This teen plays and the jazz world listens
Boston — WHEN Christopher Hollyday first played in a club, he kept thinking about what had happened early in the career of his idol, Charlie (Bird) Parker. ``Bird played so badly that the drummer threw a cymbal at him,'' he says softly.
Well, nobody throws anything at Hollyday when he picks up his alto saxophone. Quite the contrary. They generally think his playing is fleet, brilliant, accomplished.
This fact is not remarkable in itself -- unless you consider that Christopher was 14 at the time of his professional debut and had been improvising for less than a year.
Now, at the ripe old age of 15, Christopher Hollyday is in the early stages of a flight that could one day take him into the jazz constellations. His trajectory, while highly individual, suggests some general truths about blazing musical talent and the way it can be nurtured.
Hollyday has played in numerous clubs around New England -- twice with his own quartet (including such solid jazz names as Alan Dawson and John Lockwood). He has won the ``young talent award'' from the National Association of Jazz Educators, as well as ``most valuable musician'' on the state level. He's been featured in Downbeat magazine, and has astounded Leonard Feather, a jazz historian and columnist.
One night recently, the young musician -- all arms and long neck and cherubic smiles -- took the stage in a local club. Mumbling shyly into the microphone, he fairly whispered, ``One . . . two . . . one, two, three.'' Then he took off in a way that confirmed Leonard Feather's observation in the Los Angeles Times: ``An astonishing 14-year-old virtuoso, Chris Hollyday . . . tore through his Charlie Parker licks with the kind of wild abandon that can only be born of artful dedication.''
He looked so clean cut, handsome, and Jimmy Stewartesque that you'd cast him as a sort of ``Mr. Smith goes to Birdland.'' And those who watch him say he's beginning just such a journey to jazz greatness.
Christopher plays almost exclusively the be-bop lexicon developed by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, a musical idiom that has been the mother lode for several generations of jazz greats from Art Blakey to John Coltrane to McCoy Tyner to Miles Davis.
Sitting in his room a couple of days earlier -- under a poster that says ``BIRD LIVES!'' -- Hollyday has a closetful of records behind him and another double-barreled set of stacks beside him. He talks about what happens to him when he plays:
``Jazz is a free music,'' he says, flashing a handsome smile. ``It's like snapping your fingers, and your blood starts to circulate, and you move around, and something happens. You start to fall in love with the music. There's something inside you that you want to play.''
``Be-bop is a language, a difficult language,'' he observes. ``Some of it is very difficult.''
It takes work, lots of it, for Hollyday to master this language. When he is preparing for a performance, as he is this particular afternoon, he practices for up to six hours a day, working on ``my tone, my scales, maybe a new tune.'' He demonstrates by blowing long, soft whole notes that crescendo, then vanish.
If he keeps working like this, observers say, he has a shot at achieving some kind of greatness.
``He has such an edge and such a way of presenting that material,'' comments Tony Cennamo, a Boston jazz disc jockey. ``You hear that stuff played a million times. But his solo work is not just copying Charlie Parker. That little kid is more rhythmically sophisticated'' than most of the grown-up Parker imitators.
``I don't see how he can miss, if no one leads him astray,'' observes alto saxophonist Lee Konitz. ``I heard him play in Dallas in January. He had already assumed the ability to play interminably long and surprisingly well -- I mean through several choruses and through complicated progressions.'' Konitz adds with mock concern: ``Don't come to my gig.''
At his own gig, Hollyday leads his quartet through a long, slow-building development of Duke Ellington's ``In a Sentimental Mood,'' occasionally taking off in flights of fantasy from the main theme. More characteristically, he whizzes through James Williams's ``Focus,'' putting together a synthesis of chord changes, scales, and patterns that are difficult to keep track of, let alone analyze.
Over the course of a three-set evening, he shows a blend of musical maturity and youthful inexperience. In playing his own and other people's compositions, he goes through a lot of recycled material from records he has heard; but he also has stretches of real creativity.
``He's rare. Very rare,'' says Alan Dawson, a celebrated jazz drummer and educator. If he continues to grow at the pace he has marked so far, Dawson says, ``by the time he's 25 or 30, he should be one of the big definitive voices on his instrument.''
Dawson is quick to add that more than talent and happenstance have contributed to his development.
``He's blessed with a certain amount of talent to begin with. But it has also been in a good environment. He gets around to hear good music. That talent has been nurtured. It's coming out very early.''
The environment Dawson refers to includes a home in which jazz has been spoken since Hollyday's birth. His father, Richard, a one-time drummer, encouraged early on the career of his older brother, Richard Jr., a 20-year-old trumpeter who has already caused something of a sensation. Richard Sr. has produced one record for his eldest son; another recording, with Chris and his quartet, is about to come out. Chris's father takes him out about every other weekend to hear live jazz.
Christopher Hollyday's musical upbringing also includes a public school program in nearby Norwood, Mass., that is noted for its intensity and commitment and for regularly winning band competitions. Local observers are concerned that he get into the ``right hands,'' and that his phenomenal technical ability not give him such easy success that he won't work hard to develop musical insights and solid music theory. So far, they say, his instruction seems to have stimulated all the right things in him. Th e real stimulus, however, came when he had his first confrontation with the be-bop he now plays.
``I started listening to jazz in the Fifth Grade,'' he recalls. ``I heard Charlie Parker, and that was it. Bang! Then it was 24 hours a day. I played all the Charlie Parker records I could find. I played them on an old plastic phonograph, the kind you listen to `Sesame Street' records on.''
``I'm giving it my all right now. Hopefully, forever.''
``My `self' is starting to come out in my music just a little bit now,'' he says. ``It's just beginning to happen.''
When he plays, he says, ``I'm trying to make sure I'm playing the right notes, that they fit into what the rhythm section is doing. Then I'm thinking about what's coming up.'' Meanwhile, he is improvising on a set of chord changes, formulating scales and patterns that follow in logical sequence. All of this comes together in an instant of time, and one can only wonder how he does it.
``I play exactly what comes to mind,'' he answers casually. ``That's what a jazz musician does.''