The legend of Charlie Parker
The Forecourt, Sydney Opera House
Friday December 6, 2002

It was an unseasonably cold night that fired the imagination and warmed the heart.

The new venue had been in the news: the subject of considerable controversy, including that emanating from residents of the nearby “Toaster” $X,000,000 apartments (ironically themselves subject to earlier similar controversy) in whose backyard the performances, set-ups, sound checks and bump outs would take place. (Others simply found the whole structure unsightly).

In the stolen light of Eastern Summertime the ticket-holders filed through the outdoor security gates, encountering without protest long wooden tables where bags would be searched – a sad and, most would agree, necessary manifestation of an Australia on alert as several thousand people were spectacularly assembled in front of one of the world’s most recognisable icons.

For a start, Sydney has gained a brilliant and unique new venue.

A large outdoor stage on the Opera House Forecourt, with level seating that extended back to the point where the Opera House steps themselves took over and became the tiered stalls. A transcendental setting for a show: floodlit trees, the salty smell of the Harbour and the surreal experience of having this unique monument, the Sydney Opera House, behind you during the performance as if it were the world’s most lavish backdrop (I could not resist momentarily swinging around once or twice during the show to remind myself of this wonderfully bizarre configuration, noting that the performers had the opportunity to look directly at it should this prove to be inspiring).

All this as a foundation to this singular presentation for the venue’s opening.

Testimony, a work which began life as a radio project and changed its spots into a work of multi-media music-theatre, by its sheer brilliance and power last Friday not only gave the bequest of its own luminous soul but also enthusiastically pressed into the slightly nervous hands of Sydney-siders the surely welcome gift of this visionary performance space.

Testimony is a modern example of the Wagnerian concept of Gesamtkunstwerke (total artwork), although its ethos could not be less Wagnerian: a fundamentally unpretentious and heartfelt tribute to a tragic artist of unprecedented genius.

  • The midwifes: the Sydney Opera House, the Sydney and Melbourne Festivals, the Australian Art Orchestra, the ABC and the Australia Council.
  • The presenter: the Sydney Opera House itself.
  • The subject: the life and legacy of Charlie “Bird” Parker.
  • The music: composed by Sandy Evans, arranged by Sandy Evans (and in one instance Paul Grabowsky) with the soloists of the Australian Art Orchestra adding their individual voices as improvising co-composers.
  • The texts: sonnets by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa.
  • The orchestra: the Australian Art Orchestra.
  • The cast: eleven of Australia’s leading vocalists plus narrators Franklyn Ajaye and Bobby C, the latter’s “virtual” presence being achieved by means of video projection.
  • The musical directors:  Paul Grabowsky and Sandy Evans.
  • The set, lighting & multi-media projection: internationally-renowned director Nigel Jamieson and his team.

And of course replacing Bayreuth (the remarkable venue in which Wagner’s operas were staged) was the Sydney Opera House Forecourt, something of a 21st century Bayreuth on this particular night

It could indeed be argued that Testimony is a modern form of opera. Certainly it is contemporary music-theatre, with a set that included video projection and what appeared to be computer graphics making a huge contribution to the overall impact. And yet, there was an endearingly traditional operatic element in the juxtaposition of recitative (to advance the plot) and aria to (reflect upon it). In this case the recitative occurred through narration and multi-media.

A remarkable feature of the music was the way it refused to function as a raw historic/biographical backdrop, which is a path a less creative composer than Sandy Evans may have taken. It was not by any means a purely bebop score, though there was a strong bebop influence and the inclusion of some arrangements of Parker compositions. Furthermore, the improvising soloists did not attempt to blow exclusively in period style, though their playing was clearly influenced by it. They played what they played.

In effect, a historical continuum of jazz was telescoped into one exquisite elongated moment. We heard the music from which Bird was born (the blues, swing etc), and heard how this music gave birth to the language of Charlie Parker. But we also heard where the music went after Bird (free/abstract etc) and heard how this music would have been impossible without the legacy of Charlie Parker.

The result was an overwhelming testimony to this man’s centrality in the evolution of jazz in the twentieth century, by means of the remarkable palette that Sandy Evans’ composing, the improvisations from members of the Australian Art Orchestra brought and the multimedia set brought.

As in film music, the abstract/free elements in some of the improvisations and scoring found a far broader and more receptive audience when functioning as underscore than can reasonably be achieved when they are presented as “pure” music. They were the sounds of deep despair and the cries of joy.

The songs, always touching, were like oases on the story’s often-harrowing journey through some of the most odious challenges a human being could face: drug addiction, racism, the death of a child. Their beauty, and the majesty of the work as a whole did not allow these latter elements to dominate: Testimony is not a “tragedy” (though Bird’s life and death were undoubtedly tragic), it is a celebration.

There were so many unique musical contributions made that it would be onerous to try and cover them all. I am just going to mention four that stood out for me personally.

Paul Grabowsky, whose conducting was free and joyous, always functional and never histrionical and who contributed two outstanding pieces of pianism: one inspired by Art Tatum, the other by Thelonious Monk. Yet both were pure Grabowsky.

Jackie Orszaczky, whose seductive soul-groove on voice and bass calmly entreated that this man Bird can speak to all generations through all forms.

Scott Tinkler, who stands at the very apex of improvising talent in this country or anywhere else, who astounded with his fluidity, individuality and lack of adherence to any “school” or “fashion” upon what must be the most sectarian of instruments in jazz.

And finally, the night’s diva of divas, composer Sandy Evans, who for most of the work sat humbly in the saxophone section on the top tier of the orchestra scaffold, a fetching red ribbon in her hair being the only minimalist talisman of her driving force within the work.

She had a brief stint as conductor, her metronomic pulse holding together an abstract piece, later cueing what appeared to be numbered modular sections and resolutely disagreeing with every conductor on the planet as to which direction the second beat goes.

At the end of the work she ascended one more level (in more senses than one) and blew an extended solo cadenza in tribute to the man himself. It was an extremely courageous move that could have failed or been embarrassing: saxophonist-composer stops proceedings at the climax to “do” Charlie Parker.

Of course it was nothing of the sort. Sandy played her music, playing her heart out in a brilliant personal tribute to the man who had given her such “exhilaration” (in her own words).

Sandy said in the program notes that Bird represents “an artistic pinnacle that I will never come close to reaching”. Sandy, in that amazing cadenza, on that night, in those surroundings, in that work: you came close. And you were among the angels.

Testimony is not only a brilliant work, it is an important work.

It demonstrates that as much as Australia’s improvising artists will continue to accept engagements to take their quartets and quintets into jazz clubs and jazz festivals, they are also capable of creating and developing, at their own initiative, elaborate collaborative works and to, largely without the assistance of managers or administrative staff, themselves directly network with the top tier of our arts apparatchiks to have these works presented in the most elevated (yet accessible) stages in the country.

Works like Testimony represent the very finest manifestation of the artistic culture of Australia. Testimony also demonstrates that we can tell “our” stories without them being overtly “about” Australians.