Matthew Paris :: Xiccarph :: View topic - The Charley Parker Festival In Thomkins Park
The Charley Parker Festival In Thomkins Park
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Matthew Paris

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Post Fri Jan 30, 2004 6:36 pm - The Charley Parker Festival In Thomkins Park
On a sunny afternoon on August 24th I attended the Charley Park Festival in Thomkins park, an event held here and in Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem for the past eleven summers. In both public parks it has come to sum up the current season of warm weather if one has spent in a bit of one’s mortality in these two different neighborhoods in Manhattan.
In Marcus Garvey Park, improbably named after a very brilliant prophet, a charismatic West Indian who advocated Afro-Americans leaving the United States and going back to Africa, yet is honored here, a country Garvey found a moral odium, not in the West Indies or Africa.
Thomkins Park is named after a old time 19th century politico with a bronze statue of him with naked ante standing vigilantly as he stares at the revels of the young, broke and tattooed from the quasi-bosky shade of a granite gazebo. His gaze is august as if he were a minor and perhaps trivial Roman god. Nobody notices this scurvy idol; the populace of these outland corners of town have gathered by the tens of thousands to hear jazz from three o’clock in the afternoons into the late evening.
Usually the shows were hosted in the past by Phil Schapp for obvious reasons. We who live here are among millions of thankful New Yorkers who are all Phil Schapp’s pupils. He is the world’s greatest jazz adhered and a flamboyantly self-invented pundit with his own sonic pulpit, knew many of Parkers colleagues personally, was until the World Trade Center disaster or fiasco blew up his transmitter almost the sole champion of jazz, America’s national music, a genre aesthetically a cousin of our equally great pop music.
Now you only hear WKCR in Brooklyn or such places where Columbia station’s auxiliary transmitter still reaches a public in Canarsie. Yet it is on the Internet. Don’t ask me why but this show was emceed by Brian Delp from WBGO. He a nice fella but he ain’t Phil Schapp.
Of course Parker, who lived for a bit on Avenue B. When it was a cheap working class quiet neighborhood and there was no augury of a legendary East Village, resided in a small apartment building opposite Thomkins Park. Perhaps his spirit was taking in these ensembles as they entertained tens of thousands of people on the portable stage. He certainly would have recognized in the gourds I saw fragments of his ways of defining music.
The music I heard like Parker’s all had a “head”, that is, a written out lead exposition done by the ensemble, then improvisatory sounding variations by each of the soloists, finishing with an ensemble wrap-up tag.
Some of the melodic material would have seems familiar to Parker too. Many of the melodies were chromatic upward or downward lines backed by very asymmetrical counterpoint from the very intentioned lines in the shallow sounding percussion and aggressive but melodic bass. Today nobody imitated Slam Stewart. Its hard to do. They did mimic everybody else.
There were the de rigueur many major sevenths, minor ninths, and, mamma mia, diminished chords in the harmony. The drummers I heard all had listened carefully to Max Roach, perhaps Art Blakey. Roach’s use of tinny and acrid percussive sounds, at a radical remove from big echoing drum sonic of Swing masters Chick Webb and Gene Krupa, was honored by much imitation on this afternoon.
Of course 2003 is not 1942, not even 1955. As Borges says, writing Don Quixote now word for word and meaning it is a feat that isn’t negligible; yet with such mimics out there one wonders whether one has shown up by mistake at rejects from an Elvis clone recital. Bop was in its day concert music one couldn’t dance to; it played in a few clubs and in jam sessions for musicians at Minton’s and Small’s in Harlem, arcana in an age where some of these same people played Swing in Roseland and the Savory earlier in the evening for money.
Bop wasn’t for everybody, didn’t have a reputation it has now as America’s first non-European concert music fueled from its unique populist roosts. Bop and modern jazz was only played at these out of the way clubs for the cognoscente, often as background music for seductions, financial profit and selling watered down liquor. Bop was never a muse art; it was more like a Patagonian exploration. Most importantly, its pentecostal sonic messiah, Parker totally redefined what jazz could be. He wasn’t mimicking anyone.
Now studio musicians ape the geniuses who invented bop for big bucks; most of the bopsters were musical zealots hardly making a living. In jazz the secret of financial success is to live long enough to survive one’s creative career by many decades and be promoted like a Stutz as a museum piece or monument. It worked for Louis Armstrong and Doc Cheatem.
One a beautifully call afternoon I took in the Lagneia Placcio band and the Jeff ”Tain” Watts ensemble. They and their myrmidons were wonderfully technically adept musicians; it was a pleasure to listen to them for the sheer skill they had at executing their takes on other men’s music.
The Lonnie Placcio band was a beautify architecture group sonically with a soprano saxophonist who played a lean vibratoless sound at once touching and piercing. His playing was the most original element in this session.
Croyez moi, I’d like to list all the musicians by name but they weren’t on the program. Veh iz mir. The scene was densely crowded; I couldn’t get close enough to the bandstand to get their monikers. Hey, boys, they deserve a hello and goombye on the program.
They were all clearly a bunch of classically trained musician who could have only heard these sainted modern jazz great they were aping with such sedulous skill on records. They were eclectic in the best sense of the word if one is a fan of James Cagney imitations on Ed Sullivan show marathons.
They had anatomized the musical devices with aplomb of the perished great ones, delivered the dried goods in a kind of post-fusion sound that sometimes sounded more like Stanley Clarke’s ensemble on a tear than Charley Parker. I didn’t hear a note I hadn’t heard before; yet the wiry and muscular sonic mailing of the music was forceful and stunning.
Many of the supposedly improvisational style middle parts were done with drums and bass as the rhythm section; the piano laid out. The pianist was silent in these middle showcase moments except for his solos; it gave the other solos a grainy texture that was very attractive. The real music in such a gourd has to be the two melodic lines of the melodist and the bassist. They are usually tonally far apart; they send out messages to each other over a canyon. It was a fun redoux group. Had I been fashionable and not the bum I am I would have repaired to a retro diner afterwards for a celery tonic.
The Jeff “Tain” Watts ensemble was in its was as eclectic a cryptkeeping band which had many more Webb and Krupa-like roots in Swing; yet they mirrored Parker’s and Gillespie’s interest in Latin music. One could dance to this band; they weren’t really playing pure concert music as Parker did. They had lengthy melodies anchored in their “heads” though they played with Haydnesque germs of the same material in the middle.
The contrapuntal character of their versions of the old answer and chase devices in this band almost certainly meant that they were playing entirely written out charts like the big banks of the 40s, a very different approach than the chamber improvisational style of the bopsters Parker had played with after his stint with Jay McShan.
Watt’s band featured himself in long diagnostic drum solos in the manner of the Buddy Rich band. Very often the pianist in this band seemed to be playing classical music. Sometimes he wasn’t swinging; he was playing romantically with variable rhythm like Prokeffief.
It says it all that Watts worked with Wynton Marsalis. His band is an ingenious and conscientiously intelligent take on jazz which for Watts as for Marsalis is clearly American classical music. Both bands, one should say, are mixed with young Whites and Afro-American, as one tends to see now; in Parker’s time and a decade afterwards White and Black bopper and modern jazz people almost never played together on the same stage.
However the audiences for both groups were almost always White. Jazz has now merged its White and Black aspects and become an amalgamated American music. It’s no longer a heroin-tainted hipster and Black thing; it’s music that one can hear while picking up cans of frozen kim chee in a supermarket in a shopping mall in Columbine.
How we feel about jazz or Charley Parker in 2003 has changed with the country itself. Certainly there have been wonderful jazz performers since 1975 or so; thee has been, to put it politely, very little re-definition of jazz in the way Parker and bopsters in the Billy Eckstine band had began to alter in a radical way the very presumptions of what the jazz or Swing music was or should be around 1941.
We’ve lived with Parker’s innovations comfortably for about half a century. It’s a long way from revolution with an army mired in the mud to Mount Fillmore but Parker has made it along with George Washington. Nobody gets scared anymore when they hear altered bop chords, although one must note that there are plenty of such devices in Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington; in Parkers they become central fulcrums, as dissonance in some classical music was a shift from what was at the core moved at the margins and vice versa rather than a total change in Western notions of harmony.
By now music heard as etudes in dissonances by horrified bibulous customers in the past hearing hellish symphonies in their cups have become for us in the West and possibly the planet a large breadth of consonances as human experience itself has taken on a kind of rough equality in our winking, shrugging and shuffling Western psychic tangos, unhappy as most of us are with class, the narrowness of propriety, the badgered of the correct, the attractiveness of the sensual, freer ways of defining any language from music to how to perish efficiently on the cheap.
One might view this direction as both an suitable ethic for ex-icons and the inevitable musical path for a country and much of the world purging their maws of class, racism, colonialism and vertical structures as well as odious lateral designs of any kind; others might say that we have along with this religious passion for social justice lost something of the access to Pythagorean distinctions that are either real or biologically programmed in us enough to be an illusion we can all share in peace.
Take your choice. These two groups I heard at Thomkins Park were sometimes picking real berries in these imaginary aesthetic fields.
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