AQ’s Jazz editor, Phill Brett raises the spirits in these dark times from the BeBop music of Charlie Parker, with mono recordings transcending the times from the 40s to our times today.
great music, like all art and culture, can bring light to darkness, raise the spirits and to give hope
This August, is the centenary of the birth of jazz saxophone legend Charlie Parker, one of the titans of modern music. It is not too much to say that he changed jazz. No doubt for the centenary, there will be much talk of his drug use and how, on his early death, he looked twenty years older than he actually was. But this marvellous box set will hopefully focus on what is really important about Bird – his music.
Originally recorded between 1944 – 1948 these reissues capture the moment when music changed. For years previous, big bands held sway (or should that be swing?). Undoubtedly, with geniuses like Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman, superb music was created. However, as has been the case throughout the history of music, when one style of music gains popularity, a host of less imaginative imitators follows, cashing in. There was money to be made, but as the years progressed, restrictions on what musicians could play, and what was seen as commercially acceptable became tighter. Many younger musicians felt that swing meant business, of making money, but what they yearned for was creating art. And in doing so of making music, which “they couldn’t play”, meaning the white copyist band leaders of Swing. Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke started to riff on melodies, competing with each other. Not being confined to creating dance music, they could play at a faster tempo. Whilst practising “Cherokee” in 1933, Parker discovered that the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale could lead to any key. A whole new world would open up.
This new sound was christened Bebop (after a Gillespie tune). With it, came a world view. They developed their own sartorial style and language
Moving from his home town of Kansas, Parker, like so many other musicians, ended up in New York City. Many like-minded musicians in the 1940s – Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis amongst others – congregated around 52nd Street, playing for hours, creating and exploring a new art form – modern jazz. For me personally, this would be one of the times when you would just love to jump in a music Tardis and travel back. This new sound was christened Bebop (after a Gillespie tune). With it, came a world view. They developed their own sartorial style and language, with words such as “hep cats”, and “man” the latter, a response to the racist terminology of white people addressing black men as “boy”.
Because of a musician’s strike between 1942-43, this new music wasn’t heard. These recordings, including “Ko Ko” (a reworking of “Cherokee”), “Now’s the Time” and “Billie’s Bounce”, rectified that, and then some. Included in the sessions were musicians of the calibre of Dizzy, Max Roach, Miles and Bud Powell. The music they created would thrill and inspire, and to some, horrify. The great Louis Armstrong for one, was someone who dismissed this new music. But a revolution had occurred and music wouldn’t never be the same again. Parker with “Now’s the Time” was dually saying that this was their time, they weren’t going to be dancing to anyone else’s tune, either musically or in the wider society.Nowhere is the word pride mentioned, but throughout, with every note, it is there. They were demanding freedom and in doing so, creating the space for sublime music to be made.
The box set consists of four 10 inch albums, remastered giving it a fresh sound. The original sleeves are reproduced, even with original typographical errors (for historical accuracy) included. The record sleeves are of a good solid cardboard. As well as a fine box itself, there is a magnificent and highly informative booklet accompanying it, written by Neil Tesser, a Grammy winning writer. One tiny niggle I do have, is that with my copy at least, the fit is rather tight and the vinyl has to be really pushed in. It reminds me of squeezing myself into tight trousers after an indulgent Christmas.
All these tunes are already available and of course, Parker went on, despite his too early death, to release further masterpieces, but this is a precious thing to have. The whole package is one to treasure and delight in. This music was recorded during difficult times, racism was rife, where even in comparatively liberal New York, Gillespie could be beaten up for merely being a black man wearing nice clothes. World War II was raging and would take millions of lives. Yet within these horrors, music was created which endures in its brilliance and vitality, its hope and defiance. At the time of writing, we live with the horror of Covid-19, and the daily rising Global death toll, so music can be seen as unimportant. And yes, of course, compared to the loss of a loved one, it is. However, great music, like all art and culture, can bring light to darkness, raise the spirits and to give hope. I believe, that hundred years after his birth, over seventy five years after they were recorded, Charlie Parker’s music in these Savoy Recordings still does that.