restricted access 1. Bird Lives!
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1 ythologies die hard. The witness to Charlie Parker’s death heard a clap of thunder at the moment of his­ passing. The ­ companion of his last years remains in spiritual contact with him after more than thirty years. His childhood sweetheart and first wife continues to hear his music as nothing more or less than the “story of our lives together,” though all his recorded music and innovations postdated their relationship. Countless musicians tell their own stories in terms of Parker’s influence on them, as if they had been dawdling contentedly down one path until they heard his call and abruptly about-faced. Such testimonies of veneration and awe, shot through with religious symbology, suggest the extent to which Parker’s posthumous life is clouded with desire and romance. The deification did not begin with his death. Parker enjoyed remarkably little renown during his short life, yet he was faithfully attended by disciples and hagiographers—musicians, critics, and a coterie of enthusiasts drawn mostly though not exclusively from the fractious, defensive M 1. b i r d l i v es ! bird lives! 2 world of jazz, inspired by his music to a voluble rapture that finds comfort in the elaborations of hyperbole, allegory, myth. Parker’s status as a prophet evolved inadvertently, a by-product of his willed destiny to become “a great musician.” As an apprentice in Kansas City jazz circles, he got off to a painfully slow start, impressing fellow apprentices with little more than his confidence and determination. Some thought him lazy, obdurate, and spoiled. But the young man was favored with supernatural abilities, and the tempo of his life quickened soon enough. Resolve gave way to obsession and a desire to succeed equaled only by a vertiginous need to fail. He hurled himself at the gates, falsifying his age to gain entry into the most competitive nightclubs, daring Kansas City to reject him (it did), and maximizing every rejection as a stimulus for new feats. He pursued his muse with astonishing assurance. At sixteen, he was laughed off a bandstand; at seventeen, he made converts—including Jay McShann, a stranger in town, who eventually offered him the chance to reject Kansas City. The fledgling, who many years later would answer a query about his religious affiliation by declaring himself “a devout musician,” was too conscious of his talent, too possessed of pride, and too much the product of racial repression and maternal sanction not to suspect that a larger world awaited him—a world he could recast in his own image. It is no surprise to learn that Parker was embarrassed by the insipid onomatopoeia bebop, which got tarred to modern jazz and which survives his scorn with a rather chipper defiance. He never proselytized for modernism in any guise. Impatient with those who attempted to stampede him into aesthetic pigeonholes, he ­ jousted with critics. He honored the traditions of jazz in one inter­ view (Down Beat, 1948) and dismissed them in another (Down Beat, 1949). Asked to distinguish between his music and that of his predecessors , however, he invariably demurred: “It’s just music. It’s trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes” (1949). His willingness to let people draw their own conclusions is encapsu­ lated in his one surviving television appearance, when he disdain­ fully 3 tells a dotty emcee, the Broadway gossip columnist Earl Wilson, “Well, Earl, they say music speaks louder than words, so we’d rather voice our opinion that way.” Everyone agrees that he knew his own worth and had neither the need nor the desire to politick on behalf of a new movement. On the contrary, he kept himself humble with an attentive enthusiasm for those modernists— Stravinsky, Hinde­ mith, Schönberg, Bartok—who were skilled in Charlie Parker, Detroit, 1950. bird lives! 4 the ­ compositional ­ techniques he coveted. Yet, at twenty-five he was the acknowledged leader of a new and distinctly American music; at thirty, his genius was recognized by musicians around the world; at thirty-four, when he died, he was regarded as an elder statesman who had yet to be superseded by his descend­ ants. No sooner was he buried—in ­ Easter season—than the graffiti appeared: Bird lives! Parker’s followers dogged his footsteps, often equipped with tape recorders to preserve his improvised performances (but not necessarily those of his accompanying soloists, who also have claims on posterity). Some put words to his music. One such lyricist, a...