What Kinda Bird Is This? While it may sound like a wise-guy challenger to Peterson’s field guide, this is in fact a lively new release by drummer Eric Ineke and saxophonist Tineke Postma, one of many homages to the jazz titan Charlie Parker—better known as Bird—on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Prompted, we ponder some answers. A seagull of insatiable lusts and shrill, inconsolable keening? A phoenix rising from the ashes of early abashment (Jo Jones hurling a cymbal, dashing his errant solo) to soar as master of the alto saxophone, magus of bebop, and one of the great musicians of the 20th century? A nightingale half in love with squalid death, equally lavish with syrinx and syringe? A Buddha bird, as Kerouac would have it, tootling—even now—that all is well? A skylark—no, stop right there: for all Parker’s blithe, purling impromptus, his art was premeditated, and with a single-mindedness verging on the murderous.
“Yardbird” was his full nickname, earned on the principle that we are what we eat. (Bandleader Jay McShann, recalling a trip to Nebraska in 1941: “He said, ‘Slow down, man, I think you hit this yardbird.’ … Bird put the yardbird in the backseat with him, and took it on into Lincoln. [The landlady] fixed it up and made him a nice dinner.”) This merging of the lofty and the hardscrabble may help explain why an artist who played instrumental music that was defiantly avant-garde in harmony, rhythm, and what Jacques Barzun would call “melos”—the very contour of its tunes—was also a pop star.
Though his stardom has faded, his star has not. One factor in his afterlife has been the tireless advocacy of Phil Schaap, whose Bird Flight program has aired on WKCR, Columbia University’s all-volunteer radio station, every weekday morning for almost 40 years. For perhaps half that span, I’ve been propelled into my working day by Parker’s music, lapidary in the sterling, sometimes leaden setting of Schaap’s obsessive disquisitions—themselves a kind of lulling, madding, reassuring music, deepening in register and authority with each passing decade. (For a lovingly barbed burlesque, see my friend Rafi Zabor’s great jazz novel, The Bear Comes Home.) As Schaap passes under his loupe each alternate take, each bar of each shimmering solo, one has the impression less of a string of baubles than of a single gemstone, cosmic in size, infinite in its prismatic lights.
This banner year, that vision will be enhanced as WKCR caps its annual three-day Lester Young–Charlie Parker birthday broadcast with a five-day Parkerpalooza (August 29 to September 3), streaming worldwide most of the master’s extant music and concluding with Beyond Bird, a celebration of his yet ringing echoes in music and the arts. Nor will the global festivities be purely virtual: to take one random example, Ineke, Postma, and bandmates will launch their disc at Amsterdam’s Bimhuis (September 5) and sundry other venues. At the mostly classical Ravello Festival (August 29), Parker will give the Orchestra Filarmonica Salernitana Giuseppe Verdi a syncopated workout. And if many well-laid plans for the centenary of Bird’s birth have been shelved on account of pestilence, take heart: in just 34 years we can mark the centenary of his death. For that, for better and for worse—ruinously for the flesh, auspiciously for the myth—is the kind of bird he was. —Evan Eisenberg