August 24, 2007


Charlie Parker, Uptown and Down (NATE CHINEN, 8/24/07, NY Times)

On a fundamental level...the festival pays homage to Parker and his footprint in the city. In many ways he was the quintessential New York hero: a maverick and bon vivant, a subject of notoriety and myth. He loved the city, and he toasted it outright with a tune called “Scrapple From the Apple” that was recorded in a New York studio 60 years ago this fall and almost immediately became popular with musicians. (Along with a catchy melody, it had a familiar harmonic progression, with elements of Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose” and George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.”)

“Charlie Parker became a New Yorker,” said the jazz historian Phil Schaap, whose Parker-fixated weekday radio program, “Bird Flight,” has been heard in its current form on WKCR (89.9 FM) since 1981. “That was important to him, and he felt great about it, and he enjoyed New York nightlife as well as he dominated it for a while.”

Like so many celebrated New Yorkers Parker came from somewhere else. He was born in Kansas City, Kan., on Aug. 29, 1920, and began his musical career across the state line in Kansas City, Mo., during the waning days of its biggest nightlife boom. The depth of that experience will be a principal subject of “Kansas City Lightning: The Life and Times of the Young Charlie Parker,” a long-gestating biography by the critic Stanley Crouch due out from Pantheon next year.

Parker made his first foray to New York in 1939, on the heels of Buster Smith, his fellow saxophonist and Kansas City mentor. While crashing at Mr. Smith’s apartment, he hit jam sessions at Harlem spots like Clark Monroe’s Uptown House on West 134th Street.

“The only place he could really meet musicians who were going to help him realize his goals would have been New York, and specifically Harlem at that time,” the saxophonist and historian Loren Schoenberg said recently by phone from the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, where he is executive director. The museum’s August programming has been pointedly Parker-centric; next Tuesday the final lecture of the month takes place at the Harlem School of the Arts.

Lore has it that Parker’s initial Harlem sojourn included toiling as a dishwasher at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where the fearsome pianist Art Tatum held court. At another uptown spot, Dan Wall’s Chili House, Parker had what he later described as an epiphany, during one of many sessions with a guitarist named Biddy Fleet.

In an interview a decade later with Down Beat magazine, Parker recalled that he had tired of the stereotypical chord voicings then in use. “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else,” he said. “I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.” One night in 1939, improvising over the Ray Noble tune “Cherokee,” he brought his idea to life. “And bop was born,” Down Beat added, putting the kicker on a story so irresistible that Thomas Pynchon slipped it into his epic novel “Gravity’s Rainbow.”

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 24, 2007 8:31 AM
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