focused on what actually came out of his horn, but I’d counter that no one listened better than Parker. What came from the horn, really came out of the head, after what had been heard and processed; Parker’s jazz feels so organic because he makes his music a series of natural reactions to the world around him.
Part of this has to do with the solemnity of death—that is, knowing what we know about Navarro—and also the apex-level of the art, but when I hear this tape, I think of something Chekhov wrote in a letter, in which he said that all he did was write, and race around to museums and churches.
If those days of Chekhov had a sound, I think it would be rather like Charlie Parker at Birdland, in spring of 1950, when, for an evening, he was central to a partnership for the ages. The next night it may have been another, or perhaps it was just him, playing somewhere on his own, working through a chord progression as yet undiscovered until that very moment. And any Parker moment could have been that moment.