Friday, January 24, 2020

The Music of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird

Opera isn’t a musical style; it’s what you get when you multiply music by drama, or drama by music. (Which partner dominates? The tug-of-war between the words and the notes has been going back and forth for 400+ years.) Opera can feature lots of different musical styles, genres, and languages. An opera like Porgy and Bess might dip into lively ragtime, full of high spirits and energy, when the African-American community depicted in the story is heading off for a picnic; later in the story, when the characters’ romantic entanglements take focus, the music heads naturally for the blues. And in the funeral scene, intense and powerful spirituals channel the characters’ grief, rage, and (eventually) resilience and hope.

Similarly, Charlie Parker’s Yardbird uses American musical idioms to tell a very American story. It’s about an extraordinary musician, both angel and devil; and it’s about loving relationships, in all their beauty and complexity. In addition to his music, the opera character Charlie Parker has close relationships with mother, three wives, and two close friends. The composer, Daniel Schnyder, sets each of librettist Bridgette A. Wimberly’s scenes with the musical language best befitting the drama, the characters, and the situation. A few examples:

Charlie’s Music Lesson
Charlie Parker grew up in Kansas City in the 1920s and ‘30s, when New Orleans jazz—perhaps best personified by Louis Armstrong—was sweeping America. In the opera, Schnyder explores the difference between this earlier world of jazz, and where Charlie would take the music, in an amusing flashback. The teenage Charlie, riffing on “The Saints Go Marching In,” annoys all his neighbors early on a Sunday morning with his practicing. In real life, the young Charlie Parker did indeed practice relentlessly, many hours a day, until he was comfortable improvising in all twelve keys.

Post-War Jazz
Jazz spread around America in the ‘20s, and became commercialized as swing in the ‘30s; by the late ‘40s, after the war, it was time for a new sound—the sound of Charlie Parker, eventually the sound of bebop. There’s a frenzy, an anxiety, a nervousness to this music; it can be brittle, edgy, uncomfortable—and still thrilling. Charlie Parker the opera character is both pushing music to new places and battling his addictions when he scats, in a number from the opera entitled “Charlie’s Angel.” An artistic oxymoron here—giving the impression of freedom and unpredictable improvisation in a passage like this requires the utmost in discipline and rehearsal!

Dizzy & BeBop
Charlie Parker is sung by a tenor; the baritone (traditionally the friend or rival in Italian opera) plays his good pal and frequent collaborator, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. When he appears, for a number called “Bebop’s Gonna Change the World,” a lively, jagged rhythm supports their duet: “Message to the people: No deviation, no hesitation, no segregation, hell no! Only provocation.”

Nica’s Slow Blues
The lowest female voice in the opera is given to Charlie’s friend and patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, known as “Nica”. Her sultry low mezzo and slinky slow-blues rhythm gives her a femme fatale vibe, a ‘fallen woman’ characterization which stands in stark contrast to Charlie’s higher-voiced wives and mother. You’ll hear this sound when Nica tells the dead Charlie’s spirit: “I found Chan. Soon she will be here. I promised her your horn, your suitcase, and the keys to your car. I dread the dawn. I'm afraid what the morning papers will say tomorrow: ‘Blinded and bedazzled by this luscious, silky, black-haired, jet-eyed Circe of high society, the Yardbird was a fallen sparrow.’”

Addie & Rebecca’s Blues Duet
We also hear a slow blues for the lamentation of the two women Charlie abandoned in Kansas City, his mother Addie (soprano) and his first wife, Rebecca (mezzo). In this case, the blues isn’t about sex, it carries the depth of the emotion and grief these two characters convey as they sing, “Ain't easy to be a mother, a wife to a black man child, all alone. This land ain't no place for a black man child, for a jazz bird with a dream, got dreams...”

Chan’s Dance Club
The lightest, highest soprano voice in the opera is that of Chan, Charlie Parker’s fourth wife, and one of the most cheerful moments in the show is the flashback to how they met. A jazz enthusiast who had dated other musicians before she met Parker, Chan comes down to the club because, as she sings in the opera, “Word on the street: a new cat from Kansas City was blowing something new.” Charlie and Dizzy join her for a quick trio, on a catchy salsa rhythm, as she remembers: “I just loved the music!” “Well, the music—that’s me!” sings Charlie (while Dizzy, slightly indignant, remembers “Well, that tune, it was mine.”).

A Love Song for Doris
But the sudden death of Charlie’s daughter with Chan, Pree, precipitates Charlie’s loss of control and helpless descent to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. In the opera it is Doris, Charlie’s third wife, who leads him from the depths with her loving, lyric soprano call: “Charlie, Charlie...sing us a love song. Camarillo ain't no place for you. Charlie, you have to fly free! In here, you are a caged bird.”

In only an hour and a half (and twenty discrete musical numbers), Charlie Parker’s Yardbird takes us on a musical journey into the complexities of six relationships; a journey into the American heart. Like The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs it’s an intense, powerful, entertaining, surprising opera about who we are today.