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Charlie Parker: In Praise of Bird on His 100th Birthday!


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A hundred years ago, on August 29, 1920, soon after jazz was born, Charlie Parker came into this world, and in the 35 years of a life cut short by addictions and impulse-driven living, he changed the face of the music. His innovations as one of the creators of bebop and his stunning sound and virtuosic saxophone playing changed the way music is composed and played, not only in jazz but most other musical genres as well. The changes he brought about rival those of Louis Armstrong, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis. On this Centenary day and year of his birth, it is fitting that we take stock of his contributions as we experience them now, more than six decades after he played his last notes.

When he died, the beat poet Ted Joans scrawled "Bird Lives!" on the streets and buildings of New York City. These words confirmed that Charlie Parker had achieved legendary, even mystical status during his lifetime. Simply put, he played notes and lines nobody had done before him, his technique was incomparable, and his music embodied, extended, and enhanced the essence and means of expression of the blues upon which all jazz is based. The bebop genre and the musicians who participated in its inception coincided with the Beat Generation and preceded the Civil Rights movement. Parker symbolized the assertiveness, creativity, and freedom of African Americans developing their unique identities.

Stories about Charlie Parker abound. His participation in the creation of the bebop harmonic language with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others is known to most jazz fans. His hunting around for a heroin fix and booze, arriving late to gigs, and then incredibly blowing the hell out of his horn, are legendary. His illness and death at the Stanhope Hotel apartment of Baroness Nica von Koenigswarter, who gave shelter, solace, and protection to many of the musicians, is filled with pathos. His passionate and troubled relationship with his wife, Chan, was documented dramatically in Clint Eastwood's (1988) film, Bird, as were other incidents of his life lived at the edge.

And of course, there is his recorded legacy, such as The Dial and Savoy Sessions (Definitive Records, 2004) and the surprising and beautiful Charlie Parker with Strings (Mercury, 1950), which haunt and astonish listeners today as they did when they were released.

However, instead of re-telling these stories and re-considering Bird's recorded legacy—each gargantuan tasks in themselves—this writer wanted to get a feel for what Parker means to musicians today, what is his lasting contribution. So he contacted some musicians and others whom he knows well and for whom he has the highest regard, and asked them to say what Bird meant to them now. You will read their responses in a moment. Two points they make, however, should not be missed. They are 1) that Parker influenced all of them profoundly, and 2) his place in the pantheon of jazz greats has become even more ground-breaking and significant than previously thought. In the twentieth century, Parker was regarded as a great innovator of a genre, bebop. In the twenty-first century, he is coming to be seen as not only changing the entire face of jazz, but as a creator of the highest order, a giant who invented new ideas—harmonies, lines, use and placement of notes, sonorities—comparable to, as vibraphonist Tony Miceli says, Bach, and, as saxophonist Dave Liebman asserts, Arnold Schoenberg, the father of serial composition. Thus, composers, arrangers, and performers of all genres —jazz, rock, classical, even rap—are continually mining Bird's output for their work. Bird would have deeply appreciated this acknowledgement, for, as Daniel Schnyder set forth in his daring (2015) operatic setting of Bird's life Yardbird Suite, Parker had aspirations to be a composer of classical stature, including works for orchestra and other ensembles. Others are doing for him what he would have accomplished if he had a longer lifetime to do it.

Now, on with the tribute!

Sonny Rollins

One of the extraordinary things about the Prophet's music was that he eliminated bar lines, thus freeing him to create as only he could do. This opened up the ears of his audience and his fellow musicians to a new way of listening. Outside of music, his life and social impact were monumental. He illuminated issues that our world needed to hear about—issues that we are still confronting.

Charles McPherson

Bird's level of excellency should be the ideal of all great musicians. He has influenced all music since the early '40s, not just jazz. A great composer said that "written music should sound improvised, and improvised music should sound written." Bird completely exemplifies this statement. When I first heard him, what resonated with me was his sense of fluent melodic logic, executed with exquisite precision. That's why he's "Bird."

Joe Lovano

The overwhelming beauty and expression of Charlie Parker's joyous music makes you feel good. My dad heard him many times in Cleveland with his bands, sometimes with local folks and with strings. I grew up with stories and a nice record collection of Charlie Parker around me to absorb as a kid. I was captured at a young age and have been inspired ever since. His ideas, rhythm, melodic invention and flawless execution flows like a bird in flight. What I've learned and love most is how he plays his melody inside whatever song he's in. That has inspired me most about trying to be my own player in every musical collaboration.

Bobby Watson

Aside from his obvious virtuosity and innovations, To me, Charlie Parker's sound represents triumph over adversity. The first time I heard Bird on record, my soul was immediately uplifted and transported to a higher, happier place. Since that time, I have strived to capture that spontaneous spirit with my sound in my own way and try to pass it forward to those who will listen.

Rudresh Mahanthappa

Charlie Parker's innovation and genius are still very much alive. It's easy to think that his work is obsolete just because it was created over 70 years ago. The reality is that no one on the planet plays better than Charlie Parker and no one is doing more to propel this music forward than he did. Charlie Parker is not obsolete. His gifts are timeless and boundless.

Odean Pope

THE GENIUS OF CHARLIE PARKER CHANGED JAZZ HISTORY! Charlie Parker was born on August, 29, 1920 in Kansas City and died at the age of 34 in New York City on March 12, 1955 in the apartment of jazz patron Baroness Pannonica von Koenigswarter a week after a show at Birdland. Charlie Parker's sound was greatly influenced by Lester Young but was much faster and more harmonically adventurous. When he came to New York, his sound and improvisational skills were so advanced he made all of the musicians take another look at jazz history.

In 1944 he met Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. These men created what's come to be called bebop. Charlie Parker was a great teacher by just playing his horn and his compositions. After 100 years his extraordinary playing and his incredible compositions are still fresh. In my mind, Charlie Parker was and still is the improvisational messiah. (CHARLIE PARKER WAS AND STILL IS ONE OF THE GREATEST MINDS THIS COUNTRY HAS PRODUCED.)

Dave Liebman

There are two artists who were the most influential in the 20th century. This simply means they changed the face of music forever. Arnold Schoenberg and Charlie Parker accomplished just that.

In Bird's case there were some influential guys before him like Benny Carter, Lester Young, and Johnny Hodges to name a few. But Bird came from another time and place.... a parallel universe, completely original and far-reaching. The tone, speed, agility, soulfulness and overall craft places Bird in a category completely his own. We are still mining the field. I would've given a lot to have sat in front of Bird at a club much like I did with Coltrane in the '60s. He reached for the sky and touched it.

Champian Fulton

The music of Charlie Parker changed my life. I first heard Bird's music as a baby when my parents played Bird with Strings for me the day I was born. They considered it the most beautiful music in the world and so do I. Bird's approach to rhythm and harmony continue to inspire me as I attempt to continue his legacy and the legacy of jazz from the Southwest USA. I listen to a lot of jazz, but when a Bird record comes on, it's a different story. His music touches the listener like no other—his sound just reaches thru the speakers and right into one's soul. Even on a low fidelity recording, like a bootleg, it is as if he is standing right next to you. That's how magical his music is. 100 years of Charlie Parker! Bird Lives!

Steve Wilson

All of us who came after Charlie Parker carry his musical DNA. He created melodies that were simultaneously of profound elegance, harmonic complexity, rhythmic sophistication, and grounding in the soulfulness of the blues. Parker's music will be studied, analyzed, and performed well into the future.

Larry McKenna

Charlie Parker was in my opinion responsible, along with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell and a few others for establishing the language of bebop which in turn influenced all future jazz endeavors. You can also hear that influence in the music of big band arrangers, background for Sinatra, movie music, you name it. Musicians who never listened to Bird were unwittingly influenced by him.

Julian Pressley

Charlie Parker changed the vocabulary of all American music, the music of radio, television, theater shows and even commercial advertisements. And he changed the content of contemporary music worldwide. Bird also effected a sea change in improvisation and how the saxophone was played as a melodic and as an improvisational instrument. The sound of the horn became more streamlined and he eliminated the excessive vibrato and Baroque phrasing that many players before him utilized. Charlie Parker was a breath of fresh air.

Maxine Gordon, including words from Dexter Gordon:

Maxine:Happy Birthday Charlie Parker!

Dexter:"I first met Bird in '41, when he was still with Jay McShann. I was with Lionel Hampton's band. McShann's band was the house band at the Savoy ballroom and we worked in there opposite them. They had a wild, swinging band, too—very groovy. That was Bird's initial exposure there, I guess. I liked him and everything, but I didn't hear him enough to realize at the time that this was the cat. But he sounded real great and I dug him. I dug the whole band, in fact. It takes a lifetime to learn to play the music that Dizzy and Bird created.

Maxine: When Dizzy Gillespie received the Kennedy Center Honor in December 1990, he invited me to be there. At the fancy reception, Barbara Bush was there representing her husband the President. Dizzy was talking to her and he signaled me to come over. Then he said, "I was telling Babs that this award really belongs to Bird. We are two parts of the whole. Maxine, tell her who Bird is." Then he walked away and left me to tell Barbara Bush who Bird was and what Dizzy meant by what he said.

I never heard Dexter refer to Bird as "was." He always spoke about him in the present tense. When he listened to the recordings of Bird, he would shake his head and say, "That shit is impossible." Then he would laugh and have a far away look which made me think he was back in 1945 at the Spotlite Club."

Richie Beirach

In my opinion there are three absolutely essential jazz musicians that without their great contributions the music we love and call jazz would not have sustained its interest and rich history. They are: Louis Armstrong; Charlie Parker; John Coltrane. This is not a short list of favorites or best or anything like that. They are the fundamental creators of such importance that it's quite impossible to imagine jazz music without them.

Bird was shockingly brilliant and had the effect of a transformative state of grace on those that have been lucky enough to hear him in person when he was alive. But even on recordings or poor quality videos his stunning creativity burns through: the searing power of his alto sax sound, just that amazingly full rich but heart pulling resonance gets into your ear and takes up permanent residence in your heart. To hear Bird is to feel happy, lighter, free, like he was flying through the tough bebop changes he loved to use as a template for his musical view of the world.

His short, tragic, but musically triumphant life was the old story of Icarus, flying too close to the creative sun source: Icarus and Bird just burned up. That was a terrible parallel with Trane, John only living five years longer than Bird, but even with the constant adversity, racism, drug addiction, health issues both Trane and Bird left an astounding legacy of recording after recording of iconic life-changing music.

Bird of course didn't do it alone. Jazz is a social music, needing small groups of peers to create the ideal situation for creativity and development. Bird eventually found his people: Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Monk. Curly Russell. Charles Mingus. But Bird was the fulcrum upon which the other architects of bebop used as a kind of Hubble Telescope to help navigate their own developments.

Bird stood out even from those other giants. Think of the giant redwoods, those immensely tall sequoia trees. There is always one higher than the others, acting as a beacon for the other tall trees. He was more than just a great saxophonist and creative improviser. He had an enormous heart, and this everyone could hear in the instant humanity of his sound. Bird's sound on the alto became the most identifiable sound of bebop in the world over time, just the way Pops' (Armstrong's) trumpet and Trane's tenor sound became iconically universal as to the true but unspoken poetry of jazz music.

Bird had the two mandatory elements in his playing. First, he had the cry, the intuitive soul wrenching sound and fury of jazz, the hurt, the love, the terror, the pride, anger, and tenderness the best jazz must have. And the second thing was: the knowledge, the intellect. Bird knew what he was doing!!! He was a street intellectual. He took lessons with the composer Edgar Varese in Paris. He was not a dumb helpless genius. His intelligence was finely tuned. It still seems incredible that he only lived 35 years. But Mozart only made it to his mid-30s too!! But in the end after all the investigations, analysis, and observations, it was Bird's enormous humanity that gave his music its universality, and curiously gave it its element of being personal. Maybe it was universal because it was so personal Anyway Happy B'day Bird !!! We miss you terribly...

Michael Blake

From the first time I heard Charlie Parker, when I was a teenager his sound struck me like a lightening bolt. Through his music I heard a man capable of making sense of the complex and chaotic world we live in. Bird was a self educated, well spoken genius who managed to defy adversity by spearheading a movement to reshape jazz into a new art form.

Jim Ridl

The music of Charlie Parker, his individual playing, compositions and recordings, continues to guide and enlighten the minds of every generation. Like the Big Bang, his ever-expanding influence moves us forward in time. His singular solos inform the vocabulary for all improvising jazz musicians. Bird had as profound an effect on western music as did J. S. Bach. Bird and Bach created some of the most elegant and sophisticated phrases in music. Both monumental artists expressed so much within a single voice. Happy 100th Birthday Charlie Parker and thank you for your music that is celebrated and heard everyday somewhere in the world!

Tony Miceli

I always tell my students that if there is reincarnation, that Bach came back as Charlie Parker. Bebop for me is the end of the line with chromatic tonal improvising. And Charlie Parker led the way. I know others helped create the language and the language was already there in classical music but Parker wrapped it up and put a bow on it. He finalized the process along with Dizzy and Wardell Gray and others. However, he's the father.

Brian Landrus

When I was 12 I discovered Bird. I was playing through the Charlie Parker Omnibook ("Yardbird Suite" to be exact) with my teacher and he explained how the solo was an improvisation. Something clicked at that moment and I knew my purpose for being here. From that moment on I dedicated my life to pursuing the advancement of my artistic abilities. When I became serious with bass clarinet (ten years later), the first thing I did was begin to transcribe everything I could find from both Lester Young and Charlie Parker. To this day I play Bird's music and it makes me smile. His genius, ingenuity, harmonic and rhythmic advancement, and flat out creativity are awe inspiring. There are few artists in our history who reach this level of brilliance-Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Ravel, Debussy, Ellington, Monk, etc...

David Bixler

Having been asked to comment on Bird, it's ironic that I am coincidentally in a return to Bird listening phase. I started listening to him when I was in high school, and even though I didn't understand what he was doing, I loved it. Having now pursued creating this music for my adult life, maybe once a year or every two years something triggers my desire to go back and check him out intensely, and I am always struck, like I am now, with how bad he was. With time, and as I'm capable of hearing and understanding more, I listen in awe as he creates melodies that are so sophisticated both harmonically and rhythmically. It's obvious that he was way ahead of his time; I can listen to and work on something more contemporary or something that is touted as the new thing, but when I put on Bird, the clarity is overwhelming. It's time to go to school.

Fumi Tomita

Charlie Parker's vision of bebop is critical and he should be remembered always for his accomplishments. In today's climate of Black Lives Matter, it's also important to remember that his music was also a form of social protest during a time when African Americans could not voice their opinions without serious repercussion.

Daniel Hersog

Charlie Parker created the improvisational language that defines jazz improvisation to this day. Bird's approach to line, voice leading, interpretation of a melody, and time feel remain the gold standard for so many musicians improvising in a straight-ahead jazz context. Learning Parker's solos have become a central feature of jazz pedagogy, for musicians of all instruments, further cementing his impact on anyone who plays this music.

Homer Jackson

I have to start by saying that I was born after Charlie "Yardbird" Parker's death, so I never got to see him perform live. I also wasn't hip to his music until I was well into my teens and came to him via the music of folks like Eddie Jefferson, John Coltrane and Jackie McLean. That said, as a Philadelphian, I grew up in a community that was full of Bird's apostles and jazz tall tales.

The fact that Dizzy Gillespie launched his professional career here in Philly and remained deeply tied to this town would be key to both all things bop and a general adoration of Bird here. The musicians who formed the Golden Age of Philly Jazz were all Bird-Watchers. I'm talking about Jimmy Heath, John Coltrane, Jimmy Smith, Benny Golson, Jimmy Stewart, Clifford Brown, Lee Morgan, Sam Reed and many, many others well known and unknown.

Tenor sax man Sam Reed once told me a story about how as a youngster, he was asked by Bird to hold his white plastic alto sax for him. He was so nervous that he was soaking wet by the time Parker returned to retrieve his horn. R&B vocalist Billy Paul shares a tale about how as an anxious 15 year old, he was invited by Bird to sing with his group at a local ballroom for a few nights. These kinds of stories abound amongst most jazz elders here.

Ultimately, Bird's influence cannot not be truly measured. Much like that of Louis Armstrong's, it is deeply etched into the DNA of every artist who takes on the mantle of a Jazz musician.

Ken Schaphorst

Everyone knows that Charlie Parker is one of the most gifted improvisers in the history of jazz. His virtuosity and lyricism is almost unparalleled. But his composing is often overlooked, perhaps because he did it so effortlessly, famously scribbling melodies on napkins and scraps of paper on the way to recording sessions. But anyone who has tried to imitate Parker's gracefully angular lines, together with his complex and unpredictable rhythmic vocabulary, knows how perfectly balanced his compositions are. Like his playing, it's easy to capture the surface of Parker's style: the licks, the eighth notes. But no one has ever captured his subtle underlying musical logic and humanity.

Tia Fuller

Charlie Parker set the standard of what EXCELLENCE looks and sounds like! His voice is not only the landscape of the bebop era, but also has transcended generations and served as the root for mastery of technique, sound, concept, and discovery. He continues to serve as the foundation for improvisation yesterday, today and tomorrow. Thank you, Charlie Parker, for giving us ALL the permission to be unapologetic in constantly seeking beyond "what is," and digging deeper into "infinite possibilities." Essentially, creating new opportunities of innovation... yielding mastery and excellence.

Stephane Spira

Charlie Parker changed the direction of jazz forever. A century after his birth, it seems to me that there is still jazz before Charlie Parker and after Charlie Parker. Every single jazz musician on the planet playing any instrument is still influenced by the sophisticated vocabulary Parker created (with a few others) even if some (including myself) try not to be... He personifies Bebop with unique genius and clarity...

As a French musician, I'm also struck by the way in which Parker's revolutionary music emerged during the apocalyptic time of WW2. I believe his music, aside from being the most technically challenging jazz form, was calling for profound change in the midst of troubled times.

Parker's is a warrior's music that strongly opposed the saccharine allure of easy listening. An oppressed minority group in the US was creating music that clearly went against the established musical current. Bebop wasn't for dancing or basic commercial entertainment. It was meant to be listened to like Debussy or Ravel. It was incredibly sophisticated and the technical proficiency required to play it extended way beyond the commercial music produced by Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey or Artie Shaw.

To my French eyes and ears—after living in New York for 10 years—here is an American paradox: A new sound that gave hope to so many in Europe and was recognized as the only true American art form (jazz) was produced by an oppressed community. Black people were often denied access to their own music (Charlie Parker had to take a job washing dishes in a jazz club so he could listen to his hero Art Tatum). Most Americans (including musicologists) would only see Charlie Parker as a drug addict who played noise instead of music. In a troubled Europe, where minority groups were being slaughtered, Charlie Parker was perceived as a musical genius on par with the great western European classical composers and as an ambassador of freedom that to Europeans was the essence of what America stood for!

And still to my ears, Charlie Parker's music only sounds authentic when played by the few musicians who are still around that were part of the original creative process. We are so lucky that recordings were still made despite the war effort and limited wax supply. Parker's contribution to Jazz continues to reverberate and blossom in new ways. Sadly, the warriors of today are still fighting the same fight...

Ben Rosenblum

As with so many other jazz musicians, Charlie Parker's music was one of my first great loves growing up. He made any composition he played sound like he wrote it, with the unfettered confidence of his rhythmic presence and his brilliant melodic and harmonic concept that has shaped generations of musicians to come. When I was young, I loved that I could always tell immediately it was Bird. His sound was so signature, his lines so unique and his phrasing so free. As I learned more about jazz history, I began to appreciate just how different his ideas were at the time, and I continue to marvel at his incredible courage to stay true to his musical vision, no matter how iconoclastic or controversial. It goes without saying that Charlie Parker has influenced every straight-ahead jazz musician performing today. Some of my friends believe Bird's music represents the pinnacle of jazz, and I can absolutely understand why they think that. Bird's music sounds as fresh and modern today as I imagine it did then. And certainly as a pianist, when I hear Bud Powell adopting and translating Bird's language to the piano, it is satisfying and complete to me in a way that not much music is. But perhaps more than anything, I deeply admire that Bird was constantly thinking about developing and exploring further. One can see the beginnings of this in 1950, when his interest in classical music led him to convince Norman Granz to sponsor Bird with Strings. Had Charlie Parker not died tragically young, I am positive we would speak about the scope of his career in the same way we do someone like Miles Davis—as a bandleader who continually reinvented himself and was always at the forefront of redefining what was new and modern, but who always stayed true to his musical voice. Thank you Bird for your artistic legacy, and it is an honor to celebrate your centennial."

One more from Rudresh Mahanthappa

While we bask in the brilliance of Bird and his forward-thinking and groundbreaking concepts and ideas, let's not forget that one of Parker's greatest assets was his dedication to perfecting his craft. His drive, determination, persistence, perseverance, and hard work should be considered an exemplary path forward for anyone wishing to be the best they can be regardless of field or discipline.
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