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Sax, drugs and hard Jazz: The inexorable link between Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker and Jack Kerouac


The legendary beat author, Jack Kerouac, described him as the perfect musician, “and the expression on his face was as calm, beautiful and profound as the image of the Buddha represented in the East.” Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker played with a tranquillity plastered on his face that seemed to say, ‘all is well’, and he chirped away as naturally as a bird in a bush. In many ways, that’s the reason his nickname stuck — in his performance, tunes rolled out like the joyous symphony of nature on a spring day. He filled dive bars with the winged half notes of a chorus of birds and changed the face of music as he went along on a serene stroll of sonic unspooling. However, away from his beat-loved rhythms, was a darker side that showed he had as much of a voracious appetite for disjointed melodies as he did for booze and drugs.

The stories of his musical roots are woven into the depths of cinematic mythology. Whiplash, the movie that sparked the most recent jazz resurgence, touched upon the cataclysmic chronicle in Bird’s hefty chapter of jazz. As the legend goes, a 16-year-old Parker was persevering his way through a difficult solo. Meanwhile, every stick-smiths favourite drummer, Jo Jones, was continually being thrown off course by the constant slew of erroneous notes that the naïve young Parker was doling out. Jones became so infuriated with Parker’s less than satisfactory performance that he simply hurled a cymbal, like Oddjob’s bowler hat, and nearly decapitated the poor young upstart.

Whether it is a story that the dramatic twists of folklore have embellished depends on who’s account you believe, but a version of it certainly happened, and Parker’s response is unanimously understood. “Oh, man, I’ll be back. Don’t you worry, I’ll be back,” those are the words etched into jazz history that marked the defiance of a boy who would become one of the forefathers of bebop jazz.

From that moment on, Parker played his horn up to 15 hours a day, a feat in of itself that goes to show that behind the most natural of results is the most meticulous hard work. However, when the beautiful embalming boon of that hard works result is unravelled, it reveals the dark side of endless dedication and the dangers of the unfettered desire of an all-or-nothing love.

In Stanley Crouch’s biography on Bird, Kansas City Lightning, the early seeding of a dark side is laid bare by Parker’s first wife, whom he married when he was only a teenager. She recalls in harrowing detail, continually finding her husband with a tie pulled taut around his arm as he shot up heroin in their marital home. Incredibly by today’s standards, he was divorced by the age of 18 and five hundred miles from his Kansas City home in the emerging jazz capital of Chicago, a wayfarer searching for an elusive dream with a trusty horn under his arm and not a lot more. That same year he ditched the Chicago scene to try his luck in the East Coast jazz capital of Harlem, home to Thelonious Monk and more.

The downtrodden straggler was the perfect picture of a ‘beat’ in more ways than one. Teetering on the brink of destitution, his outlook, like many of the beats around him, was that if he was going to fail, he would fail on his own terms, unlike his forebearers. This singular philosophy formed the central core of the counterculture movement of which he was a key part. The beat movement that Kerouac would be crowned king of was stirred up from Parker’s horn. Behind both men was this shared singularity and a view to conform to sovereignty of one. Their failings and successes were personified by uncompromising creative intent and a desire to be an artist, unlike the ‘entertainers’ of old. The stories of how both men eventually found success spring forth from this tempestuous but fertile creative field in which their desires were sown.

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Parker arrived in Harlem, having done so much walking that his feet were swollen, and his battered legs were covered in sores. When he arrived at established saxophone player Buster Smith’s door, he pleaded for work, and Smith took such pity on the decrepit youngster that he put him to work straight away. It is no overstatement to say that this act of kindness changed the world forever.

Parker began to play in the Harlem clubs alongside fellow eponymous bebop players Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie, where his behemoth talent crashed through New York with seismic results. One night Jack Kerouac would be in the audience and witness Charlie Parker “burst his lungs to reach the speed of what the speedsters wanted, and what they wanted was his eternal slowdown. […] Musically as important as Beethoven, yet not regarded as such at all.”

Kerouac’s passion for Parker, jazz in general, and a lust for the rhythms of life are eternalised in his seminal novel On The Road, where on the inside sleeve is a quote from Bob Dylan saying, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” David Bowie too was so stirred up by his life-giving words that he packed up from the sleepy suburbs and embarked on London life, dizzying himself in the beat otherworldliness of Bond Street that left an indelible kaleidoscopic hue on his work.

Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker may not have been the very first to pioneer into bebop, just as Jack Kerouac may not have been the first to dip his pen in ink and paint the poetry of the street, but they both propagated it with such uncompromised profuse intent that the world of culture would never be the same again.

Today marks 66 years since Charlie Parker’s passing, but it also marks the Birthday of his biggest fan and fellow beat, Jack Kerouac, as though some mystic figure of fate has inexorably interwoven their lives. Both men departed before their time, Bird aged only 34 in 1955 “after watching a juggler on TV”, and Kerouac aged 47 in 1969, both victims and beneficiaries of the hard lives they lived. And both, most certainly, beats who braved the depths of destitution to drag up some sanguine meaning of life in song and in print.