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Charlie Parker would have been a chin-stroking one hundred years of age this month. Kloop. Mop. Rebop. Apocalypse. Happy birthday, with a whirlwinding flurry of breathless demisemiquavers on top. He was Bird. His nickname. And we were bird too. All three of us; Finchy, Robin and myself. I was nicknamed Kestrel at the time because I read the book A Kestrel For A Knave backwards through a trumpet once in fifth year for a bet. They were eejits who gave me the moniker. Believe me. Long forgotten now so don’t tell anyone please.
When Charlie Parker swooped down on Ballyfermot in the late 1980s, it put us into such a bodacious flap that Robin and Finchy wanted to jump out my box-bedroom window, flap their arms and fly with the bebop good news to The Moon Nightclub which took place in Cool Steve’s gaff on any Saturday his parents were out of town and had left the house in his capable jazzy hands for the evening.
We were spinning and re-spinning a Charlie Parker record I’d bought in Dolphin Discs on Henry Street for the one hundredth time. Addicted. Dizzy. But Dizzy Gillespie is a different story. I discovered Charlie Parker in the late 1980s alto-sax high in the clouds on an airplane to Nairobi. I was going to Kenya for the summer to do voluntary work with a group of students and teachers after raising money for it all winter, organised by a De La Salle Brother from Portlaoise called Kevin. I wonder where he is now? He looked like Ornette Coleman.
The airline supplied free headphones and a radio station to listen to while you were flying, would you believe. You’d be lucky to get a green-wellied boot up your rear-end on a plane these days let alone earphones. I tuned in during the jazz hour by happy accident. Charlie Parker’s ‘Ko-Ko’ was playing. I was flying in all senses of that word. Sucked down his rabbit hole. This stuff was from the 1940s and was still revolutionary, modernist and cool, cool, cool man. Finger-click.
Unlike today, music in the 1980s and 1990s was still progressing and experimental. From Punk to Post-Punk to Indie to House to Rap to Hip Hop to Techno to Jungle and all the rest too numerous to circle and highlight in screaming-out-loud yellow magic marker. What it took classical music and art centuries to achieve jazz did in a slick forty years, perhaps less. Finger-click. It progressed so fast to Schonbergian dissonance and beyond to outer space that it’s hard to believe it actually happened, and Charlie Parker was the author of one of its biggest, swaggering giant leaps forward; bebop. As musicologist Ted Gioia said:
“From folk music to art music.”
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on 29th August 1920 into a hard working-class life in a segregated nation. Ko-Ko. Confirmation. Donna Lee. Ornithology. Billy’s Bounce. Just a few of the wormholes to other, better, sunnier dimensions he’s left us with on earth, if you so choose to stand up, turn around and leave your cave. In such circumstances for jazz and its tradition to be preserved and passed on to future generations like most traditional music of the world would have been a spectacular feat in itself but to actually move it forward constantly with an ideology of change as its beating heart with such intellectual pyrotechnics was in the realm of science-fiction. Buck Rogers and Twiggy. The black working-classes were despised at the time and so was their art music, jazz. Dubbed “Degenerate.”
Apparently, bebop was initially created as a barrier of entry to whites, who had taken over the more popular swing big band scene at the time. Hence its fast tempos and structural complexities—no one would be able to play it but themselves. No one could wear a beret and look cool either. No one. Except bebop. The 1980s and ’90s, as musicologists Mark Fisher and Simon Reynolds said, was a time of progressive movement forward that would soon come to an end with the X-Factorisation of an entire society into sentimental slopheads and technique idolaters, which went hand-in-hand with the deterioration in people’s working terms and conditions, housing and health provision. Thus, leaving modern music the preserve of the privileged.
But back then with my two birds, Finchy and Robin, attentively listening to Charlie Parker in my box-bedroom in Ballyer everything seemed possible. All we had to do was jump out the window, flap our wings and fly to the moon. And do you know what? Finchy jumped and flew for thirty seconds. We all saw him. And gasped. We can still see him. He’s a professor of economics now. Forever “Chasin’ the bird” man. Forever. Kloop Mop Rebop. Apocalypse.