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As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

November 1988

Bird on Film

Charlie Parker gets lost in a fan's new movie

by Francis Davis

The alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, the subject of Bird, a new film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, assured himself of immortality when he recorded "Ko Ko" for Savoy Records, on November 26, 1945. This was not the first time that bebop was performed in a recording studio, nor was "Ko Ko" the first bebop "original" extrapolated from the chord sequences of an existing tune--a practice that did not begin with bebop, contrary to popular belief. For that matter, Parker ("Bird" to fans and fellow musicians) was not the first improviser to recognize that despite the nondescript melody of Ray Noble's "Cherokee," which served as the basis for "Ko Ko," its fast-moving chords held the potential for a tour de force; the tenor saxophonist Charlie Barnet had beaten him to it by six years, and had had a big hit with "Cherokee."

Yet there was really only one historical precedent for "Ko Ko"--Louis Armstrong's 1928 "West End Blues." As Armstrong had done, Parker with one performance reshaped jazz into his own image of it by establishing an exacting new standard of virtuosity. Listeners encountering "Ko Ko" for the first time are likely to be most astonished by Parker's insouciance in defamiliarizing Noble's melody, and by his nimble execution at a tempo that starts off reckless and gives the impression of speeding up as it goes along. But the most remarkable aspect of the performance is its reconciliation of spontaneity and form--the impression of economy despite the splatter of notes; the surprising continuity of suspenseful introduction, staccato bursts, pulsating rests, and phrases so lengthy that they double back on themselves at the bar lines. Parker's contemporaries faced the challenge of not only matching his technique but also emulating his harmonic and rhythmic sophistication, and his successors still face the same challenge.

Parker's innovations--and those of the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and the pianist Bud Powell--are today so ingrained in jazz that it is difficult to remember that bebop was initially considered so esoteric and forbidding that only its originators could play it. "Ko Ko" would seem to prove the point. Stimulated by Parker, the drummer Max Roach made a breakthrough of his own on "Ko Ko," with an unyielding polyrhythmic accompaniment that amounted to a second melodic line. Gillespie, who had been forced into service as a pianist in relief of Sadik Hakim (listen to Hakim's disoriented introduction on "Thrivin' on a Riff," recorded earlier at the session, and you'll know why), also had to spell the trumpeter Miles Davis on "Ko Ko." Davis, then still in his teens and making his recording debut, declined even to try his luck on the piece.

Parker was twenty-five but already addicted to heroin; he would be dead in less than ten years. Two weeks after recording "Ko Ko" he traveled with Gillespie to Hollywood for a nightclub engagement that lasted almost two months, despite the generally hostile reaction of southern-California audiences to bebop (the new style had been nurtured in secret on the East Coast, its dissemination hindered by a musicians' union ban on new recordings and by wartime restrictions on materials needed to manufacture records). Parker did not return to New York with his bandmates; instead, he cashed in his airline ticket to buy drugs. The next six months were a panicky time, as crackdowns by the Los Angeles police sent the street price of heroin soaring and often made the drug unavailable at any price. In August of 1946 Parker was confined at Camarillo State Hospital after being arrested for setting fire to his hotel room following a disastrous recording session.

Parker spent six months at Camarillo and returned to New York in April of 1947. He then began a period in which he could do no wrong--at least in the recording studio, where he produced an unbroken succession of masterpieces for Dial and Savoy, including his most memorable ballad performance, a harmonic tangent on George Gershwin's "Embraceable You." Already married and divorced twice, he wooed two women almost simultaneously, marrying one in 1948 and two years later moving in with the other without bothering to divorce the first. In 1949 he triumphed at the International Jazz Festival, in Paris. In 1950 he made the first of several records on which he was accompanied by strings and woodwinds, the format that brought him his greatest popular success.

But he never kicked his drug habit for good, and he also drank to such excess that his weight ballooned to more than two hundred pounds. Despite his drawing power, nightclub owners gradually became reluctant to book him, for fear that he would show up in no shape to perform or not show up at all. At one point he was banned from Birdland, the Broadway nightclub that had been named in his honor in 1950. Although he somehow eluded arrest for possession, the cabaret card he needed in order to perform in New York City nightclubs was taken from him without due process, at the recommendation of the narcotics squad, in 1951. The incident that is said to have broken him was the death from pneumonia of his two-year-old daughter by his common-law wife, Chan Richardson, in March of 1954. Late that year he swallowed iodine in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. He died of lobar pneumonia on March 12, 1955 while watching television in the New York apartment of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a wealthy jazz patron. He was thirty-four, but physicians estimated his age at fifty to sixty.

FOREST Whitaker stars as Charlie Parker in Bird, which was written by Joel Oliansky. Miming to Parker's actual solos, with his eyes wide open and his shoulders slightly hunched and flapping, Whitaker captures the look we recognize from Parker's photographs and the one surviving television kinescope of him (a 1952 appearance on Earl Wilson's Stage Entrance, which is featured in the excellent jazz documentaries The Last of the Blue Devils and Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker). Unfortunately, Whitaker is unconvincing offstage, where most of Bird takes place. On the basis of his brief but riveting turn as the young, possibly psychotic pool shark who spooks the master hustler, played by Paul Newman, in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money, Whitaker was the right choice to play Parker--he's a master of the put-on, among other things. But Whitaker's performance is too tense and pent-up to bring Parker to life, and by the end of the movie the actor seems as much the victim of heavy-handed direction and writing as the character does. Even at the epic length of two hours and forty-three minutes, the narrative of Bird feels hurried and absentminded. The movie has more flashbacks within flashbacks than any since Jacques Tourneur's 1947 Out of the Past. You're never quite sure who's remembering what, what year it is, how famous Parker has become, or how long he has to live.

Why is it always raining in jazz films, and why are the vices that kill musicians always presented as side effects of a terminal case of the blues? It merely drizzled throughout Bertrand Tavernier's 'Round Midnight, and though that film felt false in other ways, the mist was congruent with the slow-motion music performed by the tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who was playing an ailing musician and who himself is said to have been ill during the filming. The music in Bird is bebop in its first ebullient and defiant manifestation, but the mood of the film is downcast, with rain gushing against the windows of melodramatically underlit interiors.

This Charlie Parker has a storm cloud over his head. His unconscious is haunted by symbols--or, to be more specific, by a cymbal, which flies across the screen and lands with a resounding thud every time he drifts off. The vision is based on an incident said to have occurred, to which Eastwood and Oliansky have given too much interpretive spin. As an untutored seventeen-year-old in Kansas City, Parker forgot the chord changes to "I Got Rhythm" while playing at a jam session with Jo Jones, who was then the lionized drummer in the Count Basie Orchestra. Jones threw one of his cymbals to the floor as a way of gonging the teenager offstage. Except for overwrought conjecture by Ross Russell in a purple passage toward the end of Bird Lives!, there is nothing in the voluminous literature about Parker to suggest that this public humiliation haunted him for the rest of his life. On the contrary, it is usually cited as the incident that strengthened his resolve to become a virtuoso. But in Bird's retelling, the echo of that cymbal deprives Parker of all pleasure. The film's Parker wants to rage but can only snivel, even when hurling his horn through a control-room window. You don't believe for an instant that this frightened sparrow could have summoned up the self-confidence to make a name for himself in the competitive world of jazz in the 1940s, much less set that world on its ear with "Ko Ko." Parker's torment is here, but not his hedonism or his genius or the hint of any connections between them.

MUCH of what Bird tells us about Parker is hooey, and at least one of "Bird's" inventions is an abomination--a character, a slightly older saxophonist who knew Parker as an upstart in Kansas City, who is jealous when Parker becomes the talk of New York. A final encounter with this saxophonist seals Parker's doom. Parker stumbles down 52nd street, dazed to find that the jazz clubs that were the settings for his early triumphs have given way to strip joints. (The excuse for his surprise is his having been holed up in the country with Chan Richardson for a few months, but anyone who knows anything about jazz during this period has to wonder if he's been on the moon--articles in the national press were bemoaning the departure of jazz from "The Street" as early as 1948, and this is supposed to be 1955.) Told by an acquaintance that he hasn't seen anything yet, he wanders into a theater where his old Kansas City rival is knocking 'em dead with greasy rhythm and blues a la King Curtis. This triggers Parker's final breakdown. Even assuming that it was necessary to invent a fictional nemesis for Parker, why name that character Buster, which the filmmakers should have known was the first name of one of Parker's real-life Kansas City mentors, the alto saxophonist Buster Smith? And why pretend that Parker, who is said to have found good in all kinds of music (and who, according to the composer David Amram, once compared his music to that of the rhythm-and-blues group The Clovers), would have been shocked into a fatal tailspin by the advent of rock-and-roll?

The music in Bird seems phony too, even though Parker recordings were used for most of the soundtrack. There were fans who followed Parker around the country, sneaking cumbersome wire recorders into nightclubs to preserve his work and shutting them off when his sidemen improvised. Eastwood and Lennie Niehaus, the film's music supervisor, go these amateur engineers one better by filtering out Parker's sidemen altogether in favor of new instrumental backing. In addition to being unfair to the sidemen, many of whom were capable of keeping up with Parker, this removes him from his creative context and gives no sense that bebop was a movement.

But Parker is out of context throughout Bird. The film would have us believe that he had little curiosity about the world beyond jazz, which in turn showed only opposition to him. In reality the musicians who worshipped Parker remember him as well read, with a consuming interest in twentieth-century classical composition. And black jazz musicians of Parker's era had a direct influence on those white artists from other disciplines--the nascent hipsters and beats--who were beginning to define themselves as outlaws from middle-class convention. Parker was a source of fascination to these poets, novelists, and abstract impressionists, who saw his artistic drive and suicidal self-indulgence as the yin and yang of a compulsive nature pushing against physical limitations and societal restraints. In Bird few white characters, except those from the jazz underground, seem to know or care who Parker is, and he isn't sure himself.

THE pity of all this is that Clint Eastwood is a jazz fan, and Bird is supposed to have been a labor of love. In 1982 Eastwood directed and starred in Honkytonk Man, the gentle, admirably straightforward story of a Depression-era Okie troubadour called Red Sovine, who succumbs to tuberculosis before realizing his dream of performing at the Grand Ole Opry. Among its other virtues, that film managed to suggest the satisfaction that music brings both to performers and to audiences. Perhaps believing that Parker was subjected to a harsher reality than the character Sovine because he was black and a drug addict, Eastwood has tried to find a more insistent rhythm for Bird, but the one he has come up with feels choppy, disconnected, and pointlessly arty, with dated experiments in time and point of view forcing him against his best natural instincts as a storytelling director.

A character based on Charlie Parker first appeared on screen in the guise of Eagle, a heroin-addicted saxophonist, played by Dick Gregory in the forgotten Sweet Love, Bitter(1967), which was taken from John A. Williams's novel Night Song. Although Gregory's performance was surprisingly evocative, Eagle was merely a peripheral figure in a civil-rights-era melodrama about a white liberal college professor on the run from his conscience. In the late 1970s Richard Pryor was supposed to star in a film about Parker that never got made--which is probably just as well, because Pryor brings so much of his own persona to the screen that Charlie Parker would have been buried. That leaves us with Bird, a jazz fan's movie in the worst possible sense--a movie with the blues, a Birdland, Mon Amour that wants to shout "Bird lives!" but winds up whispering "Jazz is dead." Bird communicates the melancholy that every jazz fan feels as a result of the music's banishment from mainstream culture. In projecting this melancholy on Charlie Parker--whose music still leaps out with its reckless abandon, and whose triumph should finally count for more than his tragedy--Eastwood has made another of those movies that make jazz fans despair that mainstream culture will ever do right by them or their musical heroes.

Copyright © 1988 by Francis Davis. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1988; "Bird on Film"; Volume 263, No. 5; pages 91-93.

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