Being a chav from a council estate my knowledge of anything other than chart music was limited but when I was about eighteen I bought a Charlie Parker album. It was all noise to me but I played it over and over and gradually it made some sort of sense. And from there I moved on to Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Lester Young and many other great musicians. For two years I even hosted a jazz radio show.
But Parker never stuck, his music was too esoteric, too urgent, and I never managed to get much past the wall of notes. But the other day I watched the 1-minute Henry/Collier C Blues and, being both chaotic and amazing, it made me want to practice and improve my own technical skills.
Which sent me scurrying back to Charlie Parker, whose technique is unsurpassed. And now, decades later, his music is beginning to make sense to me. Here he is on track called All the Things You are, alongside a young Miles Davis. His playing on this is fairly subdued for a change but it’s a lovely piece of music. It’s also the first jazz track I ever sat down and listened to.
Charlie Parker died, age 34, destroyed by a destructive drug habit that began with morphine at sixteen and exacerbated or perhaps even caused his erratic behaviour and mental health problems, but he was the most incendiary jazz musician who ever lived.
I’m just now becoming wise enough to listen to him.
*I thought I’d add this track – he’s playing while in the throes of heroin withdrawal, drunk on quart of brandy to ease the pain – he was committed to a mental institution shortly afterwards – and virtually unable to stand, he misses the opening and keeps swinging away from the microphone so his notes disappear. But you get a real picture of his wayward genius.