On the 1946 recording of the song “Lover Man,” Charlie Parker plays one of the most searing, mournful, and heart-rending saxophone solos (or any kind of solo) in the history of recorded music. As is often the case, there is a further story behind the music. Parker had accompanied Dizzy Gillespie to California (where “Lover Man” was recorded) on a tour of the west coast, and had stayed behind to play jazz clubs in Los Angeles when Gillespie returned to New York. Parker had also turned to heroin again, and while he was playing those sad, searing tones immortalized on the “Lover Man” recording, he was in fact experiencing heroin withdrawal. In fact, later that same day, he was arrested in relation to a fire that broke out in his hotel room, ultimately ending up at Camarillo state mental hospital for a stay of some months. (“Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” recorded in early 1947 after that stay, is one of Parker’s jauntiest, happiest sounding recordings.) How much difference do, or should, such biographical tidbits make in our appreciation of the recording?
In his column in the recent special Awards 2006 issue of Gramophone magazine (V. 84, p. 37), Armando Iannucci raises similar questions. Speaking of Shostakovich’s viola sonata, he writes, “The sonata, the final slow movement in particular, is one of the most beautiful, anguished and intimate pieces of 20th-century chamber music I’ve heard…There’s a pain here that’s not dramatic but real. But it is also the last piece he wrote. How much does that matter?” A bit later on, “What does it do to the music knowing it’s the last thing Shostakovich wrote? Knowing that he knew he was dying.” Speaking of other composers, he argues, “You can’t doubt, for example, that the popularity of the Pathetique Symphony, Strauss’s Four Last Songs or Mozart’s Requiem owe an awful lot to our knowledge that they came at the end of each composer’s life.
In cases such as these, knowledge of artists’ biographies and the circumstances surrounding a piece can enhance the experience of art (even if it’s not always clear why that would be the case). Certainly knowledge of artists and the production of art in general in all forms is of historical, sociological, and anthropological interest in its own right. Still, art doesn’t depend upon, isn’t sustained by, and isn’t determined by the artist’s biography, cultural context, etc.
Art does not depend on the artist’s biography
This is a fairly simple point. If you know that Charlie Parker was experiencing the physical pain of heroin withdrawal symptoms and mentally cracking up while playing “Lover Man” in the recording studio, it may enhance your appreciation of the true beauty of the music in relation to Parker’s pain. But you don’t need to know anything about the background of the music to appreciate it for wonderful art. I had heard the recording many times and grown to love it before subsequently reading about the backdrop for the song in several different places. Or as Iannucci writes (the emphasis may be reversed, but he’s making essentially the same points): “It’s not an essential knowledge; the piece doesn’t fall apart without it. But it adds something indefinable, a resonance, as we listen.”
Art is not sustained by the artist’s biography
The production of art involves the creation of a sensual object to be experienced and appreciated for the aesthetic pleasures and/or sensations it gives. Further, the work of art exists independently of the artist: the recording of “Lover Man” still exists and mesmerizes some fifty-odd years after Parker’s death in the early 1950s. The viola sonata, Four Last Songs, and the requiem persist and amaze long after the deaths of Shostakovich, Strauss, and Mozart. Appreciation of the independent existence of the work of art need not take the form of a fetishization of art as having no function other than aesthetic experience. Art can have many functions, including crass, materialistic ones like selling records or tickets to the theater. But if something is art, at least one of its functions is its existence as independent object of aesthetic experience. The biography of the artist and details of the production of the particular work, no matter how interesting, cannot sustain the work’s value as art. If “Lover Man” sounded as if it were being played by someone going through the pain of withdrawal and going a bit crazy, it would be a curiosity at best, something perhaps for jazz completists to pass around with shades of guilt, “Hey, here’s that recording where Charlie Parker’s having a breakdown.” Instead, the details of the recording might add to our appreciation mainly because they stand in contrast to the art, because the art represents Parker overcoming pain, or better, channeling pain into something of truly lasting worth. Likewise, if Strauss’s Four Last Songs or Mozart’s requiem were hackneyed works of previously great masters on their deathbeds, their value would again be mainly that of historical curiosity. In the context of the greatness of the art in itself, the details of their production can enhance our appreciation of these works as last triumphs over death (temporarily for the artist, but with the work persisting).
Art is not determined by the artist’s biography
Art is produced by individuals – sometimes individuals alone or often working in groups, influencing one another. All individuals, of course, are highly influenced by their historical and cultural surroundings (I wouldn’t be much of an anthropologist if I thought otherwise). At the same time, no individual (and no individual work of art) is determined by such contexts. Certainly Parker was influenced by his background, with his upbringing as a black man in Kansas City helping to channel his creative impulses into jazz, but that context alone cannot determine his particular body of work, especially given his instrumental and unique role in producing bebop alongside Gillespie, nor can his biography, even in the particular moment, determine what he played on “Lover Man,” nor fully explain his overall interest in a variety of musical forms. One of the most delightful anecdotes about Parker concerns his interest in Classical Music. Apparently one night while he was playing in a New York jazz club in the 1940s, Igor Stravinsky, having heard about Parker and the new form of jazz, arrived to hear the show. Upon recognizing the composer in the audience, Parker proceeded to drop the main theme from The Firebird into one of his solos, much to the delight Stravinsky.