Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Yardbird Suite 1: Charlie "Yardbird" Parker (1920-1955) and the Convergence of Kansas City and New York City Nightclubs in the Birth of Bebop

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Yardbird Suite 1: Charlie "Yardbird" Parker (1920-1955) and the Convergence of Kansas City and New York City Nightclubs in the Birth of Bebop

Article excerpt

Abstract

Bebop, the music of the forties and fifties pioneered by Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and others has virtually escaped the cultural historians' notice. The music born within the context of two major upheavals in American life, the depression and World War Two, was nurtured within an Afro-American centered world. Bird grew up musically, in the wide open jazz scene in depression era Kansas City. When that environment began to close down Bird moved to New York City, vibrant with changes associated with WWII. The two cities, Kansas City and New York City, provided the laboratory in which Charlie Parker and bebop emerged as a serious musical gift of young Afro-American innovators.

Bebop, the music of the forties and fifties pioneered by Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Kenny Clarke, and others has virtually escaped the cultural historians' notice. In recent years it has captured, however, the imagination of several actors and directors in the movie industry; among them Clint Eastwood, Bernard Tavinier, Spike Lee, and most recently Robert Altman.[1] As was to be expected controversy has surrounded all of the productions, just as it did the music in its introduction.

At the time of Eastwood's release, Bird, some discussion centered on Spike Lee's assertions about the inability of white filmakers to interpret the jazz life. Ignoring the comment about white filmakers this writer, however, essentially is in agreement with Lee's assessment of Eastwood's Bird. The image of Parker that emerged from Eastwood's vision was too one dimensional and never conveyed Bird's struggle to master his instrument nor his stature as perhaps the leading innovator in the music. Moreover, Eastwood seemed determined to make Parker's life a love story and to give too much prominence to the role of white trumpeter Red Rodney.

For Lee in "Mo Better Blues," a more pressing problem was to delineate the full range of life pursuits that a jazz musician could and in most cases did embrace: practicing on the instrument, playing the venues, worrying about money, fighting with incompetent agents and shyster promoters, and pursuing all the above without benefit of drugs. Perhaps, Lee's most salient point has to do with the theme of family. Even hip black jazzmen desire to create the successful, functional family, seems to be implied by Lee, and many like his father Bill and drummer Roy Haynes have done so without diminishing their talent or their livelihood.

The neglect of the cultural historians is simultaneously inexplicable given the music's vitality, notoriety, practitioners, and impact on contemporary music but also easily understood. Even at its zenith, from 1944 to 1955, the music was, as the moviemakers found, controversial. Five factors seem to account for the music's early less than savory reputation. One, that blacks were the originators of the music tended, given America's racial attitudes, to detract from its initial acceptance. Two, the audacity and iconoclasm of the young musicians seemed to suggest lack of respect for their musical elders as well as American racial sensibilities. Three, the lack of recordings charting bebop's development made it appear as though the music was sprung full-blown on an unsuspecting public. Four, the final phase of bebop had been shaped largely away from public scrutiny in small black jazz clubs in Harlem. This association with bars and other unsavory aspects of nightlife, in part, accounts for the initial negative response. And, five, added to the Afro-American centered world of the musicians, the social matrix out of which the music grew included the depression and World War Two. Both social upheavals provided some measure of protection while the music was in incubation. Depression era Kansas City was rife with political corruption. Bossism protected vice. Nightclubs providing employment for black musicians flourished. …

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