restricted access 3. Apprenticeship
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55 hen Charlie landed in Chicago, most likely in the fall of 1938, before the bitter winds—the Chicago hawk— hit, he was as thin as the rails that brought him and not much better for wear. Bedraggled and exhausted, he nonetheless made his way in the early morning hours to the 65 Club, near Michigan Avenue and Fifty-fifth Street, where a breakfast dance was in progress. The featured band, a quintet led by King Kolax, took a break, and a few of the guys were on the street smoking with friends, including Billy Eckstine and Budd Johnson. Charlie, “the raggedest guy you’d want to see,” as Eckstine described him to Reisner, walked over to bum a cigarette but otherwise held back. Later, inside , he asked the alto saxophonist Goon Gardner if he could play his horn. In Eckstine’s words, “This cat gets up there and, I’m telling you, he blew the hell off that thing!” Everyone turned to listen, including Budd Johnson, who was mesmerized: “I couldn’t believe it. I said, ‘What!’” Afterward, Parker went to the bar to introduce himself to ­ Johnson, telling how he played stickball in front of 3 . a pp r ent i ces h i p w Charlie Parker, Los Angeles, 1946. apprenticeship 56 George E. Lee’s mother’s house in K.C. when Budd and the others rehearsed, and how he wouldpeepthroughthewindow and listen. Gardner took him home, gave him some clothes and a clarinet, and got him a few jobs. Within weeks, Charlie pawned the clarinet and boarded a bus for New York. Charlie wasted no time in locating his mentor. He turned up on Buster Smith’s doorstep, frayed and hungry, legs swollen from having worn his shoes so long. Smith and his wife put him up, allowing him to use their bed by day, since he was out all night hanging around clubs, listening to the music and looking for work. That first night he walked over to the Savoy Ballroom and stood outside, staring at the marquee, marveling, as he later told Jay McShann, at the fact that he was in New York and dreaming of the day he would play on its most famous bandstand. But jobs were scarce even for locals with so many good players on the scene. For a transient without a union card, they hardly existed. When the Smiths lost patience, he took his only nonmusical job, scrubbing dishes at a popular Harlem hangout, Jimmy’s Chicken Shack. His hours were midnight to eight and his pay nine dollars a week. The one compensation was the Art Tatum, c. 1949. apprenticeship 57 featured performer, Art Tatum. Blind, rotund, and regal of manner, Tatum was an astonishing pianist, unequaled in his harmonic ingenuity and his ability to execute abrupt tempo changes and rapid-fire modulations. His pristine embellishments were packaged in glittery arpeggios and crowned with wittily juxtaposed melodic figures (often quotations from pop songs). Virtually all the key jazz modernists name Tatum as a major influence, but none received so concentrated a course from him as the diffident dishwasher at Jimmy’s, who was too shy to say hello yet continued in a disagreeable job for the entire three months of Tatum’s engagement. Eventually Charlie found a few musical or semimusical gigs. He even played at a Times Square tango palace. But he also sat in—for free or a meal or cigarette money—at Clark Monroe’s ­ Uptown House on 138th Street, where some of the more adventurous musicians in town came to jam, though no one seems to have paid him much mind. He made friends with a ­ guitarist named Bill “Biddy” Fleet, who rivaled Charlie Parker: three stills from a film directed by Gjon Mili but never released because the soundtrack was lost, c. 1951. Jay McShann, 1938. apprenticeship 59 Buster Smith as a valuable sounding board for Charlie’s ­ endless questions about harmonic theory. Perhaps the most important idea Parker learned from Tatum was that any note could be made to fit in a chord if suitably resolved. With Fleet, he pursued that notion, practicing passing tones and concentrating on the higher intervals of chords: raised ninths, elevenths, thirteenths. His fixation helped to buffer him from the indifference and downright scorn of other musicians who said he played funny or wrong. Despite his difficulty finding work or acceptance, he was choosy about musicians with whom he played and practiced. He was perfecting a...


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