Charlie Parker
By: Brian Berger | Categories: HiLo Heroes, Jazz, Music

WellDressedBird-Hilo

Whatever one’s interest in jazz, know there will never be a musician greater than CHARLIE “YARDBIRD” PARKER (1920–55). A fiery yet contemplative genius beset by great sorrow, Parker in life awed professionals and amateurs alike, with an influence abiding in some notable literary minds. In Don DeDillo’s Underworld (1997), when Bronx adolescent Ismael Muñoz, the future Moonman 157, first saw “Bird Lives” spray painted on the subway tunnels “it made him wonder about graffiti,” and “who is Bird, and why does he live?” In Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973), Tyrone Slothrop recalls “Cherokee,” where “Parker is finding out how he can use notes at the higher end of these very chords to break up the melody into have mercy 32nd notes what is it a fucking machine gun or something.” From Raise Up Off Me (1974), the shattering autobiography of pianist Hampton Hawes, who loved Bird and played with him often: “He hated the black-white split and what was happening to his people, couldn’t come up with an answer so he stayed high. Played, fucked, drank, and got high.” In Gilbert Sorrentino’s Steelwork (1970), two Brooklyn teenagers circa 1945 play Charlie Parker and his Re-Bop Boys “Koko” again and again: “Whole pieces of their world were being chipped off and shredded, ruthlessly. Great blasts of foreign air. A foreign air, the whole wide world entering the house.” From LeRoi Jones’ Dutchman (1964): “All the hip white boys scream for Bird. And Bird saying ‘Up your ass, feebleminded ofay! Up your ass.’”

“Cherokee” (1943)

“Koko” (1945)

“Parker’s Mood” (1948)

“Now’s The Time” (1953)

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Preston Sturges, Yasuji Tanioka, Meshell Ndegeocello, Anton Newcombe, Michael Jackson.

READ MORE about members of the New Gods Generation (1914-23).

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Brian Berger is a historian, journalist and poet. He was coeditor, with Marshall Berman, of New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg.