By AARON JOHNSON September, 2020
*Dedicated to the freethinking, sincere and peripatetic young exponents of the madness of postwar America. To them Bird was a muse, magus, deity and triumphant anti-hero. Dedicated to the ones who found that Bird was the recipient of divine illumination and heard his sound, line and rhythm was Gnosis, a Dharmic transmission- a direct pathway to the eternal.*
The aesthetic of Bird is often placed axiomatically as the paragon of modernism in 1940’s and 50’s Jazz, however, seeing as the form did not exist prior to the 20th century, it is my feeling that Jazz’s linear development cannot be tidily realized in the western canonical sense. Charlie Parker’s music can at once be described as Mystical, Nihilistic, Romantic, Expressionist, Folkloric, Modern, Prophetic, Channeled, Studied, Avant Garde and even Postmodern depending on the perspective one takes in experiencing his body of work. His contributions represent some of the most complete and realized art in history. Once this occurred to me, that Bird is the material realization of the highest of human ideals and that his music is in constant conversation with the eternal, I began to reconcile that the only way I would be able to genuinely realize his influence within my music and improvisational voice would entail perceiving Bird from the most Esoteric of vantage points. My friend David Valdez considers Bird to be an “avatar”. A higher intelligence placed on the planet, materializing in a high-density human incarnation. Other examples of avatars would be Christ, The Prophet of Islam, Hermes Trismegistus, Gautama Buddha, Bach, Mozart, Coltrane, Wagner, Kandinsky and many many more.
On a Christmas visit to my Grandmother’s home in California as an 11 year old, my Uncle Andy gifted me a cd reissue of the seminal “Bird and Diz” record on the Clef/Verve label. The music shot past my transverse temporal gyri, Lateral sulcus, darting through the temporal lobe, dancing petipasian choreographies around the superior temporal gyrus, mad-dashing through aural doorways past the primary auditory cortex, zipping straight to the metaphysical beehive of the pineal gland. During Bird’s Bloomdido solo and especially on Melancholy Baby, my deepest ambitions were placed before me abstractly- the music inducing a hallucinagenic response resulting in near-psychedelic visuals. His jagged edged, deeply resonant tone which in one moment strikes the listener like the atom bomb of psychological purgation and immediately diffuses into a lilting bardic romanticism rendered pulp noir by a ubiquitously placed triplet or harmonic substitution. This experience was my initation into the mystery school of Charlie Parker.
Once one undergoes this initiatory experience they are presented with a fork in the road to adepthood; they can either choose to disseminate the tangible elements of Bird’s art: the notes and the phrases, the *matter* or they venture down the much windier road of spiritual attainment via the reflective dissemination of the invisible, immaterial and disembodied. I unconsciously chose the latter path and found that though a clinical dissemination of the material is absolutely prerequisite to orient one to the the broad spiritual reality presented to us by Bird, it is entirely useless work without the motive and goal of spiritual attainment and illumination in mind and heart. From there, I felt a drive to learn many of the anthemic solos note for note, slowing down recordings, painstakingly notating the transcriptions and listening to the master night and day for years.
This preparatory, immersion-centered work took years before I could truly feel Bird’s spiritual dimension within my heart and subtle body. The catalyst that amounted to my contact of the interdimensional being that is known as Charlie Parker was my time spent with the master jazz artist, philosopher and teacher Connie Crothers. Aside from the usual assigned harmony and rhythm work, her teaching practice centered around a technique devised and innovated by Lennie Tristano (her mentor and teaching associate) and expanded upon by Connie. The technique involves singing the great recorded improvised Jazz solos of the iconic improvisers of the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s note for note. Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Christian, Fats Navarro, Bud Powell and Charlie Parker were all artists that I studied under Connie’s guidance. The practice begins with many hours and days spent singing along to the solos at various speeds (even getting down to 40 and 50% of the recorded speed which is frighteningly hard to sing along with). The idea is to pick up the deep nuance and subtlety of the phrasing, the weight and shade of the notes, the rhythmic precision and the broader phrase shapes in order to decipher the true feeling, the energy and psyche of the subject. The next step once this is accomplished is to sing the solo without the recording. After that, one plays the solo without the recording on their instrument, naturally, using intuition and feeling as guides. Finally, the student plays the solo at full speed on their instrument, along with the recording. Musical rewards aside, this practice functions as an extremely potent invocation ritual. If the improvisation which pours from the subject (Bird, in this case) is the sum total of the master artist’s psyche and if a psyche is simply a microcosm of the illusory universe then the implication would be that the student is connecting completely with the broader, eternal consciousness. The practice in effect, is the reconciliation between macro and micro, material and spirit that constitutes the foundation of all Esoteric practices. After several hours of singing the solo, the student may feel a buzzing electricity in the air and the feeling of electrical currents within the body through the fingertips. Do not be alarmed, this is completely normal.
Towards the end of my time with Connie, I began applying this solo singing technique to one of the oldest recordings of Charlie Parker: “My Heart Tells Me (Should I Believe My Heart)”, a standout ballad performance from the autumn of 1943. It was a private Kansas City recording featuring a young Bird, guitarist Efferge Ware and Little Phil Phillips on drums (who was a childhood friend of Bird’s, exploring the spirit realms that one can access while getting high on large quantities of nutmeg). Unfortunately, scholars such as Sutherland and Burton date these trio recordings as September of 1942 or even ’41 which is impossible because “My Heart Tells Me” originated as a Harry Warren/Mack Gordon number in the 1943 film “Sweet Rosie O’Grady” (it is sung by Betty Grable). I had been singing the solo quite a bit when I had an interesting phone conversation with a dear friend of mine in New Orleans. He mentioned he had contacted Charlie Parker on the subtle, or astral planes during a deep meditation. Bird acted as his tour guide in a beautiful golden city! I hastily decided that I must contact the spiritual entity known as Charlie Parker, utilizing Lennie/Connie’s solo singing approach as an invocational medium.
I determined that I would need to spend all waking hours on the subject, singing at all varieties of slowed down speeds, specific sections over and over again. By the early hours of the next morning, I had managed to sing the solo for seven and a half hours. No Contact. The following day I started over in this grueling process to prove my sincerity to this interdimensional avatar and finally, at hour 10 (taking 15-20 minute breaks on the hour), I started singing and allowed my mind to drift into the ether of the universe- I was surrounded by what appeared to be stars and finally, the master appeared. He was dressed in Hollywood waisted navy pinstripe trousers with deep reverse pleats and a fishtail back. His shirt, a cream colored gabardine model with double flap pockets, rolled up sleeves and an open collar sporting a button loop. The trousers were secured to his body with suspenders that crowned his shoulders; Bird looked happy and healthy. All I could muster was to ask “Why?” to which he responded in his booming, baritone voice “This is what is right. You’re on the right path- keep traveling and play from your heart”. I opened my eyes to a still room filled with electric air.
Note: Today is August 29th, 2020. It is the centennial year of Charlie Parker’s material incarnation and it seems that with the passing of time, his legacy has splintered into many factions and aesthetic directions. This is a testament to the universality and completeness of his art. Many of the streams and schools of Bird, flowing and educating into the 21st century have decidedly focused on the material and superficial aspects of the truth, prophecy and completeness implicit in Charlie Parker’s body of work rather than the spiritual force that manifested the music. Happy Birthday, Bird and it is my hope that future generations of artists and fans consider the mysteries as they do the music. WM
Aaron Johnson is a Jazz musician and Writer residing in New York City. Considered one of the most compelling voices of his generation, the reclusive young enfant terrible of Jazz is a living and breathing example of the Beat ethos.view all articles from this author