[Inspired by today’s anniversary of Charlie Parker’s death, this week I’ll be AmericanStudying some figures and issues related to the very American musical genre of jazz. Please share your own responses and thoughts for a swinging crowd-sourced weekend post!]
On what is lost when a genius dies far too young—and what endures, now more than ever.
For one of my non-favorites posts last year, I wrote about Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, and specifically about our tendency to romanticize the lives and arcs of talented artists who self-destruct and die too young. Jazz has its share of such artists and stories as well, and none looms larger than Charlie “Bird” (or “Yardbird”) Parker, the virtuouso be-bop saxophonist and composer (a forty-minute recording, to be clear, but worth every second of your time) who died on this date sixty years ago at the tragically young age of 34. Parker’s official causes of death were pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, but he was also suffering from chronic cirrhosis and heart problems as a result of his long-term (if apparently by that time overcome) addictions to heroin and alcohol, and it thus seems fair to me (although I’m not that kind of doctor) to lump him in with other talented musicians and artists whose self-destructive tendencies contributed to their far too early deaths.
In the non-favorites post, I was perhaps overly hard on Morrison and Cobain, especially in terms of my sense that their music has been over-rated. Because in truth, one of the most tragic things about such youthful deaths (at least on the communal level—of course the loss to their families, loved ones, and friends is the most tragic thing) is that we are denied the chance to see how these artists and their voices and talents evolve, grow, and deepen over time. If I try to imagine, for example, the career of my own personal favorite, Bruce Springsteen, if it had ended in the mid to late 1970s (when he was about the ages at which Morrison, Parker, and Cobain died), it would be far less rich and impressive, diverse and influential. Similarly, another artist whom I highlighted in a non-favorites post this year, Elvis Presley, died at the still-youthful age of 42, robbing us of the same chance when it came to his own later decades and works. When I think about where all these artists might have gone in their subsequent efforts, what new and important works they could have created, such losses become, collectively, one of the greatest tragedies in American culture and history.
Those losses and that tragedy are unmistakable, and nothing I write here can blunt their edge. But at the same time, one of the most important things about art and culture is that they endure beyond the life of any individual artist, or any generation or period—all of which, of course, whether early or late, tragic or inevitable, end. That’s always been true, as evidenced by the remarkable fact that around this time in the semester I’ll be teaching a five hundred year old Shakespeare play in my Intro to Lit Theory course. But in our increasingly digital 21st century moment, art’s endurance—and more exactly our ability to find and connect to art—has never been more apparent. As of the moment of this writing, a YouTube search for “Charlie Parker” produces “about 202,000 results,” most of which lead to interesting and exciting performances, compositions, and works. No one of course could possibly watch and listen to all those results—not without some sort of NEH grant and a lot of coffee, anyway—but the opportunity to check out even a few, and thus to connect to the life and work of one of jazz’s greatest talents, gone too soon but still with us in so many ways, is something to be prized.
Last jazzy connection tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Jazzy connections you’d share?
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