I still remember the first time I heard a recording by Charlie Parker. I was 15 years old and the band director at the school was going to teach us to play “Billie’s Bounce”, or at least the melody of the tune. I don’t know what I thought Jazz was before I heard that record, but my brain soon learned, once I listened to the alto saxophone of Charlie Parker. My ears could barely listen fast enough to hear what was happening, I simply could not imagine someone who could play like that, let alone improvise as he went along. Simply put, it was a musical epiphany.
That day set me on a listening quest that led me from Bird to Diz, Miles, Monk, Clifford Brown, Coltrane, and on and on. I bathed in bebop, tuned my radio to the jazz music on the Ed Love Program in Detroit and broke off the tuning knob. I made pathetic attempts to play bebop tunes composed by Charlie Parker, sounds that probably still haunt my then neighbors to this day. I wore out the needle on the record player trying to play along with Jamey Aebersold books and records. My parents may have seriously considered moving to a new address and leaving me behind. In the old days, practicing your instrument was referred to as “woodsheddin” because one was forced out of the house to the distant shed to spare everyone’s ears. I’m sure my folks missed having a woodshed for me to go into during those years.
The recordings of Charlie Parker are as big a foundation of American music as two other figures I have written about on this blog, Robert Johnson and Louis Armstrong. One of the differences with Parker is, I can’t point to one album or collection that is key. Bird recorded under multiple labels with groups often thrown together just for the occasion. These tunes were collected and repackaged so many times, it is a bit of a research project to track the original releases. My approach was to simply grab the box sets of the complete recordings on Verve, and the complete Savoy and Dial sessions. (This encyclopedic method sits well with my Germanic DNA).
Bebop is a style of Jazz that was heavily influenced by the economics of the times. America was hunkered down in the effort of World War II. For a while, there was a recording ban while the raw materials to make the physical records were diverted to the war effort. Big Swing Bands simply couldn’t continue like they did before. The money wasn’t there. Bebop developed primarily as a small group kind of jazz, with greater emphasis on the soloist. Compositions were produced in mainly three patterns: blues tunes based on the 12 bar blues; rhythm tunes based on the chords to “I’ve Got Rhythm”; and tunes that used the chord structure of popular songs with new melodies composed over the top. This process lent itself to virtuoso players coming together for a performance with little rehearsal, as they were likely familiar with how the tunes were built, even if they never played them before.
Musicians substituted their own advanced harmonies over these chord patterns, with great chromaticism and a healthy dose of the blues sound. They also played many tunes at very fast tempos, to show off their skill and to fit as many choruses as possible on one side of a 78 rpm record. Bird was an absolute genius of solo improvisation. He had enormous natural talent of course, but also went through a period where he practiced 15 hours a day in the woodshed for several years. Charlie Parker is a master of music, and I will always stop and listen to any notes he played.
Unfortunately the story of Parker is also wound up with the evils of heroin addiction. He was in a car accident as a teenager, and became addicted to morphine while recovering in the hospital. Heroin was cheap and plentiful at the time, and Bird quickly graduated to that. Bird’s music was so revolutionary and idolized, that some musicians also tried heroin in an attempt to play like him. That didn’t help anyone. Charlie Parker made great music in spite of being a junkie, not because of it. Characteristic of an addict, he was often broke, missed gigs, was unreliable and even pawned his saxophone for drug money. Sometimes he did show up at a gig without an instrument and had to borrow a horn and reed for the night.
Charlie “Yardbird” Parker died 60 years ago in March of 1955. He was 35 years old, but the strain of his lifestyle had aged him greatly. The coroner mistook him for a man in his late 60’s when he first saw his dead body. His loss was a tragedy, both for what his music was and what it might have become. At the time, Parker was feeling restricted a bit by the confines of standard Bebop formulas, and no one could know what he would have moved on to. Bird’s life is a great cautionary tale of what not to do, as much as his music is a lesson in how to play jazz. Miles Davis once said “you can tell the history of Jazz in four words. Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker.”
There is no arguing with that.