At the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, Bird Still Lives

Parker’s footprint at Summer Fest extends far beyond the main stage on Sunday. With Kansas City-raised Bobby Watson’s Saturday afternoon and evening sets paving the way for the “Parker at 100” triumvirate, the San Jose Jazz has engaged the majority of the half-dozen top alto saxophone practitioners . (Watson and Bartz performed together on the 2020 album Bird at 100 (Smoke Sessions Records), and he could have easily been part of Sunday’s confab if he hadn’t co-fronted an all-star quartet with bassist Curtis Lundy along with pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Victor Jones.)

“Charles and Gary are my heroes,” said Watson, 68. “They’re both poets. Charles is bebop from head to toe, but he’s his own bebop. He’s a master cook and he’s created his own recipes. I try to see him and listen to him whenever I can. And Gary Bartz, he’s got his sound, that’s what we’re all looking for.

Harrison describes McPherson and Bartz as mentors. It’s no coincidence that he, Bartz and Watson all had formative experiences in the hard bop melting pot of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, an essential proving ground for young aspiring players for more than three decades. One of the rhythmic architects of bebop, the drummer was a dedicated evangelist when it came to spreading awareness of the art form. “Blakey was able to tell you things that Bird told him, which is priceless,” Harrison said. “I don’t need to read a book. I got it straight from the horse’s mouth.

No album better captures Blakey’s connection to Parker than the classic 1950 set recorded at the club named for the viola player, A night in the land of birds, featuring Blakey, bebop piano headliner Bud Powell, short-lived trumpeter Fats Navarro and bassist Curly Russell, whom Harrison describes as “a treasure trove of priceless ideas. Just relentless invention. I compare it to doing quantum mechanics, but on the saxophone. Bird plays fully formulated ideas. Every song and every idea is a masterpiece, perfectly constructed. This is one of the reasons why I decided to include in my music everything I heard during my lifetime.

For Harrison, who rose to the role of Big Chief leader in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians once held by his father, the key to understanding Parker lies not in his unparalleled virtuosity. It’s in the emotional depth of his playing and the breadth of his vision. He credits Bird’s observation that “if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn” for fundamentally shaping his artist mentality, “playing blues with the blues player, funk with the funk players, orchestral music with symphonies, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music with the greats of the tradition, and tribal music from New Orleans. I have been around great people, because Charlie Parker told me.

The Beats celebrated Parker and his fellow bebop explorers for their passion and philosophy of improvising in the moment, but praise was often framed as if black performers somehow embodied pure, instinctive expression, rather than intellectual discipline. It’s a racial trope that surfaces again and again when it comes to jazz, but Harrison isn’t the only jazz master who has imbibed the studious imperative of Bird’s legacy.

Arriving on the Detroit jazz scene in the wake of bebop, McPherson was shaped by his early exposure to the pervasive influence of Parker. Like Harrison, he adopted Bird’s insight that engagement in all kinds of creative pursuits nurtures an improviser’s consciousness. He only met the polymathic patriarch of modern jazz briefly as a teenager, but McPherson discovered his vast intellectual competence from his Detroit colleagues like the singer Sheila Jordan, still going strong at 93, and the late pianist Barry. Harris.

Charles McPherson. (Courtesy of San Jose Jazz)

“Sheila said Bird was very knowledgeable about modern classical music and modern painting, Chagall and Miro,” said McPherson, a longtime San Diego resident. “He was telling them that there is a connection between all the arts and that you are supposed to know these things too.”

When McPherson describes his musical upbringing, he clarifies that curiosity about the world was seen as integral to the creative life of a jazz musician. He vividly remembers a time when he showed his decidedly poor school report to Harris, who let him know that his artistic ambition could not be separated from intellectual discipline. “He said if you want to play this music really well, you can’t be average, and it hit home,” McPherson said.

“For the first time, someone I admired said that, and it changed my whole life. The little group I hung out with, to be connected, you also had to know Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, Spinoza. Bird could s sit down and talk about quantum mechanics. Our notion of hip was broad, and Bird is the guy who started doing it that way.

Discussions with heavyweights like Harrison, Watson, Bartz and McPherson are not dorm room bang sessions. San Diego-raised pianist Rob Schneiderman, who spent two decades as a New York accompanist for jazz giants like Chet Baker, JJ Johnson and James Moody, attributes his early career conversations with McPherson to Einstein’s space-time theory for setting him on a path that eventually led to a doctorate in mathematics from UC Berkeley. He is now a professor of mathematics at Lehman College at the City University of New York.

“Bartz says all music is the same,” Harrison said. “We all play the same notes and rhythms, but different versions of it. I realized that we often think of music in a two-dimensional way, going from point A to point B. But when I look at the quantum aspect, I could see that I could make music in four dimensions using the idea that the entity going from point A to point B can go through all the permutations.

More than a century after its birth, Bird is still relevant, and bebop is the music of the future.

Comments are closed.