Now’s the Time to Honor Bird

Hard as it is today for me to refrain from commenting on U.S. politics — scrutinizing Nero’s hand positions through the flames — I’d rather seek joy. Saturday, August 1 kicks off Charlie Parker Month — the centennial of the birth of our country’s greatest musician.

Oh, I’m sorry. Is August not Charlie Parker Month? After all these years?

I use the word “greatest” to mean the most influential. There’s no other way to interpret that in the arts. There is no other way to compare Bird, Shakespeare, Sebastian Bach, Michelangelo, Mozart and Beethoven — in their different arts and ages — than to measure their influence.

And yes, Bird belongs with those artists. Mozart, in this sense, was not as great as the others because he did not so much influence his art: He perfected it. This, of course, reveals the paucity of our (my) definition — not Mozart’s greatness.

Beethoven, of course, influenced every artist forever, in so many ways. Yet his greatest work, the “Grosse Fuge,” influenced no one for 100 years, because it was inimitable: so odd.

Sebastian Bach was probably the greatest musician who ever lived, not just because he could do anything in tones, but because he demonstrated that the well-tempered tuning system was the best, because it made possible, in a single composition, transpositions into any or all of the 24 major and minor keys. In this way, Sebastian Bach influenced Western music forever.

Bird too influenced music forever. His influence is everywhere today, though most of us are unaware of it. It’s impossible to play jazz on any instrument without being influenced by Bird. I daresay it’s impossible to write symphonic music today — tonal, atonal, or whatyoulike — without being influenced by Bird: his rhythmic disruptions and harmonic complexities — in the end, his melodies.

Did I say a bad word? Melody?

Charlie Parker was the greatest American musician — in the sense of influence — because he made it impossible for any musician to play, or write, or arrange for big band or small group or anything else, without considering Bird. 

Any country with a decent respect for its artists teaches their art in its schools.

England, Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan, Mexico …

But we don’t. Not that I recall, anyway.

Edgar Poe? Fine. Love him.

Longfellow? Bleh.

Mark Twain? Sure. So long as you don’t mention Nigger Jim, and stay away from “Life on the Mississippi,” and the union struggle.

OK. Sorry for making you wait to get to the point.

The United States of America, as a whole, has never honored Charlie Parker the way he deserves, and probably never will — that’s right: Put his face on a dollar bill.

We all know why. He was Black. He was a junkie. He spoke his mind. He married a White girl. He was an innovator and he upset people.

All of that, plus his status as one of the most influential musicians in the world in the 20th century should be part of the curriculum of all U.S. public schools.

Never will be, of course. You know why as well as I do.

But if there ever was a time for us to take a serious look at Charlie Parker, well, Now’s the Time.

Thelonious Monk said: “Jazz is freedom. Think about that. You think about that.”

Charlie Parker was born on Aug. 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Missouri.

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