Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Charlie Parker

In my last year at University, I became obsessed with Charlie “Bird” Parker, the enormously influential jazz musician.

Parker was an American saxophonist and composer. He was born in Kansas City in 1920 and died in the Stanhope Hotel, New York in 1955, aged only 34. Such was his fame and reputation, that only a few hours after his death, a giant graffiti “Bird Lives” appeared in the New York subways. He had abused his body with drugs and alcohol to such an extent that the coroner mistakenly estimated his body to be between 50 and 60 years old.

Parker was a leading developer of bebop which was characterised by a blistering pace, virtuoso improvisation and technique built on harmonic structures. Many of his tracks became standards such as “Anthropology,” “Billy’s Bounce” and “Now Is the Time.” He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including a tonal vocabulary employing 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords, rapidly implied passing chords, and new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. Parker was also a consummate blues player and could fuse jazz with other styles from Latin music to classical. In his day, he was so admired by other musicians that they shamelessly copied him. After his death, his numerous recordings blazed paths that were followed by others.

Parker also became an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat generation, personifying the conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than just a popular entertainer.

A huge amount has been written about Parker and he was the subject of the acclaimed 1988 film, Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Forest Whittaker. My father bought me arguably the best book about Parker called The Triumph of Charlie Parker by Gary Giddins (first published in 1987 by Hodder & Stoughton). It’s superbly written, full of wonderful photographs and a book I still treasure today.

However, the purpose of this blog is not to provide a biographical account of Parker’s life but to give you a slight favour of Bird’s genius by means of a few contemporary and personal anecdotes. Of course, it goes without saying that the best way to appreciate Parker is to listen to his music. Any “Best of” collection will do!

In 1937, Parker joined a band led by a pianist called Jay McShann. Bird rehearsed relentlessly (15 hours a day for 3 to 4 years) and became so good that his colleagues could only marvel at his talent. They were amused, too, by how fast his mind worked, as he imitated sounds echoing in from the street – engines, backfiring tires, auto horns – and worked them into musical phrases. He also learnt the trick of quoting melodies that had lyrical relevance to the moment. He might nod to a woman in blue with a snippet of “Alice Blue Gown,” or to woman in red with “The Lady in Red,” or comment on a woman headed to the ladies’ room with “I Know Where You’re Going.”

Later in his career, Parker became friendly with another musician called Buddy De Franco. When interviewed by Gary Giddins, De Franco recalled a young tenor saxophonist who challenged Bird on a track called “All the Things You Are.” Parker welcomed him to the stand, counted off the number and played in a key that nobody played. “The kid was devastated and Bird could do that to anybody. He taught me that trick of playing in all the keys, because it forces you away from your basic patterns – from what we call fail-safe jazz.”

Parker’s conversation with De Franco often turned to the great Russian composer, Prokofiev, since Bird knew Prokofiev was his favourite composer.

“Every time he’d get a new recording of Prokofiev, he’d say let’s go to my place and listen. He knew about so many things. We were in New York in the winter, working some concert together, and we’d been up all night. It was snowing, freezing cold, and I wanted to get back to the hotel and sleep, but we passed the Salvation Army band, and he says, “Wait a minute, let me hear this.” I can’t believe this is Charlie Parker standing in the snow listening to this horrible band – I missed whatever cues he found in there. Finally, I said, “OK, I’ll catch you later.” It wasn’t until next spring that I got a job on Fifty-Second Street. He was playing at another club and I go down during my breaks to hear him. The first time I walked in I sat very close to the stage; he gave me a little nod, pointed his sax at me, and played one of those pieces from the Salvation Army.”

In 1982, at the age of 15, I bought a used tenor saxophone, mainly because Marilyn Monroe said in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 film, Some Like It Hot, that she always fell for the tenor sax players. However, I always found the tenor too heavy and in 1987, I switched to the smaller alto and started to practise compulsively. I also played the clarinet up to Grade 8 standard and this gave me an advantage.

There was one book I was desperate to buy but it was so popular that it was very difficult to obtain. Finally, in 1988, I was able to swap a load of records for what saxophonists reverentially called The Bible. This was a yellow book called the “Charlie Parker Omnibook” that transcribed Parker’s recorded solos exactly.

I remember how excited I was when I took my alto out of its case and leafed through the well worn pages of The Bible for the first time. I settled on “Ornithology” which is one of Parker’s most famous tracks. I stumbled slowly and awkwardly through Parker’s solo and then played it again and again. It was incredibly difficult to play but worse was to come. Once I’d played it numerous times, I listened to Parker’s original recording through my Walkman headphones and tried to keep up on my alto. Bird played the solo flawlessly about ten times faster than me and it was just impossible for me to maintain his pace.

At that point, I made a decision. Come what may, I would learn to play Ornithology at its proper speed and without a mistake. I thought it would take me a few days to do this. In fact, it took me three weeks of hard practise (at least two hours a day, every day) and even then I still sounded nothing like Parker. Meanwhile, the more I practised, the more I was filled with awe and admiration for Bird.

Once I’d finally got the hang of “Ornithology”, I moved on to another famous number, “Koko”. This was even faster and more complicated and it took me months to play it at the correct speed. Parker was a maestro and a genius and trying to emulate him only reinforced this. It was a truly humbling experience.

Eventually, I gave up trying to play Parker, it was just too damn hard but I still listen to his recordings all the time. And each time I hear a track, I hear something new.

Bird lives!

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The Credit Crunch & The Jews

On the 12 May, 1866, the leading article of The Times reported breathlessly that in the City, “a tumult became a a mob besieged the most respectable banking houses...making the narrow thoroughfare of Lombard Street impassable.” What was later termed The Great Panic of 1866 was caused by the crash of Overend, Gurney & Company, a London wholesale discount bank, known as "the bankers' bank", which collapsed owing about 11 million pounds sterling ($1.3 billion at 2007 prices).

This was the third British banking crisis of the nineteenth century. The first crisis was in 1825 and caused by a severe stock market crash which led to numerous banks failing, nearly including the Bank of England.

However, the Panic of 1866 was to form a notable watershed. There was not to be another banking run until September 2007. Northern Rock, one of the top five mortgage lenders in the United Kingdom, sought and received a liquidity support facility from the Bank of England following emerging difficulties in the credit markets. When this was reported, customer confidence in the Bank vanished and this led to the incredible spectacle, on 14 September 2007, of many customers queuing outside branches to withdraw their savings. On 22 February 2008, the Bank was taken into state ownership.

The run on Northern Rock marked the beginning of the credit crunch in the United Kingdom. Simply defined, this is the ongoing financial crisis triggered by the significant decline in housing prices and related mortgage payment delinquencies and foreclosures in the United States. The resulting ripple across the financial markets and global banking systems has caused a severe decline in overall liquidity as financial institutions have tightened their lending practices.

Although numerous forecasts have been made in the British media and elsewhere, as to how much worse things will get, the truth is no one knows. However, nearly all forecasters are agreed on one fundamental issue, it will get much worse before it gets better.

Last week, a series of grim predictions were made. The United Kingdom would see over three million unemployed within two years and London would be worst affected with at least 650,000 out of work. Meanwhile, the British stock market has continued to drop to 1997 levels, with no sign of improvement. Whilst property prices and general business confidence are in freefall, the number of foreclosures and insolvencies are increasing rapidly.

The Jewish community is by no means immune to the financial crisis and there is a very palpable concern. My father, a retired university lecturer, watched the anxious customers outside the Northern Rock Savings Bank in the Golders Green Road and was startled by what he saw. “I recognised several of them – many were wearing kippot. They were only able to withdraw money after about seven hours of waiting.” Others thought they were cleverer; their cash was earning nearly 7% in two Icelandic banks. However, they did not escape either. In October 2008, the British Government effectively bankrupted Kaupthing and Her Majesty’s Treasury froze the assets of Landsbanki. Confidence in all banks has continued to plummet and it was reported recently that there is now a shortage of £50 notes as people begin to hoard them.

At the other end of the wealth scale, the various Jewish masters of the financial universe have been reduced from being billionaires to mere millionaires or even worse. The favourite dinner party topic is no longer the price of your house but whether a particular individual can hang on to his or her job. Anyone connected to the Financial Services industry is racked by profound angst and disbelief. This is all true of the general population but probably more so among the United Kingdom’s Jewish inhabitants.

For anyone working in property, the world is a frightening and unpredictable place. Andrew, a 41 year old surveyor, living in Edgware, North London, captured the mood accurately. “Many surveyors have lost their jobs. Those who have not face worry and uncertainty. I meet estate agents every day who say they will run out of money by the end of the year if things don't pick up. Every time I return to an area I haven't visited for a while, another estate agent has closed. Everyone in our community is anxious. We are in a prosperous area, but so many jobs and companies are dependent on property or investments. The younger families inevitably have larger mortgages and are having to cut their expenditure. Many people are worried about the cost of holidays to Israel and with the lack of spare cash and poor exchange rate; many will be not be holidaying abroad next year.”

At Jewish Care’s Employment Resource Centre, in Finchley, North London, the picture is no less grim. Alan Sanders, a consultant and member of the Jewish Care executive, reported that the number of unemployed Jewish people seeking assistance had increased by over 50% since the previous year. “It’s been right across the board from recent graduates to experienced professionals.”

Nevertheless, Paul Edlin, the vice president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was slightly more upbeat. “The British Jewish community has not really been affected by the financial crisis, although some retired individuals or couples have had their savings threatened. However, matters looks like they will become worse in the next three months. No one knows where this is heading.”

Indeed, a few days ago, British Jewish leaders warned that the worsening economy could lead to a rise in antisemitism and increased support for the extreme right wing organisation, the British National Party. Henry Grunwald, Chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council said: "We're already seeing and hearing things about who is responsible for the economic downturn and we know from history that when there are economic problems, there has always been an increase in antisemitism."

It would appear that, in the United Kingdom, worrying times are here to stay, as we venture into the unknown.