Staring back at Charlie Parker on Pontella Mason's 'Bebop'

The Charlie Parker mural under the Jones Falls Expressway
The Charlie Parker mural under the Jones Falls Expressway (Reginald Thomas II/For City Paper)

Charlie Parker, born 96 years ago on August 29, was from the landlocked state of Kansas and he spent some of his worst years in sunny California (including a six-month stay in a mental institution), but Pontella Mason's 2008 mural "Bebop: Charlie Parker and Bettie Carter," painted on one of the pylons under I-83 near the Farmers Market, places Parker near the beach. Parker isn't on the beach mind you, he's in the water, in a suit, just his head and shoulders and some of his saxophone popping out of the water, and he's oversized—like some Ray Harryhausen creature who has come to the surface for some air. His sad or maybe just doped-up eyes stare forward—this is how Parker played the saxophone, focused to the point of being zoned-out; hardly the wailing sax man portrayed in Clint Eastwood's insincere movie "Bird." And his face here is uncannily indifferent, a fitting look for a confident musical genius, self-absorbed prick, and somebody often full of H, which both fills you with apathy and makes you feel totally invincible.

Parker played past his audience when he performed, but his music was inviting, exploratory, and indefatigable. As Alfred Appel Jr. points out in his 2002 book "Jazz Modernism," Parker's 'Ko-Ko' is set to a 300 beats-per-minute tempo—for some contrast, Baltimore club, often considered dance music at a breakneck pace, humps along at 130-140 BPM. Listen to Parker on 'Winter Wonderland,' in which he smashes white Christian holiday schlock into pieces with the assistance of his saxophone and Modernist mind and then rearranges the pieces—the song you've heard a hundred times is there but not like you've ever heard it before; and once you've done that, move onto 'Just Friends' from "Charlie Parker With Strings"—it is about the best thing ever recorded, if you ask me.


Because of his outsider status as a black genius contrarian and because of his love of opiates, Parker made music that evidences excitement right as it hits a ceiling and jubilantly, pointlessly acts out because it's got nowhere else to go and nothing else it can do. He was always reaching his limit. Parker understood ecstasy the way an addict does—as something intensely felt but fleeting and ultimately, the start of the next clawing search for feeling good. Which brings us back to Mason's portrait of unexcited Parker on that pylon, staring out, expressionless, saying "help me" or "I don't give a shit" or "come at me, bro" depending on the mood you're in when you look at it.

Near Parker's stoneface, Mason scrawled "Bird Lives!," reflective of a dogged fan's impulse to deny Parker's end by catering to nostalgic nonsense about legacy and influence (I prefer the tragically optimistic "Bird Is Free," the name of a postmortem 1961 live release). No matter that Parker more often wore flannel or dress shirts and suspenders, and that his suits, when he wore them, were often rumpled and dirty, Mason's Parker rocks a purple and pink suit and the beach scene has a kind of wall-of-the-La-Tolteca-in-your-hometown-quality to it. It is naive, but that's just fine and even kind of welcome because there's still Parker's presence and all the pain it drags with it.

Or maybe Parker's supposed to be drowning in "Bebop: Charlie Parker and Bettie Carter." His saxophone is mostly underwater, so no sound you'd probably want to hear could come out of it, and Parker—a lifelong addict, notoriously selfish guy, and something of a savant, who Miles Davis describes in his noxious autobiography as once getting his dick sucked as he ate chicken in a cab—lived most of his life as if he were moments from being pulled under for good. Even a colorful suit and some white sand and palm trees and "Bird Lives!" can't counter that.

Last month, Bird got to briefly live again—or maybe his bones were just picked once more, you decide—when Verve released "Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes," a two-CD, 69 track compilation of mostly previously unheard Parker performances, false-starts (or as we'd call them anywhere other than jazz, "fuck ups"), and alternate takes. These compelling partial scraps recorded between 1949-1952 find Parker jumping all around with a latin jazz orchestra, gassing up a stodgy string ensemble, twisting big band into abecedarian bop, and musically conversating with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and others. These are recordings that for the most part didn't work so they have a specific sort of energy—mostly moments where Parker takes his horn too far out there. It is, if you really think about it, a compilation of the times Parker fell down. After he totally beefs it on the intro to 'Bloomdido,' he says, "Excuse me, I misunderstood it myself, okay, do it again."

Sharing the pylon with Parker and some of the beach kitsch background is the portrait of exuberant improvisational vocalist Bettie Carter. Mason paints Carter as all-mouth, intensely shut eyes, and catharsis. Carter wails while Parker stares. Together, they illustrate jazz, and through that, blackness' go-to response to the world which offers nothing but limitations: Grow stoic or scream out.