It’s amazing to watch a clip of Charlie Parker and ponder the seismic shift he and the first wave boppers triggered in music. Parker, like our man Brancusi, produced a body of work with unmistakable aims: formal effrontery buoyed by a snap, a dynamism that put the lie to the 1:1 relationship of artistry and stuffiness.
No coincidence, of course, that jazz went wonky in the middle of the twentieth century; a century which amounted to a virtually unending string of cultural and political revolutions, a breathless and traumatic period so singular that it represents a rupture in the timeline of human history.
Maybe, at this remove, what’s so charming about bebop, and visual art from several decades ago, and French New Wave cinema, and Ulysses, is as much their inherent charms as the suspicion I can’t shake that we’ve seen the last of works with the power to surprise us by virtue of their disdain for formal restrictions. There are no sacred cows left to be slaughtered (hell, you can see the Met’s latest production in glorious HD at your local multiplex), and even if I’m wrong about that, we can’t be shaken because there is no contiguous we left to shake, just a bottomless ocean of micro-interests and personalized homepages. The way I figure it, the only cultural revolutions we can expect have everything to do with technology; new platforms of information delivery changing the way we consume cultural products. The only consensus we’ll reach, as consumers of art, will be in the gadgets in our pockets we use to access it.
So Bird, as tragic an individual as he was, also represents, I think, a lost epoch wherein the new could actually prove novel. A time when the sanctified still awaited demystifying. That, as much as the changes, the furious runs, the flurry of notes fluttering from the bell of his alto, is what I hear when I listen to Charlie Parker.