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tv   Tavis Smiley  PBS  November 16, 2013 12:00am-12:31am PST

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tavis: good evening. from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. charlie parker. his life was one of the most turbulent. the new book is called "kansas city lightning, the life and times of charlie parker your co- were glad you could join us. with stanleyn crouch, coming up.
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>> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. tavis: just great charlie harker's reef but brilliant live comes to full focus in this important tome by cultural critic and jazz historian stanley crouch titled "kansas city lightning, the life and times of charlie parker." stanley crouch joins us now from new york. first, a look at the great charlie parker in concert, from
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1951. >> they say music speaks louder than words. ♪ tavis: stanley, i'm glad to have you on. that missed our by asking why, given his huge impact, that so little has been written about charlie parker? >> a lot of what has been written is basically what they call urban legends these days. which means exaggerations and fraud. tavis: why exaggeration and
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fraud about charlie parker? see, he provides for the average reader a lot of andhés about black people jazz musicians, about drugs, and people tend to gravitate towards those things. book, itarted the actually realized through my mother and father, both of who grew up in the 1930s, that black americans went through the depression in a very different way than they were usually written about. for instance, they knew they were not the fools you saw an american movies. they also knew that the people they saw on the news reels were actual people. , marian anderson, joe louis. those were actual people. tavis: give me some sense of why
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-- i'm not naïve and asking, but why is it that that part of the story about charlie parker up until your wonderful work, tends to overshadow his artistic genius? as you know, tavis, it's always easier to focus on something that everybody else can do. everybody can get high. nobody can play like charlie parker. what i was trying to do in the book, i was trying to show that he is actually an epic hero in than he had the wheel, even when he was strung out on drugs, he 10-15e will to practice hours a day. he was going to conquer that saxophone and he was going to come to understand music, and he was going to make himself into a person who could play anything. he wanted to play beautiful
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music. all of these people in kansas city, black, white, but particularly in the black section that is usually not assumed to have any taste or any culture or any ambition, it's just, you know, they are just statistical figures. all these people had a concept of worth. they had a concept -- the fundamental gift that black american culture has two america is a nuanced vision of the grandeur of the human heart. charlie parker, he felt all of that. it was coming and them from every side, all these people. the challenge is to actually provide the reader with a
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feeling of that era and a feeling of the grandeur of the people, that they are not just statistics, that is the lower class. one thing that ralph ellison used to always say to me is that people have their own dreams about life. they did not look at themselves in terms of the stereotypes about them. a lot of what the book is is an attempt to show why a guy could actually be attracted to music at that time. part of what comes out for me in the book is that what, to some degree, drove charlie to practice 10 plus hours a day was initially being booed off the stage by some of those negroes
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you just referenced a moment ago. am i misreading your text? >> no. you see, the thing was, charlie parker was a very spoiled guy. he jumped up on the bandstand with the saxophone, thinking he could play, but he couldn't play. so they laughed him off the bandstand. was going to become the greatest saxophone player in the world. he couldn't really hear what was being played at first. his great achievement from jazz people, they performed what we called multitasking then on the bandstand. they made what they were going to lay fit with all the other notes, and everybody in the band did that. so it's a supreme achievement in
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performing arts that have never been recognized. just perhaps because of who did it. tavis: tell me how you went about doing the research on this. this is the first of two volumes, and his first volume deals with the early life of charlie parker. give me some sense of what you had to do to connect the dots on this door he? -- on this story? >> the first thing is, i had to go to kansas city, but i also had the luck of finding his first wife and giving her her first interviews. rebecca parker, who, when she married him, was rebecca ruffin. she told me all kinds of things about charlie parker that set up the form of the book, because she would say, like, charlie would always ask you questions, but at first he was very silent. he wouldn't talk much.
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but after a while, we got around him and he started to have fun, and then he started to ask questions about the world. because he was a very curious person. said, he had to ask people because his mother basically didn't tell him anything. so he learned a lot of things just by being inquisitive. worked in theshe school library, charlie parker would sit out there while he was working in the library reading all these books about religion in different cultures, because he was interested in the world. all of these guys were interested in the world some kind of way. and charlie parker, i have found, always gravitated to somebody who would help him closer to what he was trying to do. so by the time he gets to bob and theyeets read a lot of books and they
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talked about all of that. interested ine thinking, and we didn't think there was something wrong with that. tavis: but how does this curiosity, tell me more about how his curiosity connected to his playing. how does the thinking come forth playing? the >> the first thing is, charlie parker mastered the saxophone and created another kind of rhythm that had not been played in jazz before. that rhythm was very intricate. his style became a high level of virtuosity and great precision. what he was always trying to do he was rebecca said,
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trying to get himself audible to you. the person than he really was, he wanted you to hear that when he was playing. that didn't make him different from any other musician, but he just had so much more talent than other people, that he could actually be kind of devastating when he learned how to play. people knew that they were hearing something. tavis: part of trying to get himself to us audibly resulted in his neglecting pretty much everything else. the one thing you have to love about charlie parker is that he was never unfaithful to the music. he dedicated himself to that. but juxtapose to me what he and band and -- what he abandoned in lieu of what he dedicated himself to full-time, his music. >> there is a bittersweet side to his story, but there always is a bittersweet version of an
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epic hero in ethology. charlie parker is as close to a superhero as someone can be. he could is the way he could play was on a superhero level. but that didn't mean he was a perfect person. they are always screwed up. that is a hard fact, but many people who are gifted are also messed up. charlie parker, the only way he could redeem himself to you or anybody else was to play so beautifully that you would see the essence of him as opposed to his shortcomings. the way he could play -- like my father told me, he saw some women who were so hung up by
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was playing,parker they wet their seats rather than go to the bathroom while he was playing. [laughter] all of these people, it's just like my mother. i'm talking to her about bonnie and clyde, and she said yes, i know them. she said they used to stay across the street from me, bonnie and clyde. i said why? she said well, it was segregation, and the police apparently didn't think that these two outlaws would stay in the black community in east texas, but they did. and i saw a pretty boy floyd, too. you get a completely different sense of the world than what you see in newspapers or books. tavis: as i said before, i know this is the first of two
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volumes. when you have the second volume out, i suspect you will come back again and we will talk more about it. but to advance the story, parker is dead at 34. does he have any knowledge by the time he passes away of the impact that he is having, has had on jazz, or is that something he never is aware of? he is just trying to get the best of himself to us audibly, but without any knowledge of what he is doing to the music? >> he was a very aware man. he knew what he was doing, but he also told some guys at one point when they were talking to him about using drugs, he said, well, perhaps i will be the best example of why not to use drugs. guyother thing, he told one
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know, they're going to end up putting you in a can. you know, that will be able to take your sound, as much as they want, and put it in another place, and put your sound back in the can. he said your future, my friend, is in a can. so he was talking about sampling, and it didn't even exist at that time. he could see already, because he paid so much attention to technology and innovation, that at some point your sound could be taken out of its context and put in another context, and then put back. tavis: what did the other musicians who were notable in this era -- obviously there were many, i won't start to run the list, but how was he regarded by the other players? i mean, he kept them so in
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awe, because he could play so well. -- headn't heard anybody had a new sound, but he could play so well he actually intimidated most people. tavis: >> let me split that up and take it in two parts. so you intimidate people, and you inspire people. how does one go about perfecting one's craft when jazz is obviously an ensemble effort? hear themselves and play your note when your turn comes. how does one improvise when one knows that he is intimidating other people? greg's he didn't think about that. he was trying to find people who wanted to play with him, he wanted to play with them. this thing is that the collective achievement of jazz is that everybody figures out yow to make impotency -- empath
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the strongest part of their playing. that is the grandeur that comes out of afro american culture. that empathy is the strongest force between human beings. is that whenn somebody wants to play with you, they're going to try to figure out how to sound good with you. and charlie parker did that. everybody else did that. that is what all of them together were trying to do. let's make a sound that is good. is as why i say that jazz statically --as of youically the meaning poor booth you know him -- the unum.g of e pluribus all of these individuals
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remained individuals, but then you had to play together. tavis: so that is the intimidation part. the inspiration. how did charlie and his gift inspire others? music, you basically cannot explain where melody comes from. you can follow the logic of a melody, but it's not like harmony. in harmony, you can figure out different things to get certain results. ,ut to make a beautiful melody it almost has to seem to come out of nowhere. charlie parker was so melodically gifted that people would sit there -- she was like sinceeatest improviser louis armstrong, because that was what louis armstrong did, too. here he is a country boy from new orleans, and he sang all these beautiful phrases.
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the thing to me is that jazz actually figured out -- jazz musicians actually figured out how to put an uneducated musician together with a sophisticated musician and sound good. know, they always had to figure out what does the black lower class actually mean? what does it tell us that we could all learn from? and that, in jazz, is always the issue. the power of the human being is greater than the obstacles. tavis: is there a spiritual dimension to charlie parker's playing, to his gift, and i don't mean spiritual in terms of
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religiosity. you know what i mean, don't you? >> right. he was, in reality, a very spiritual guy, because the first notesis, he knew that the don't care who plays them. and he knew that all music came , thatomewhere inside you the high road to yourself is inside you, it's not inside somebody else. so all of these things that he experienced when he was a kid in kansas city, all the different situations, he was constantly seeing people do things and produce things. and they're up session with beautiful things was something that he took very, very seriously. all of the guys did. duke ellington took it seriously. that comes oute
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always kind that is of like family. it is kind of familial. , whenever you hear makes youother, that think about something that is not trivial, because of your relationship to your mother. what i was trying to do in the book was just use different words again and again, or use a structure so that they would connect you to different times in this man's life. i was also trying to get the .eeling of the time ,he people were so optimistic and that is why when charlie and rebecca, sitting at the movies, looking at marian anderson on
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the newsreel, that was a major event. people say, how do you know that charlie parker even saw that? minute, charlie parker was interested in life. not noticek he would if marian anderson was singing in washington dc to 75,000 people? parkerdoes charlie become charlie parker if he is not raised in kansas city? >> we can't imagine that. now, he would have been a superior musician if he had stayed in any other city in the world, but kansas city was so corrupt that you could actually play all of the time. so charlie parker would be playing and he would go to jam sessions, and then he would go to the park and play. then he would sit up -- in-depth
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sitting on a bench all by .imself playing saxophone you could do that in kansas city. you could actually sit up and play in the park, and the cops never bothered him. the neighbors never bothered him, the community. the people were like so oriented to serious music, that you could be playing all the time. me,s: say a final word to and to the audience, about the abiding lesson to us that we can learn from charlie parker about the dedication to craft. >> well, the thing that he showed you, shows all of us, is how powerful the individual actually is. ,o matter what obstacles are
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that the person fundamentally decides to do his or her best, they can get far above many of their obstacles. that is the basic thing we are trying to get through to young people now. you don't have to be a genius. tells you to be a jerk, you don't have to do be any of that. i have often thought about people like you and ben carson. about you had thought all at the start, they could never have imagined where you all would end up. see, that is a basic american story. all the stuff would complain about and dislike, that's true, too. not all of it, but there is tavis smiley, oprah winfrey, duke ellington,
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all of you can do, and you did. that is not a joke, that is a fact. we can move forward on the basis of that knowledge, about the power of human beings. that is what i think. tavis: he worked on this book for 32 years. it is the first of two volumes. it is about time that charlie parker gets the respect in print that he does. parker."led "charlie stanley, congratulations on the text. that's our show for tonight. thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time for a conversation with acclaimed poet and essayist nikki giovanni on the release of her favorite -- her latest.
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.- her latest tome that is next time. we will see you then. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. >> be more. pbs.
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