Jazz in the Movies: Bird (1988)

“Charlie Parker is the Beethoven of jazz.”

I read that line long before I ever knew the music of Charles Christopher “Yardbird” Parker — Bird. It came from a U.K.-published pocketbook, The Bluffer’s Guide to Music. The Bluffer’s books were intended to give you just enough knowledge to hold your own in conversation — fake it till you make it. But these little books were written, with a light touch, by actual experts who distilled substantial knowledge between the jokes.

I’ve long since lost the book, but the line has stayed with me. There’s a lot of truth in it. Just as Beethoven was the bridge between the Classical and Romantic eras in music, and just as his perseverance in the face of suffering made him a heroic figure, Bird bridged the swing and modern eras in jazz. He, too, suffered, but not from deafness — from a lifelong heroin habit that left him dead at the age of 34, looking like a man in his late ’60s. Each musician’s influence continues to this day.

Parker, nicknamed “Yardbird” — Bird, for short — by Jay McShann, was born in Kansas City and was smitten with jazz almost from the beginning. In Robert Altman’s Kansas City, we see a very young Parker sneaking into the clubs to hear everything he could. By the time he met up with Dizzy Gillespie and other young jazz iconoclasts in the mid-’40s, he was well on the way to inventing bebop.

We have next to nothing on film of the real Bird. The legend was established among those who heard him in person, and in his recordings, which have never been out of print. Which brings us to Clint Eastwood, whose deep love for the music led him to make this biopic of Parker in 1988. Starring Forest Whitaker as Bird and filmed in sombre tones — save for the bright lights of the 52nd Street clubs — it’s a stunning portrayal of a great artist pushing himself and his art, at great cost to his several wives and to his health.

Recommended Links

Bird was recognized — adulated — almost as soon as he arrived on the scene. Samuel E. Wright is brilliant as Dizzy Gillespie, who tried to save him from the fate toward which he was so obviously speeding. We see the creation of the extraordinary Charlie Parker With Strings sessions, groundbreaking recordings whose popularity has never flagged.

The music in Bird is extraordinary. Eastwood’s tech staff took the original recordings, isolated Parker’s solos, cleaned up the sound and then re-recorded them with contemporary musicians, including Ron Carter on bass.

Eastwood, always a competent and deeply feeling director, doesn’t smack you in the face with Parker’s story. Artistically a feel-good tale — because the joy in Bird’s playing could never be described — the tragedy of his loss at such a cruelly young age stays with you long after the film is over.

The Beethoven of jazz? Absolutely. And this is one of the most deeply felt musical biographies you’ll ever see. Don’t miss it.

How to watch it online:

David Basskin is the host of The Nightfly, Saturday at midnight on JAZZ.FM91. You can reach him at nightfly@jazz.fm.