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Parker: he could make plastic sound like brass


Two lives' work in half a lifetime

Charlie Parker, addicted to heroin and unable to get along with people, died at 35, but not before he had played some divine jazz

Any Bangalore housewife of the old school knows it's risky to fix a brass tap in the garden because thieves could steal it in the night. You use a plastic tap instead because plastic has no resale value in the scrap market.

Thanks to this principle, Chan Parker, a poor old American widow, suddenly became richer by 85,000 dollars five years ago. She'd got justice, poetic justice, at last, for the money, from the sale of her husband's old white plastic alto saxophone, was perhaps more than he'd ever given her when he was alive.

Charlie "Bird" Parker (1920-1955) could never keep an ordinary brass sax for long, because pawning it was the only way to get some money in an emergency for his daily fix of heroin. So someone thought of the bright idea of gifting him with a plastic instrument, which would have no resale value to a pawnbroker. The resale value it ultimately had 40 years later -- for a jazz museum in Kansas City, the breeding-ground of his music -- was only partly due to mere association with his name.

The fact is that for the last few years of his life he had no other instrument, so he's left us with ample evidence that in his hands plastic was as good as brass, which is pretty good considering he's the greatest alto saxophonist jazz has ever produced. He blew through it on May 15, 1953 at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, when he and Dizzy Gillespie (trumpet), Bud Powell (piano), Charles Mingus (bass), and Max Roach (drums) treated the audience to what was later marketed -- without hype -- as The Greatest Jazz Concert of All Time.

Parker started his professional career in the band of Jay McShann, a talented blues-oriented pianist of the Kansas City jazz school. Although a swing musician like others of his age, McShann seems to have tolerated Parker's new ideas of improvised harmony and melody changes with very fast and big leaps from note to note, for I can hear what seems suspicuously like Parker's sax on a track called Sepian Bounce in The Best of Big Band Swing (a compilation from Times Music).

He moved to New York in the early '40s and met Gillespie in Earl Hines's orchestra. They found they'd been experimenting with the same ideas. They had earned Gillespie the sack from his former boss, Cab Calloway, who hadn't been so indulgent to them as McShann. Parker and Gillespie mostly used to practise their stuff outside their normal working hours in a small night-club. Hines himself handed over charge of his band to Billy Eckstine before Parker, Gillespie and others started recording their work and became famous for the be-bop revolution.

Parallel to this was the heroin revolution. Gillespie was cleaner than most of his peers, Parker perhaps worst hit. By 1947 they could no longer work together, and when Miles Davis stepped into the breach he too found Parker impossible to get on with in a couple of years or so. Parker kept running out of partners and instruments for the rest of his short life, abbreviated by the drug lifestyle and the complications of the alcoholism that overcame him in his efforts to kick heroin.

One would think it'd take a musician years to learn to produce from plastic the same tones he got from brass, but Parker didn't have years. I can hear no difference between the plastic at Massey Hall or other contemporary performances and Parker's earlier brass instruments.

Not only must he have quickly mastered the plastic, but he often mastered a melody when he heard it just once. He'd walk into recording sessions and take up his solo cue without rehearsing, then warn that he wouldn't be able to repeat the solo if a fresh take was recorded! Before Massey Hall, he hadn't spoken to Gillespie for years, and on stage, Mingus quarrelled with him and walked off. But the music was still divine.

When he died on March 12, 1955, not yet 35, the coroner put his age down as 53. If he'd lived till his birthday, August 29, this year, he'd have been 80, an age not uncommon for jazz musicians to be not just alive but also kicking. His musical achievements in 34-plus years would be enough for two ordinary lifetimes, and his horrendous non-musical experiences possibly enough for two more, but extraordinary. What his short life couldn't encompass was enough recorded material that lasted longer than three minutes, for the age of long-playing had just started. Most CDs or cassettes of Parker are made up of lots of short tracks from old 78s. But they're still great, unique in fact.


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