Charlie Parker and the Meaning of Freedom

The following op-ed appeared in the August 29 print edition of The New York Times:

“They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But man, there’s no boundary line to art.”

Those are the words of Charlie Parker, the jazz saxophonist also known as Bird, who was born on Aug. 29, 1920. Parker was arguably the greatest genius of the bebop era and indeed, one of the finest American musicians of the 20th century.

You might be tempted to take his words literally when you hear the seemingly effortless grace and ease of his virtuosic improvisational style. His freewheeling solos made up on the spot are pure freedom, right?

Wrong. Jazz, like all serious art, is slavish in its adherence to boundaries and rules. And therein it achieves the nature of true freedom, in both art and life.

Study the sheet music to any jazz song — take, for example, Parker’s classic “Anthropology” — and two things are immediately clear. First, the player is bound to a written melody the first time through the chorus. In the case of Parker’s songs, the melody is complex and requires incredible virtuosity — which is to say, years and years of careful practice. Second, the chord structure is spelled out over the melody with zero ambiguity. When improvising after the melody, the jazz player must stay within these chords. This is devilishly hard, once again requiring years of work and study.

Fail on either of these dimensions, and you’re a hack who is laughed off the stage. Indeed, there is a famous story of Parker himself at age 16 at a jam session in Kansas City, Mo., with older, well-known musicians. When Parker lost track of the chords during a solo, Jo Jones (drummer for Count Basie) threw a cymbal at him and kicked him out.

Parker learned and improved. Listen carefully to his work 10 years later and you don’t hear a man missing chords or playing whatever he wants. Freedom in Parker’s music was the freedom to work within the melody and chords to make beautiful, life-affirming music. That meant the self-mastery to dominate his craft through years of careful practice, and the humble discipline to live within the rules of the music itself.

Many artists have known this truth. Leonardo da Vinci said, “You can have no dominion greater or less than that over yourself.” But the lesson goes far beyond art. Indeed, this is one of life’s great lessons for all of us.

In 1897, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim undertook one of the first modern empirical studies of mental health in his masterwork “Suicide.” Prefiguring the methods that modern social scientists take for granted, he surveyed European populations to see what social patterns predicted self-harm. His results were clear: Individuals are less likely to hurt themselves in communities with more clearly articulated moral boundaries.

This is consistent with more modern social science research. For example, the “paradox of choice” is a well-established phenomenon, in which consumers get less satisfaction beyond a certain number of product options because choosing itself requires energy and resources. Effectively, Durkheim found that there is a “paradox of moral choice” that is that much more virulent in its effects.

The lesson: To be truly free to enjoy the best things in life, set proper moral standards for yourself and live within them as undeviatingly as Charlie Parker did in his music. As Albert Einstein once put it, “Morality is of the highest importance — but for us, not God.”

This brings us to the greatest irony of Parker’s life. He knew the formula for true freedom as a musician, but did not follow that formula as a man. His life was degraded and cut short by alcoholism and chronic drug use. How did it affect his art? Here are his own words: “Any musician who says he is playing better either on tea, the needle, or when he is juiced is a plain, straight liar. When I get too much to drink, I can’t even finger well, let alone play decent ideas.”

By his early 30s, Parker suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and heart disease. In the depths of his dissolution, the greatest musician of his generation pawned his instruments and played on the street for loose change from passers-by. His slow-motion suicide ended at age 34. The coroner mistook his body for that of a 60-year-old.

Some may see Parker’s demise as an excess of freedom, but his own work teaches us that this interpretation is a misunderstanding of the term. Had he exercised the discipline in the rest of his life that he possessed as a musician, he would have been truly free — free to make music for decades more, and free to enjoy his life while doing it. Instead, his lack of self-mastery brought him to addiction, which is the ultimate subjugation.

For me, Aug. 29 is an important day. As a lover of music, I focus on Parker’s preternatural artistry won through the freedom that comes only from self-mastery. And in the tragedy of his life, the lessons of true freedom are sadly reinforced. Happy birthday, Bird, and rest in peace.

 

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