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Encountering Gunther

Encountering Gunther: Charlie Parker’s Lament

Saxophone icon Charlie Parker’s career aspirations, had his life not been cut tragically short

It is no secret nor surprise that Charlie Parker is one of my greatest musical heroes. I’m well acquainted with the classic recordings, have transcribed numerous solos, and try to emulate his stylings in my own playing. So then it should be no surprise to the reader that one of the most intriguing parts of Gunther’s autobiography is his final encounter with Charlie Parker.

This took place in 1955, months before Parker’s untimely death. The two had a chance meeting at the Baroness’s (Kathleen Annie Pannonica de Koenigswarter) apartment. The conversation started with Parker’s lament about the current state of jazz. He was frustrated by the stagnation perpetuated by the continual use of convention forms such as 32-bar tunes from the Great American Songbook and the 12-bar blues. Gunther recounted:

. . . Bird began expressing his extreme frustration with where jazz was going; he felt that it was stuck in a rut, in routine and stifling formulae. . . . with a lot of pain and anguish in his voice, he asked if I realized how many thousands of times – and ways – he’d played the blues. He’d had enough of that. He felt that there had to be something else out there. It wasn’t just the blues; it was, he said, the exhaustion of the thirty-two-bar song form, the increasing codification and delimiting conformism of harmonic changes, the boring, fettering, stereotypical standardization of jazz performance and form, i.e., the head, followed by a series of improvised choruses, and repeat of the head.

Schuller, p. 450

I must admit, this shook me to an extent. For all these years, a decade now, I have been enjoying and imitating Parker’s playing on these standard progressions. I admired Parker for what I took as his insistence on keeping the blues in his repertoire, something that has become, in my opinion, largely lost today. But I was clearly mistaken. This should not have been so surprising to me. It is no secret that record executives were very controlling in their interactions with Parker in terms of the flow of the sessions and distribution of royalties. But I always took Parker’s playing as being so sincere. He played so convincingly that I could not imagine that he would rather be playing another song, another note than the one he was playing right in that moment. But it was only an illusion.

While his frustration with regards to form in jazz was likely largely warranted, I was surprised that he did not become more involved with his peers who were already experimenting with form on a high level – Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, J.J. Johnson, Gil Evans, Jimmy Giuffre, Tadd Dameron, Mary Lou Williams, and surely many others. I wonder what held him back from putting himself right in the middle of this renaissance he was so craving. Perhaps his addictions prevented him from reaching out to those around him for the musical nurturing he desired.

Gunther goes on to share the next level of Parker’s lament:

He told me that lately he had been listening increasingly to modern classical music, mostly on recordings, music of Bartók and Stravinsky, and how exciting and refreshing that was, how he wanted to explore more of that kind of music. He said something like: I know there’s a whole lot of great music out there, I want to know more about that. Can you help me? I’d like to study with you. He said this in such a pleading tone, as if this would be his musical salvation. I of course said yes, I’d be more than happy to get together with him whenever he wanted. He should just let me know.

Alas, that was never to happen. I never saw Bird again. He died a few months later, on March 12, 1955.

Schuller, p. 450

I was somewhat surprised to hear about what Gunther interpreted as Parker having a fairly serious interest in studying with him. I do not know much about Parker’s experience with formal music education. (Perhaps this is something I can research and expound upon in a future blog post.) I am only aware of him studying saxophone extensively on his own, particularly his interest in the Klosé etudes, his collaborative experiments with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, and others of the era, and his on-the-job training playing in bands such as Billy Eckstine’s.

Charlie Parker in the legendary Billy Eckstine’s band

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift from Charles A. Harris and Beatrice Harris in memory of Charles “Teenie” Harris

After reading Gunther’s unexpected story, I did a little more research and discovered that he was not the sole recipient of a plea for lessons from Parker. Edgar Varèse recounting similar experience:

He stopped by my place a couple of times. . . . He’d come in and exclaim, “Take me as you would a baby and teach me music. I only write in one voice. I want to write orchestral scores.” . . . He was so dramatic it was funny, and I finally promised myself I would try to find some time to show him some of the things he wanted to know. I left for Europe and told him to call me up after Easter when I would be back. Charlie died before Easter.

Woideck, p. 205

Parker also confirms his interest in studying with Varèse in a 1954 interview with fellow altoist Paul Desmond:

CP: Well, seriously speaking, I mean, I’m going to try to go to Europe to study. I had the pleasure to meet one Edgard Varèse in New York City, he’s a classical composer from Europe. He’s a Frenchman, a very nice fellow, and he wants to teach me, in fact, he wants to write [radio static] for me some things for me for a – you know, more or less on a serious basis, you know?

PD: Mm hm.

CP: And if he takes me over, I mean, after he finishes with me, I might have a chance to go to Academie de Musicale in Paris itself and study, you know. And, well, the principal – the prime – my prime interest still is learning to play music, you know. (unintelligible)

PD: Would you study playing, or composition, or everything?

CP: I would study both. I never want to lose my horn.

Woideck, p. 204
Paul Desmond’s Interview of Charlie Parker

The idea of Parker digging into what Gunther and Varèse had to offer is thrilling to me. We can only imagine what glorious creations would have resulted from these unfulfilled encounters. In his book Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, Carl Woideck offers some interesting speculations about Parker’s potential trajectory had he lived longer. Of course, I would imagine that these accomplishments would have been contingent on Parker committing to sobriety. There is no question that his various addictions stifled his productivity musically and otherwise.

Perhaps the best way we can honor Parker is to not do as he did, but rather take music in new directions as he imagined for himself but did not live to fulfill to the extent he desired.


Learn more about my Encountering Gunther blog series.

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