As we get comfortable with the details of Lee de Forest’s life, we continue to explore other realms new to this author’s ear. One project on the shelf in my office has been learning jazz, something I chip away at as the years go on, but feel like I make such minor progress when I assess it each time. The first thing that was really hard to wrap my head around was to realize that all these great jazz dudes all played with each other. I mean, I got that they all crossed paths, and that they might even play the same gig. But when it clicked that no, really, they all played with each other – in each other’s groups – and they each had their own groups, as well. I’ve given up long ago trying to draft a family tree, and instead try to focus on absorbing the songs. I still marvel at tracks like this, when you have five highly skilled performers all grooving to the same scene and were co-stars in each other’s movie about incredible artists.
Jazz really started to open up for me in big way when I heard bebop.
Charlie Parker was, in a lot of ways, the father of bebop, but his own demons and faults were his inevitable downfall. Bebop was a new permutation that was seen by the old fashioned jazz cats as an upraised middle finger to the sanctity of form, a sort of – ahem – flipping the bird.
Charlie didn’t give a fuck. He blazed his own trail, fueled by drugs and determination, and mastered his craft at a young age. Bird recorded with some of the greatest artists bebop, but spent most of those years hooked on smack, with occasional bouts of alcoholism. Parker’s crime was, of course, timing; because of the Musician’s Union recording ban between 1942 & 1944, Bird’s initial performances were never recorded. When he started to make a name for himself, the previous generation found him to be over the top, subverting jazz in a way that the moldy figs would never understand.
As time went on his reputation and virtuosity spoke volumes about who was right or wrong. No matter where Charlie found himself, trouble followed, and over the 18 years of his formal career, he drove his body to death, which finally gave up one night in 1955, on the cusp of Rock & Roll beginning to take hold of the country. It was clear that his boozy records were much worse than his heroine laced tracks, but most of that 18 years was spent trying to hold himself together long enough to produce some of the greatest music ever recorded.
The story of Parker differs in that his is a cautionary tale, a nerdy pioneer who flew too close to the sun. Bird was well know for his collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, but dig: he worked with Miles Davis, in addition to becoming the supreme icon of the beat generation, who managed to combine base passions and desires with unparalleled intellectual curiosity, and set a template for what “cool” was for the rest of the 20th Century. His relentless pursuit of the chromatic scale was not only an ultra-hip means of expressing his own identity at a time when that was rarely possible for any artists, and more pointedly, any well-dressed black man in post-WWII America. Like most mavericks, his interest in his ideas isolated him from like-minded folks, and much of his life was spent wrestling with his music and his chemical interests. What was left of him when he passed could be described in many ways, but I like to imagine it was spontaneous human combusion; his work consumed him.