After pondering the whole “27 Club” and what drugs can obviously do to a life, the eternal debate for me is the mix of drugs and music, and how it affects one’s musical output. I more easily latch onto the names of Keith Moon, John Bonham, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix… but for some reason, I have always been fascinated by Charlie Parker… even at an early age, before I really and fully understood jazz. Specifically, would Charlie Parker’s genius be more or less, had he not been hooked on heroin and booze?
When I was in Chicago as a college student, I saw what heroin addiction could do first hand. I will never forget seeing Junior Wells at Biddy Mulligan’s and helping him on and off stage… Even at age 52 or so, he was supposedly still using… But the lingering question, while obviously not right for the vast majority of us… and of course dangerous, stupid, life threatening and life shortening, is this… Did heroin add to Charlie Parker’s genius and help him create art?
I would like to think that one’s creativity is better honed and certainly more clear au natural, but when we think of the art and music created while someone is on something, we realize that there is a lot of important work created out of bad behavior. Addiction to drugs or sex (Picasso), or both can open new, undiscovered and unreachable worlds, and fill a musical or literal canvas with paint and notes and unbelievable ideas. It can fill a blank page with words and images that will stand the test of time (Lewis Carroll). But… But…
Full disclosure… I do not use. My drug experimentation can be counted on less than one hand. It’s just nothing that ever held an interest for me. While I do like my wine and beer and mixed drinks, I do not drink to the point of being drunk. But I am also not a musical genius.
Charlie Parker – Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Collection
This is a great place to start, and I think might have been my first Parker album… It is a collection, of course, but it will give you a clear understanding of his genius and the impact he had not only on jazz, but on musicians across genres and the world.
He died at age 34 from pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer that was certainly affected by the drugs and alcohol, but his name will live forever as an innovator and musical groundbreaker, along with Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and my personal favorite, John Coltrane.
When one thinks of Bebop, one thinks of Charlie Parker. He practically, if not definitely, invented the style. Others would argue it was Dizzy Gillespie or Thelonious Monk… but still… for me… Parker and Bebop are synonymous.
His bad habits may have given him a prodigious and memorable output, but they also cut his life drastically short. Not the best trade-off to be sure…
My conclusion… while drugs fueled and even inspired many of his creations, I have to think the genius would have been there without them… probably even more clear and clarified… and we almost definitely would have had many more years of records and tunes… So I guess Nancy Reagan was right… Just say no to drugs… and yes to the arts!