Legendary trumpeter Miles Davis once told me (or rather he growled at me) that "the history of jazz can be told in four words...Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker." This exchange was in the summer of 1955 at The Newport Jazz Festival. My Huffington readers may recall that I was the publicist for that festival, founded in 1954 and celebrating its 60th anniversary this month. The New York Times recently said: "Even though Newport inspired thousands of other festivals, both jazz and otherwise, around the world...it remains a unique event in the cultural landscape. Newport is at once the grandfather of all large-scale outdoor music festivals and the unchallenged epicenter of the jazz world." In 1954 I had been called by a Boston nightclub impresario-piano player named George Wein to join him at the Newport, Rhode Island farm owned by Elaine and Louis Lorillard (of that tobacco family) to promote a small gathering of local jazz musicians. From that singular small event grew the massive jazz festival which introduced the world-at-large to the pleasures and scope of this original American music. The newspaper went on: "Jazz never needed a shot of respectability more than it did in the mid-1950s-when virtually the only time it was mentioned in the mainstream papers was when a major figure like Charlie Parker died of drug-related causes."
I was reminded of this last night when I attended the opening of BIRD LIVES! - A Solo Play With Music, written by Willard Manus and starring the incomparable Montae Russell, directed by Tommy Hicks. It was at a funky little 50-seat theater called Chromolume Theater at the Attic, 5429 W. Washington Blvd. , between the 10 Freeway and Hauser Blvd., LA 90016, (323) 510-2688, street parking.) I went east on Venice Blvd. to Hauser, made a right to Washington and a right to the theatre.) It was a trek....but a worthy one. I saw one of the most powerful, raw, awesome and tragically-moving performances in memory. Oh, my, it really shook me up.
Charlie Parker was a legendary jazz musician, a saxophone virtuoso who ushered in a new era of jazz by pioneering bebop and influencing generations of musicians. Bebop has been defined as fast-tempo, virtuoso technique, and improvisation. Yardbird took it even further, sometimes combining jazz with blues, Latin rhythms, and classical music in his work. He took Igor Stravinsky's Firebird and used many of its elemets in later works he composed. Thelonius Monk once said of bebop: "We wanted a music they couldn't play." As a young man just graduated from college, I only saw Parker once, at a club named for him in 1949, Birdland, where he performed with Dizzy Gillesepie, Miles David and drummer Max Roach. (A decade later I had a personal run-in with Max Roach when I used his lovely singer wife, Abbey Lincoln, as the co-lead with Sidney Poitier in my production of "For Love of Ivy," the first studio film to star two black leads. I then approached Abbey about playing Billie Holiday in my next picture, "Lady Sings The Blues," but she wryly showed me her battered face and said that Max didn't want her to do any more movies Thus Diana Ross got her Academy-nominated role.)
Think of Jimmy Hendricks on the guitar, then you will understand Charlie'Bird' Parker on the sax. Clint Eastwood did an excellent movie in 1988 about Bird with Forest Whitaker playing the lead, but this play is coming from a harsher, more realistic place. The actor Montae Russell, who must be in his early forties, speaks to the audience, holding his ax, as he tells the story of his growing up in Kansas City, where he was born in 1920, taking up the sax at age 11 and going to Chicago, then New York, mastering his instrument under the guidance of some fine older musicians. (He is noted for rehearsing up to 15 hour a day when young.) After an auto accident, he becomes hooked on morphine which led to a life-long heroin habit. He went to New York and washed dishes in a chicken joint for $9 a week because Art Tatum was playing piano there and he could jam with him.
He tells about his three wives, the last one the lovely Chan Berg, the unwed mother of a son and his daughter, Pree, who died of cystic fibrosis at the age of three while he was in Camarillo prison in California. He beseeches his doctors to help him kick his habit, while suffering from bleeding ulcers and a bad heart. He goes into his early days in Harlem, playing gigs at Communist gatherings during the riots there and making a name for himself; being opportuned by a corrupt detective to inform on his fellow musicians, the help that impresario Norman Granz offerd him, and the support from Symphony Sid and other radio disc jockeys. He pours out his dreams of working more with classical music and jazz, and indeed composed several notable works in this mode.
Montae is a veteran actor who seen on NBCs ER for 15 seasons as paramedic Dwight Zadro. He played Thurgood Marshall in another acclaimed one-man show, and has appeared in almost all of August Wilson's plays. This is an actor who has paid his dues, and this performance is truly memorable. Shattering.
Charlie Parker died at the age of 34 of complications from his many ailments in the apartment of the Baroness who had befriended him and other jazz musicians. In 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued a 32 cent Charlie Parker stamp as part of is commemorative series. BIIRD LIVES! will be playing a the Attic Theater weekends until September 21st. Yes, this is a powerful, raw and emotionally-charged stage work, but if you have a fascination with jazz or the desire to see a stunning performance, then by all means make the the trek down to Culver City for a memorable evening.
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