These are not sacred texts. They are pieces of music. Yes, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker is probably the Colossus of modern jazz history, the legendary junkie genius who effectively (together with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, trumpeter Miles Davis, drummer Max Roach and a few others) created bebop, and thus laid the ground for much of the music that would follow. But this is immaterial, or at least not nearly as important as it might seem. Only the most cynical mind would assume that this marvelous 8-CD set is aimed solely at existing Parker devotees—those pipe-smoking obsessives for whom the sheer life-giving energy of jazz has long been swallowed up by the worship of arcana for its own sake—who wish to assemble, in one package, recordings they already own. This is not a music which ought to be archived, and studied, like a holy relic. It is music to be listened to for pleasure. With that in mind, it must be hoped that new listeners (new to Parker, or possibly even new to jazz) will be attracted by this collection, that someone somewhere will buy this and hear Charlie Parker’s music for the first time.
What, then, will the listener hear upon first encountering these recordings? Perhaps the clearest indication comes from Parker himself, quoted in the liner notes: “It’s just music. It’s playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.” This prettiness, always present but never forced or saccharine, is the most notable aspect of Parker’s music for the new listener. These recordings are from the 1940s; there is none of the screaming of the post-60s saxophonists present here. Those players were, in many ways, reacting to what Parker and his bandmates had created on these discs. Though it is melodically complex, and played at a very high level of technical achievement, this music is beautiful in a very traditional way. Parker’s compositions consisted primarily of blues structures, or variations on familiar chord changes, and thus there is little here which will throw off an unprepared ear. The melody is always stated explicitly at the outset of each piece, and since the tracks hover between three and no more than five minutes (the recording capacity of a 78), no solo ever goes too far ‘out’ to find its way quickly, and surely, back to those hummable melodies. Bud Powell’s rippling piano lines, and the high-speed, upper-register runs of trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, complement Parker’s saxophone perfectly. Max Roach keeps everything swinging at a rousing tempo most of the time, and even on the ballads, the ensemble sways irresistibly. This is music which is very easy to get “inside,” and which is profoundly enjoyable even on first hearing.
There is only one minor flaw in this beautifully packaged set, and it is this: Charlie Parker has been the subject of more obsessive collection and annotation than any artist in jazz. Every squeak of his horn ever laid to tape has been released somewhere. Many of these incomplete nuggets of songs, some as short as fifteen seconds, are presented here, between full takes of the same composition. This is jarring, and will likely strike many as pointless, even geeky. Savoy would have done better to place all these fragments on one disc at the end of the box, as Rhino did with Coltrane’s throwaways on The Heavyweight Champion, the Atlantic-recordings box they released a few years ago. But this is a minor quibble, as CDs are not only superior-sounding, but highly programmable. Any listener can quickly find ways to avoid the truncated performances.
Though this box is not a sacred text, it does contain some of the most technically brilliant, and purely pleasurable, jazz in the history of the music. Whatever Charlie Parker’s achievements may have been in the minds of those who establish pantheons, hierarchies and dogmas of jazz, when his music hits the ear, the only measurement that counts for anything is taken. It is the pure joy this music provides that will make it eternal.