At San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, Bird Still Lives

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A man in a beige top holds an alto saxophone
Donald Harrison Jr. leads an all-star tribute to Charlie Parker at this year's San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (Courtesy San Jose Jazz)

Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker hadn’t even been buried yet when graffiti started appearing around New York City proclaiming “Bird Lives.” Like the ichthys symbol carved into walls by early Christians, the cryptic message spoke to the almost messianic power of Parker’s music and the eternal spirit of the central creative force behind the modern jazz movement known as bebop. Initially the handiwork of Beat poet Ted Joans, the tag “Bird Lives” quickly became a watchword for the countless bebop disciples who continued to spread Parker’s gospel after his death in 1955 at the age of 34.

While aspects of Bird’s famously shambolic life off-stage may have led many young musicians down a treacherous path, Parker also embodied a Platonic ideal as a relentlessly curious artist who found something to feed his improvisational flights wherever he listened. Drawing sustenance from his blues-steeped upbringing in Kansas City, he forged a rhythmic and harmonic idiom that’s no less awe-inspiring today despite its wholesale absorption into jazz’s mainstream.

“We all pay homage to the Bird,” says New Orleans saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., speaking by video call from Berlin. Awarded the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy this year, Harrison returns to the Bay Area on Sunday, Aug. 14, for “Charlie Parker at 100,” a pandemic-delayed celebration of the centennial of Bird’s birth on Aug. 29, 1920.

Two photos side by side of men in suits holding saxophones
Javon Jackson and Gary Bartz (L–R) perform a tribute to Charlie Parker at this year's San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (Courtesy San Jose Jazz)

Assembled and led by tenor saxophonist Javon Jackson, the all-star aggregation is one of the headlining events at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, which runs Aug. 12–14 at outdoor stages and venues around downtown’s Plaza de Cesar Chavez. Encompassing blues and R&B, salsa and soul, various Latin American traditions, and of course an array of jazz styles, Summer Fest presents a deep roster of top acts, including Charlie Wilson, Durand Jones, Ledisi, Lee Fields, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.

For sheer improvisational wattage, “Charlie Parker at 100” lights up the jazz side of the roster, bringing together three of the music’s most prodigious altoists with Charles McPherson, 83, and Gary Bartz, 81, joining Harrison, a relatively young lion at 62. “Everybody is coming from Bird,” said Jackson, who noted his deep ties to his fellow saxophonists. “Charles grew up with my dad in Joplin, Missouri and he’s kind of like my uncle. We’ve got some arrangements that feature us in different configurations, and we’re going to celebrate the legacy of Bird, an incredible artist by every measure.”

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Parker’s footprint at Summer Fest extends far beyond the main stage on Sunday. With Kansas City-reared Bobby Watson’s Saturday afternoon and evening sets paving the way for the “Parker at 100” triumvirate, San Jose Jazz has booked a majority of the alto saxophone’s half-dozen greatest practitioners. (Watson and Bartz played together on the 2020 album Bird at 100 (Smoke Sessions Records), and he could have easily been part of Sunday’s confab if he wasn’t co-leading an all-star quartet with bassist Curtis Lundy featuring 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 it’s his own bebop. He’s a master chef 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, which is what we’re all after.”

Harrison describes McPherson and Bartz as mentors. It’s no coincidence that he and Bartz and Watson all had formative experiences in the hard bop crucible of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, an essential proving ground for rising young players for more than three decades. One of the rhythmic architects of bebop, the drummer was a dedicated evangelist when it came to spreading knowledge about the art form. “Blakey was able to tell you things that Bird told him, which was priceless,” Harrison said. “I don’t have 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 in the altoist’s honor, One Night In Birdland, featuring Blakey, bebop piano fountainhead Bud Powell, short-lived trumpet great Fats Navarro and bassist Curly Russell, which Harrison describes as “a treasure of priceless ideas. Just relentless invention. I liken it to doing quantum mechanics, but on the saxophone. Bird is playing fully formulated ideas. Every song and idea is a masterpiece, perfectly constructed. It’s one of the reasons I decided to include everything I heard in my lifetime in my music.”

For Harrison, who ascended to the Big Chief leadership role in the New Orleans Mardi Gras Indians once held by his father, the key to understanding Parker isn’t found in his unprecedented virtuosity. It’s in the emotional depth of his playing and breadth of his vision. He credits Bird’s observation that “if you don't live it, it won't come out your horn” with fundamentally shaping his mentality as an artist, “playing blues with the blues player, funk with the funk players, orchestral music with symphonies, Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian music with the greatest from the tradition, and tribal music from New Orleans. I’ve been around people at the forefront, because Charlie Parker told me.”

The Beats celebrated Parker and his fellow bebop explorers for their passion and improvisational in-the-moment ethos, but the praise was often couched as if Black artists somehow embodied pure and instinctual expression, rather than intellectual discipline. It’s a racial trope that surfaces again and again when it comes to jazz, but Harrison is hardly the only jazz master who imbibed the studious imperative of Bird’s legacy.

Coming up on the Detroit jazz scene in the wake of bebop, McPherson was shaped by his early exposure to Parker’s pervasive influence. Like Harrison, he embraced Bird’s insight that engagement with all manner of creative pursuits feeds an improviser’s consciousness. He only met the polymathic modern jazz patriarch briefly as a teenager, but McPherson learned about his expansive intellectual purview from fellow Detroiters like vocalist Sheila Jordan, still going strong at 93, and the late pianist Barry Harris.

A man in a suit holds an alto saxophone against yellow and orange lighting
Charles McPherson. (Courtesy San Jose Jazz)

“Sheila said Bird was very much aware of modern classical music and modern painting, Chagall and Miro,” said McPherson, a longtime San Diego resident. “He would tell them, there’s a connection between all the arts and you’re supposed to know these things too.”

When McPherson describes his musical upbringing, he makes it clear that curiosity about the world was considered part and parcel of a jazz musician’s creative life. He vividly recalls a time when he showed his decidedly mediocre report card to Harris, who let him know that his artistic ambition couldn’t be separated from intellectual discipline. “He said that if you really want to play this music well, you can’t be average, and that just hit home,” McPherson said.

“For the first time somebody I admired was saying that, and it changed my whole life. The little group I hung out with, in order to be hip, you also needed to know about Bertrand Russell, Nietzsche, Spinoza. Bird could sit down and talk about quantum mechanics. Our notion of hip was a broad thing, and Bird’s the guy who started to make it that way.”

Discussions with heavyweights like Harrison, Watson, Bartz and McPherson aren’t dorm-room bong sessions. San Diego-raised pianist Rob Schneiderman, who spent two decades as a top New York accompanist for jazz giants like Chet Baker, J.J. Johnson, and James Moody, credits his early-career conversations with McPherson about Einstein’s theory of spacetime with setting him on a path that eventually led to a PhD in mathematics from UC Berkeley. He’s now a professor of mathematics at City University of New York’s Lehman College.

“Bartz says all music is the same,” Harrison said. “We all play the same notes and rhythms, but different versions of it. I was realizing that we often think of music in a two-dimensional way, getting from Point A to Point B. But when I look at the quantum aspect, I could see that I could make music four-dimensionally using the idea that the entity making the move from Point A to B can go through every permutation.”

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

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Gary Bartz, Charles McPherson, Javon Jackson and Donald Harrison Jr. perform on Sunday, Aug. 14, at the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. Details here.