Bird as Shaman

I meant to mention Charlie Parker’s birthday yesterday but was just too busy with this and that.

I’ve been listening a lot to Bird recently. I’ve been listening to Bird as long as I’ve been listening to jazz. But I’ve never been in love with his music. I’ve always admired his music, and I’ve been variously more and less fascinated by it. But I’ve never felt about him as I have about Louis, Ben Webster, Pres, Sidney Bechet, Duke, Don Byas, Coltrane, Bean, Brownie, and Thelonious. Conventional opinion, which is right at an irritating frequency, says that Louis and Bird are the two great jazz soloists. I’ve really come to feel the truth of that recently as I’ve listened more and more to Bird and come as close as ever to loving some of what he does.

On the one hand, I’ve come to see how rooted he is in Kansas City swing, in the impeccable Basie rhythm. On the other hand, I’ve come to feel more than ever what I’ll call the despair out of which he seems to be playing. It’s the despair of not having a place in the world, or of not having even the hope of a place that will fit you, of always having to squeeze your way in and then awkwardly compensating. The historical analysis of Bird would say that he was dealing with the shock of WWII, the rise of atomic weapons, and the increasing commercialization of American life. The psychological analysis would say that he had unique mental problems which led to drug addiction, which caused him to feel at sea. My hunch is that he had what in more primitive times would have been called a shamanistic personality. He registered in his nervous system what was happening all around him and had to do all he could to compensate for his despair.

But out that despair he created incredibly ingenious improvisations which somehow kept open the space of jazz and humanity. There are times when his playing is off – as is true of all jazz musicians. But he never played in bad taste, except as a way of mocking or satirizing (and even his satire is strangely loving). The velocity at which he improvises is misleading. If you focus deeply on the playing, it’s almost never showy. There’s something in most every phrase, a whole story compressed into each fit of melody. Louis Armstrong is even greater at this, at least in his early recordings. But conventional wisdom is right that there are few others who are so powerfully inventive. The only artist that I can think to compare him to is another shamanistic-personality: T.S. Eliot, of whom Czeslaw Milosz once said, “This is an almost unbelievable undertaking; he built out of impossibility, absence, ruins. If, however, he achieved his aim to some extent, it would mean that people in the twentieth century need not be too pessimistic about their own potency.”

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