Entries from August 2020 ↓

Our 100 Year Inheritance from Charlie Parker

 

 

Jimmy Cannon used the phrase “an American heirloom” to describe Babe Ruth. I like to think the same could be said for Charlie Parker, even if most Americans, know relatively little about him when compared with the “Sultan of Swat.” Both seemed supernatural phenomena who seemingly came out of nowhere, capable of leaving witnesses spellbound in the very different ways their profound sense of swing reshaped the air around them. Both had massive, seemingly insatiable appetites, living fast, playing hard, dying too soon, making indelible history in their respective art forms.

 

 

 



With the Bird, I think the legacy is even subtler than what you find on his recordings, which still can astound new listeners on first contact.

 

 



The tone is what shocks you before the tempest of invention all but overpowers your resistance. It is a bright, hard tone, shiny and serrated like sheet metal edgy enough to scratch any surface, supple enough to shape into any form, whether terrifyingly new or dreamily familiar.

 


The things that remarkable-on-its-own voice could do within the cramped space of a two-to-three-minute recording are what made its owner a near-divinity even in his brief lifetime. At any speed, in any context, Charlie Parker could fold into the narrowest blank space stream upon stream of inferences, wisecracks, mimicry, thematic variations and nonverbal poetry. I can imagine all those ex-servicemen who left for war at the end of the swing era and returned to hear this coming out of their 78-RPM players and thinking, as Parker and his combo created a whole new front end for “Cherokee” (“Ko-Ko”)  or “Embraceable You”, “He can do that? He can actually do all that?”

 

 

 

 

 

 


Springing outward like weeds from such questions were others that asked, “Should he do all that?” Critics as different from each other as Ralph Ellison and Phillip Larkin were adamant that he shouldn’t have. Sharing their corner were moldy figs of varied ages who echoed Emperor Joseph II’s sentiments in Amadeus when he told an astonished and infuriated Mozart that there were “too many notes” in his otherwise “ingenious” compositions. Louis Armstrong dissed what he famously labeled “Chinese music” a.k.a. bebop and many still blame jazz’s precipitous decline in widespread popularity on boppers like Bird, his “worthy constituent” Dizzy Gillespie and others for making music that made social dancing difficult, if not impossible. (My parents and their friends thought differently, and I know this because I saw them dancing to a Parker record as if it were just another of what were once labeled “pop platters.”)

 

 

 

 


Nevertheless, for true believers in the primacy – and the imperative — of improvisation, Charlie Parker was and is a secular god. Every virtuosic barrage of notes he emptied into space has been chased down, contained and examined on both masters and outtakes by obsessives of all ages and temperaments. The irrepressible Phil Schaap has for almost 30 years used morning airtime on New York’s WCKR-FM to provide detailed exegeses of every note Bird blew, even the wrong ones, if, in the minds of Parker cultists, there were such things.

 

 

 



Guys like Schaap existed even when Parker was alive and blowing, the most fanatical of these being Dean Benedetti, a saxophonist who followed Bird around with a wire recorder and stuck a microphone in front of Parker whenever he soloed. Those solos, and only those solos, were recorded and transcribed by Benedetti, who died in 1957 at 34, the same age as Parker did two years earlier. (The Benedetti recordings were released in 1988 and, even with the hi-tech production wizardry of Mosaic Records at work, they’re a strain to hear, but worth the trouble if you’re a true believer at the altar labeled “Bird Lives!”)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


That Parker died so young and packed his brief life with as much density and turbulence as one of his solos (the coroner’s report put his age at 53, or so legend has it) is part of his everlasting mystery and magnetism. He did all that? you think when hearing his work. He actually did all that? Wave upon wave of surviving colleagues, younger acolytes, historians, musicologists and poets have struggled to explain how he did “all that.” Sooner or later, however perceptive or intuitive their engagement might be, all of them end up doing little more than projecting their own version of Bird to the point that there are many different Birds flying around the world. Early in my own such engagement, I always thought it was interesting to wander through Robert Reisner’s 1962 “oral biography” Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker and note how there seemed to be no two photos of him that looked exactly alike.

 

 

 


Stanley Crouch does plenty of his own projecting in 2013’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker mostly because there is so very little verifiable data on Parker’s early life that can be found despite Crouch’s valiant research. Still, this first of what is intended to be a two-volume biography rides towards its conclusion with as vivid and as persuasive an assessment of the Artist as a Young Man on the verge of altering the scenery forever in American culture:

“Wherever he was in whatever room playing whatever horn whether owned by him or not, Charlie Parker was in a condition of confrontation. That was inevitable. By now he knew, deeper than his marrow, what all serious artists realize: that no matter how great and perfect a major creator is at a moment of sublime delivery, there are always limitations. No one person is perfect enough to conjure what another person feels as he tries to express what is inside. Parker…was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough, and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was actually his and his alone.”

If Charlie Parker is an heirloom, his inheritance encompasses  not only musicians but all who yearn to Play What They Hear, whether with paints and brushes, pencils and word processors, ballet slippers and soft floors, turntables and microphones. William Blake aside, the idea was never to Go to Extremes – and Parker would be the first to tell anybody who tried to follow his example that there were places he went that weren’t necessary to perform his miracles. Life, not Art made all that mess. Learning to negotiate the distinctions is part of the process and at some point, you are left with the beautiful mystery of his speed, power and lyricism. It’s enough.




 

Not the Perry We Want, But Maybe the Perry We Need

 

 

 

You had to wait till HBO’s Perry Mason ran its course to realize how good it was in the same way you had to wait till the end of a vintage CBS  Perry Mason episode to find out who the real murderer was.

It was good and, at times, great. But it was touch and go throughout, world. If you’re binge-watching it now, you might not appreciate how many of us who took each episode in weekly installments were ready to bail on this old/new/new/old iteration of the Lawyer Who Never Loses. The art direction, which remained the true star of the series till the end, kept our heads in the game with its meticulous recreation of Los Angeles in the deepest pit of the Great Depression.  

 

But brothers and sisters, did this ship take its sweet old time to reach port! It seemed intent, at times, on creating its own fog and squalls along the way. One more histrionic revival meeting, one more instance of Perry (Matthew Rhys) physically and emotionally getting his butt kicked, and some of us were ready to abandon ship without bothering to find out what kind of asshole sews open the eyelids of a dead infant as a way of making his parents think he’s still alive.

Which doesn’t sound even remotely like the kind of murder case that would create billable hours for Raymond Burr’s Perry Mason back when he was sweeping the courtroom floors with William Talman’s Hamilton Burger on CBS’s prime-time schedule in the late fifties and early sixties. Granted, those old shows could get pretty weird themselves with their noir-ish SoCal landscapes, berserk red herrings, cobra-like plot shifts and absurdly alliterative episode titles like “The Case of the Woeful Widower,” “The Case of the Bountiful Beauty,” “The Case of the Devious Delinquent” – and that was just the seventh season!

 

 

 


Yet I happily and regularly devour those old CBS episodes as have many of my friends lately for the tasty, caloric comfort food for the soul they always were. Yes, they were formulaic. But as art critic Dave Hickey writes in his wondrous essay, “The Little Church of Perry Mason,” there remains after all these years something at once sublime, gnomish, fortifying and finely wrought about the series; Hickey especially appreciates how, after a murderer’s confession was successfully yoked on a witness stand, Perry, Paul Drake (William Hopper), Della Street (Barbara Hale), and sometimes Ham Burger and LAPD Lieutenant Tragg (Ray Collins) would always get together for coffee, dinner or a late-night office nosh to go over how Perry figured out yet another one.

 



I came later to read some of the original Perry Mason mysteries by his creator Erle Stanley Gardner. In all there were roughly 80 such novels published between 1933 and 1973 (two years after Gardner’s death) and I know only one person who managed to read all of them after combing through used bookstores, tag sales, church basements and garages. Apparently, he finds them just as addictive as the old TV show. They can seem just as formulaic but, to their immense credit, just as unaffected and straightforward in their overall presentation.

 

 

 

 


“I write to make money,” Gardner once said, “and I write to give the reader sheer fun.” He called himself a “Fiction Factory” and he dictated his stories to typists, at least two or three books at a time, or so I’m guessing. Every once in a while, they read as if they were dictated and Gardner’s friend Raymond Chandler once wrote a note warning him of occasional discrepancies and inadvertent repetitions finding their way into published texts.

 

 

 

 


Even so, the Mason books are fun to read, as crafty, rakish, unflappable and droll as their hero. Burr’s interpretation of Mason retains the character’s almost eerie composure and serene command of the legal code to the point of breezy, but never brash arrogance.

Speaking of Raymond Chandler, here’s part of a morale booster he wrote to his friend Gardner in early 1946 that pretty much sums up how the world felt about Mason even before he became a TV icon :

“I regard myself as a pretty exacting reader; detective stories as such don’t mean a thing to me. [NOTE: THEY REALLY DIDN’T] But it must be obvious that if I have half a dozen unread books beside my chair and one of them is a Perry Mason, and I reach for the Perry Mason and let the others wait, that book must have quality….
“You owed nothing to Hammett or Hemingway. Your books have no brutality or sadism, very little sex, and the blood doesn’t count. What counts, at least for me, is a supremely skillful combination of the mental quality of the detective story and the movement of the mystery-adventure story….Perry Mason is the perfect detective because he has the intellectual approach of the judicial mind and at the same time the restless quality of the adventurer who won’t stay put. I think he is just about perfect…” 


HBO’s Perry Mason, on the other hand, has plenty of brutality, blood, sadism and sex…all the lurid stuff, in other words, that Chandler appreciated the Gardner books for avoiding. You could say it’s a lot closer to Chandler’s vision than to his friend’s. Try imagining, to press the point further, what Day of the Locust, Nathaniel West’s house-of-horrors vision of Depression-era Los Angeles would read like if Chandler had written it instead.

Having this iteration of Mason start out as a bottom-feeding private eye is at least consistent with Gardner’s roots as a Black Mask contributor of hard-boiled crime stories in the twenties and thirties. But devotees believed it altogether inappropriate to bring up the baggage of Mason being a shell-shocked WWI vet adrift and hopeless in 1931 Los Angeles, all too ready to dive headfirst into a Hooverville, a speakeasy or between the legs of his sultry Latinx lover (Veronica Falcón). I suppose it’s possible to imagine this grimy, war-haunted vagrant evolving from the depths of the Depression into the coolly competent smoothie we remember from the dawn of the Space Age. In those latter days, we would never expect Mason to get into the kind of trouble this poor schlub endures.

Burr’s Mason, as noted, was like a sheet of ice on the sidewalk at night: too cold, too slippery and too devious to get stuck in mundane dangers like guns to the head or being roughed up and tortured by goons. What danger was for Mason, especially in the Gardner novels, was risking disbarment for – how did Della put it? – “stepping over the line” to prove his client’s innocence. The law for that Perry Mason wasn’t an occasion to be cynical; it was a near-holy order, a call to secular grace:

“I have never stuck up for any criminal. I have merely asked for the orderly administration of an impartial justice … Due legal process is my own safeguard against being convicted unjustly. To my mind, that’s government. That’s law and order.” – from 1943’s The Case of the Drowsy Mosquito.

 

 



Matthew Rhys’ Mason climbs up from the mire to where he’s supposed to be, eventually. There are hints throughout the series that he was always there, even if for much of the series he looks less like a budding smoothie and, in his still moments, like the ravaged, doom-haunted photos of James Agee taken by Walker Evans in the late thirties while they were struggling to finish Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

 



The kidnap-murder of the infant boy and its ties to an evangelical church run by an Aimee Semple McPherson-style superstar preacher (Tatiana Maslany) is so sordid and complicated that you look forward to the light-and-lively banter among Mason, legal secretary Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and her cuddly, curmudgeonly boss Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan (John Lithgow). But Mason can’t truly relax with them any more than he can figure out how to hold on to his family farm somewhere near the Mojave. Or figure out how he can get enough scratch for his keyhole-peeping to cover himself and his partner-mentor Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham).

But this apparent inaugural season isn’t about a dead baby, a glitzy temple or even a murder case whose thinness, wearing away even more during the trial, makes one wonder the same thing Murray Kempton wondered while covering New York City’s (Black) “Panther 21” trial in 1971 after the prosecution rested its case: “And is it all no more than this?” (from Kempton’s The Briar Patch, 1973). It is, in short, not about the central mystery at all. It’s about the growth of a human being.

“And is it all no more than this?” you may well ask. Quite a bit more, especially at this point in our own real-life history.

Let’s do what we always do in a Perry Mason story and look for clues. To me, the biggest clue comes towards the end of the first episode, when a movie mogul and Groucho Marx look-alike takes Mason into a back room and has him trussed up by a couple of goons, shaking him down for the compromising photos he took of a naked horndog comedian. “You need to think about your actions,” the mogul purrs to Mason who’s about to get a heated gun barrel applied to his chest. ”You need to decide what kind of person you want to be.”

The protests we’ve been seeing since May throughout the country over police brutality and systemic racism have been asking variations of the same question. And it’s been hurting us to ask that of ourselves, about as much as that hot rod is hurting Mason.

It’s worth remembering here that Erle Stanley Gardner shared the same view of justice vs. law-and-order that his lead character did. His early career as a litigator was taken up with defending underdogs, often Mexican and Chinese immigrants, who he believed were unjustly indicted and couldn’t afford the defense they deserved. In the early forties, he formed an organization, “The Court of Last Resort”, devoted to helping those imprisoned unfairly or couldn’t get a fair trial. Both a prize-winning book and a short-lived TV series carried the name and the mission of Gardner’s precursor to today’s Innocence Project.

Maybe watching Rhys’ Mason, as opposed to Burr’s, struggle, stumble, whine and grumble his way towards his ultimate destiny is an analogue for our own halting, stumbling and grudging efforts to restore balance and fairness to our legal system. And while Gardner, if he were alive today, would likely shudder over just how much of a mess the American criminal justice system has become, he would likely put his man, high-handed tactics and all, in the forefront of setting it all right again.

From the apparent success of the HBO series, we’re going to see more of this new/old Mason, and it’ll be interesting to see how or if his self-improvement continues as his cases get as weird or weirder than the ones his predecessors dealt with on- and off-screen. I’m also wondering just how the producers are going to finesse a Black Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) trying to pry buried secrets from white people in an L.A. mired in Depression, impending war and racial segregation.

 



No, it’s not your father’s or grandfather’s Perry Mason. But this stressed-out, caffeinated and volatile Perry Mason belongs to us more than we’re willing to acknowledge. He knows we’re all guilty. But that doesn’t mean he’s giving up on us. So don’t give up on him.