Meeting of Edgard Varèse and Charlie Parker
Willem de Kooning - Zao Wou-Ki
“Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music, but man, there’s no boundary line to art.” – Charlie Parker
The exhibition Willem De Kooning and Zao Wou-Ki was a conversation between these two giants of abstract expressionism, and although they never met, the unlikely and historic meeting of avant-garde French composer Edgard Varese and revolutionary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker is an intersection of the music that inspired their lives and work.
Zao Wou-Ki befriended Edgard Varèse, the iconoclastic composer of Poeme Electronique, amidst the artistic circles of Paris in 1952, painting the monumental “Homage a Edgard Varèse” in tribute in 1964. De Kooning came to America at the age of 22 with an idealized image of freedom and excess epitomized by the jazz he loved. The New York School painters were known to hang out at the Five Spot Cafe in the east village where the great jazz musicians of the day performed nightly. De Kooning later said, “Miles Davis bends the notes, he doesn’t play the notes, he bends them. I bend the paint.” Davis’ mentor, Charlie Parker, was the brilliant innovator of be-bop, whose music would influence every generation of jazz musicians to follow.
In 1954, shortly before the end of Parker’s life, he learned that Varèse was living in Greenwich Village and sought him out with the aspiration of studying with him and composing orchestral works. Their brief encounter would resonate with Varèse as well, who spoke of Parker’s wide eyed enthusiasm and brilliance, and in 1957 he composed a graphic score for improvisation and gathered an ensemble, including de Kooning's friend Charles Mingus, to perform and record it.
To tell this story as a musical performance, we asked trumpeter Peter Evans to assemble an ensemble that could traverse the contrasting music of both Varèse and Parker, Evans being perfectly suited as both an internationally acclaimed jazz improvisor and a virtuosic classical musician (having played in Lincoln Center’s 2010 Varèse festival). The ensemble for this performance included jazz musicians, members of the International Contemporary Ensemble and eighty-two year old percussionist Warren Smith who had first performed Varèse' Ionisation in 1951 and recorded with Miles Davis in 1957.