Ken Burns’s JAZZ episode VIII

Ken Burns’s JAZZ episode VIII

Episode eight of Ken Burns’s series JAZZ focuses on Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker. It’s great as a telling of their careers and a snapshot of the be-bop era, but as an installment in the history of jazz its focus on two artists makes it fairly narrow.

Charlie Parker led a troubled life, his music career competing with his heroin addiction for his energy and commitment. Despite his setbacks, he became practically synonymous with be-bop. He returned to the scene after a period at a psychiatric hospital for rehabilitation to find that some young musicians would rather sound exactly like him, if they could achieve it, than creating their own original sound.

Fanaticism aside, imitating an accomplished artist is a time-honored way for musicians to hone their skills, the way painters do pastiches. The episode describes aspiring stars sneaking recorders into his performances, turning them on only when he began a solo and turning them off when he finished, so they could study his work. Yoko Miwa began studying jazz similarly, learning “On Green Dolphin Street” by ear a few measures at a time, rewinding the tape her mentor Minoru Ozone had given her until she had a section down perfectly.

Yoko Miwa at the piano

Charlie Parker may have been a bit surprised by the most ardent of his imitators, but he certainly appreciated any audience. The episode tells the story of the time that a friend of Parker’s mentioned he had heard that livestock liked music while they were on a drive in the country. Parker got out of the car, put together his saxophone, walked into a field and played a song for a cow!

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