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xi charlie parker, who died at thirty-four in 1955, was an artist deeply embedded in jazz history, legendary yet omnipresent— a spring of anecdotal veneration—when Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker was first published in 1987. More than a quarter century later, he seems curiously less remote. Once I thought of him as a figure before my time; now I am fascinated by the fact that we haven’t even reached his centenary. History fosters temporal illusions, fractured perspectives. Time, like jazz, speeds up, slows down, and circles back on itself. Growing up, I thought westerns depicted an ancient epoch until I learned that Wyatt Earp was alive to hear Louis Armstrong’s Hot Seven and read about Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic. In short, Parker is our contemporary. You can speak to people who spoke to him; not nearly as many as when I wrote this book, but quite a few. Age and custom have not dimmed the brilliance of his art, which, forged virtually in secret, illumined a panicky postwar world. Charlie Parker and his peers, shoulders to the wheel, inspiration through the roof, created the bedrock of Prelude to the Revised Edition prelude to the revised edition xii modern jazz, its aspirations and language. We hear him more than we know. The first time I read an essay on Charlie Parker, I got lost in the usual moniker switcheroo: first the writer talks about Parker, then about Bird. No one I knew could explain, although a high school music teacher suggested he might be referring to the jazz guitarist Charlie Byrd. But soon I underwent a reboot of the epiphany that had hit me (in fifth grade, with the exaltation of pealing church bells) when, mulishly trying to make sense of the opening chapters of The Brothers Karamazov, I twigged that Alexei and Alyosha were the same guy, ditto Dmitry and Mitya—ditto maxima, Parker and Bird. When I started writing music criticism, I made a point of not switching proper nouns without an explanatory clause, until an exasperated editor said, “Really, everyone knows Charlie Parker is called Bird.” Reading through a jazz magazine in the 1960s, you could hardly turn the page without finding mention of him. Clearly, if you wanted to dig jazz, you were expected to discern basic Bird. I cannot recall why I launched my Parker expedition with Bird Symbols, on the infamous Charlie Parker Records—just lucky, I guess. It certainly was not because of the black and white jacket, with its shadowy photograph of an African American male who might or might not be (I vote not) Charlie Parker. It was probably a reduced-price cutout. Doris Parker, one of his embattled common-law wives, and Aubrey Mayhew, a country music entrepreneur and JFK fetishist, began the label in 1961, after Parker temporarily wrested sufficient control of the estate to lay claim to the Dial recordings and unprotected airchecks. The company lasted three or four years, though several of its forty-six albums, a third of them by Parker (including a few that recycled the same material but with different covers and titles), lingered in bargain bins. Mayhew’s liner notes boasted of audio enhancement, but it would be hyperbole to say that he was high on fidelity: one LP featured a singer who sang into a closed mike; another exposed a piano trio to treble intensities that can shatter prelude to the revised edition xiii eardrums; another preserves a vaudevillian telling stories to inaptly screeching laughter. The label’s logo, with its illustration of a beretwearing bird playing saxophone, should have been: Take a chance! I did. Some of its music is fine (Duke Jordan, Cecil Payne, Art Pepper, the Orioles, Mundell Lowe’s big band score for a Times Square sexploitation film Satan in High Heels). The audio is mostly early garage band: thumping bass, small-space echo, nebulous rumbling . This is especially true of the Parker tapes from the Rockland Palace, the Royal Roost, and Birdland, and the Dial studio classics, which have raw edges and a streak of urgency that good sound can blunt. Bird Symbols, with only twelve tracks, is my favorite Dial sampler: the best takes of the best selections plus window-rattling bass levels. But while I played it to death and quickly added other Parker albums, better produced and engineered, I can’t say that I responded to Bird straightaway. The tunes were so autonomous, unlike anything I’d heard, the...


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