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Monday, August 3, 2009

Charlie Parker, Jack Kerouac, & Zen Buddhism

by George Camia

Lately I’ve been seeking out vinyl recordings of Charlie Parker (A.K.A. “Bird”), Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Bud Powell, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Clark, Max Roach, Jimmy Heath, Charles Mingus, Lester Young and Fats Navarro to name a few. I can’t get enough of this shit. Pandora has a fantastic BeBop Radio station that’s playing everything I’m looking for. I’ve been on a quest for this “Hot Jazz” that most of these guys play or, as my dad calls, it “Avant-garde Jazz”. I don’t see it as Avant-garde, but my Dad was around during those times and has always been follower of Jazz, so I’ll take his word for it. Whatever you want to call it, it’s fast and sometimes messy, but these guys always have their balls on the line. My dad’s a huge fan of Jazz, but he leans more towards the “Smooth” stuff, like Paul Desmond. Paul Desmond, is a great player, but my music has to have an Edge to it. Hot Jazz had audiences screaming “GO!” and jumping out of their seats like Harlem, not drinking wine and eating cheese by a fireplace, like my dad.

Charlie Parker was the figure-head of the generation of Bop Musicians. He was controversial because of his life style; drug addiction and taking money from his friends while not giving half a shit about anything except heroin, himself, and music in that order. Many fans worshiped his style and what he played, he was the big star and to the people he was the epitome of Bop Jazz:

Bird himself was almost a god. People followed him around everywhere. He had an entourage. All kinds of women were around Bird, and big-time dope dealers, and people giving him all kinds of gifts. Bird thought this was the way it was supposed to be. (Davis. Miles: The Autobiography. Pg 68)

But to the musicians of Bop, there were other players within the scene who did more to shape the music and help develop young talent. Thelonious Monk was one of these players. According to Miles Davis, one difference between Thelonious and Parker was that Thelonious would coach a young musician who had potential but lacked in experience while Parker would just show up and start playing his head off; you either had the chops to keep up with him, or you didn’t. Davis said that Thelonious was a great teacher who would talk about the technical ideas and the forms of the music they were playing.

Davis gives many examples of other Bop Jazz musicians that were giving inspired performances and adding depth to the scene, but Charlie Parker was the star. His music was exploding with raw talent and unmatched originality. Jack Kerouac and Miles Davis both credited him as being one of the greatest players there ever was, and Miles points this out in his autobiography when he talks about some guys making a career of imitating Bird’s style. As good as Parker could play, he was also a known maggot. His life was fueled by addiction and selfishness. Check out this passage about Charlie Parker from Miles’ autobiography:

I remember this one time we was coming down to The Street to play from uptown and Bird had this white bitch in the back of the taxi with us. He done already shot up a lot of heroin and now the motherfucker’s eating chicken—his favorite food—and drinking whiskey and telling the bitch to get down and suck his dick. Now, I wasn’t used to that kind of shit back then—I was hardly even drinking, I think I had just started smoking—and I definitely wasn’t into drugs yet because I was only nineteen years old and hadn’t seen no shit like that before. Anyway, Bird noticed that I was getting kind of uptight with the woman sucking all over his dick and everything, and him sucking on her pussy. So he asked me if something was wrong with me, and if his doing this was bothering me. When I told him that I felt uncomfortable with them doing what they was doing in front of me, with her licking and slapping her tongue like a dog over his dick and him making all that moaning noise in between taking bites of chicken, I told him, “Yeah, it’s bothering me.” So you know what that motherfucker said? He told me that if it was bothering me, then I should turn my head and not pay attention. I couldn’t believe that shit, that he actually said that to me. The cab was real small and we all three were in the backseat, so where was I supposed to turn my head? What I did was to stick my head outside the taxi window, but I could still hear them motherfuckers getting down and in between, Bird smacking his lips all over that fried chicken. Like I said, he was something, all right. (Davis, Pg 66)

Davis also documents how Parker stole from his friends and screwed his backing bands out of money. It’s a good thing for Parker that most people will remember him for his music and not his lifestyle.

Jack Kerouac was so moved by Charlie Parker the musician, that he wrote the following poem comparing him to Buddha:

Charlie Parker
By
Jack Kerouac



Charlie Parker looked like Buddha

Charlie Parker, who recently died
Laughing at a juggler on the TV
After weeks of strain and sickness,
Was called the Perfect Musician.

And his expression on his face
Was as calm, beautiful, and profound
As the image of the Buddha
Represented in the East, the lidded eyes

The expression that says "All Is Well"
This was what Charlie Parker
Said when he played, All is Well.
You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning
Like a hermit's joy, or
Like the perfect cry of some wild gang
At a jam session,
"Wail, Wop"

Charlie burst his lungs to reach the speed
Of what the speedsters wanted
And what they wanted
Was his eternal Slowdown.

Obtained on 07-23-09 from:
http://www.kilbot.net/writing/charlieparker.php


Kerouac thought that Charlie Parker looked like Buddha. He wasn’t the only one who did; even Miles Davis describes a pudgy-stoned Charlie Parker, “grinning like some full-ass Cheshire cat, looking like Buddha” (Davis, Pg 123). For most the comparison ends there. There is nothing else Buddha-like about Parker other than his fat fucked up face. At the beginning of his poem, Kerouac refers to Parker as the Perfect Musician, just as a monk would refer to Buddha’s spiritual self as the Perfect Being. Kerouac, who practiced Zen Buddhism, is not only comparing Parkers face to the Buddha, he’s also putting a spiritual significance on his musical ability. Kerouac is praising Parker’s creative ability as if there is force working through Charlie Parker’s music leading listeners, like Kerouac, to a musical awakening.

Kerouac was so impressed by the Bop musicians' ability to create spontaneous musical phrases that when he wrote about literary compositional theory; he compared it to playing Jazz. The following is an excerpt from “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”, in which Kerouac describes his theory of composition:

PROCEDURE Time being of the essence in the purity of speech, sketching language is undisturbed flow from the mind of personal secret idea-words, blowing (as per jazz musician) on subject of image. (From the Portable Beat Reader)

This is a perfect example of how Bird and Kerouac cross paths in their artistic visions. Kerouac and Bird were both obsessed with spontaneity and originality and they both achieved this in their works, Bird more prolifically than Kerouac. Kerouac even envisioned himself as a musician who would skat his poetry:

In my system, the form of blues choruses is limited by the small page of the breastpocked notebook in which they are written, the form of a set number of bars in a jazz blues chorus, and so sometimes the word-meaning can carry from one chorus into another, or not, just like the phrase-meaning can carry harmonically from one chorus to the other, or not, in jazz, so that, in these blues as in jazz, the form is determined by time, and by the musician’s spontaneous phrasing & harmonizing with the beat of the time as it waves & waves on by in measured choruses. It’s all gotta be non stop ad libbing within each chorus, or the gig is shot. (Kerouac. Book of Blues. Introduction)

Kerouac’s drive for spontaneity is self-professed. If anyone can attest to Parkers’s drive for spontaneity and originality, it’s Miles Davis:

Bird would play the melody he wanted. The other musicians had to remember what he played. He was real spontaneous, went on his instinct. He didn’t conform to Western ways of musical group interplay by organizing everything. Bird was a great improviser ad that’s where he thought great music came from and what great musicians were about. His concept was “fuck what’s written down.” Play what you know and play that well and everything will come together—just the opposite of the Western concept of notated music.”
(Davis. Pg 89)


Both Kerouac and Parker had a unquenchable thirst for spontaneity. Who knows what drove Bird to do what he did. He was no musical preacher like Thelonious Monk, he didn’t document his approach to music and never explained himself to anyone. For Kerouac, his approach to composition fit in well with his belief in Zen Buddhism as well as Bop Jazz. In his book on Zen Bhuddism, D.T Suzuki says:

Zen is always original and stimulating. Each time Zen is asserted things get vitalized; there is an act of creation… Zen abhors repetition or imitation of any kind, for it kills.

For Kerouac, there was something Zen-like in Charlie Parker’s approach to Jazz, as seen by his poem. Kerouac isn’t comparing Bird the person to Buddha, it’s more of a personal spiritual reference to how Charlie Parker’s music makes him feel; “All Is Well” “this was what Charlie Parker said when he played” – For Kerouac, Parker’s music an experience that went beyond entertainment.

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