Charlie Parker


ParkerI 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.


Charlie Parker, “Billie’s Bounce”

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.

Charlie Parker, “Au Privave”

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).

Charlie Parker, “Ornithology”

William-Gottlieb-Charlie-Parker-and-Miles-Davis-1947Bebop 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.

Charlie Parker, “Confirmation”

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.

Charlie Parker, “Koko”

Charlie-Parker-in-1952-001Unfortunately 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_Parker_Lincoln_CemeteryCharlie “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.

Charlie Parker, The Best of the Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings on Spotify



A Snapshot of 1929

A Snapshot of 1929

1929 Model A Ford

1929 Model A Ford

The twentieth century in music brought in a modern world that was fragmented in many directions at once.  Thanks to recording technology, it was a musical world that was preserved for us to still hear today.  Before the twentieth century, the only ways to preserve music was to write it down as best as possible, or by keeping alive an aural tradition by teaching the next generation to sing the same songs.  With the invention of sound recording, we can actually hear all of the nuances of musical performance as it existed at that moment in time.  This was a huge evolutionary leap, and the sounds of music grew in a multitude of ways.

Let’s take the year 1929 as an example, and listen to a selection of things that could be heard at that time.  One of the first selections that comes to my mind when you mention the year 1929, is the great Duke Ellington’s time at the Cotton Club in Harlem.  This stint was early in Duke’s career, and lasted only a few years.  This is very artful music of the big band era.  Here is a recording with three tunes, “Jungle Nights in Harlem”, “Saratoga Swing”, and “Haunted Nights”

Duke Ellington’s Cotton Club Orchestra, 1929

Also in jazz, the great Louis Armstrong was growing in importance as a singer, as well as a trumpeter.  1929 saw Satchmo record “When You’re Smiling” for the first of several times in his career.  The double entendre of the record for me is that Pops himself had a famous smile, and his singing always seems to inspire a grin for those who listen to him.

Louis Armstrong, “When You’re Smiling”

Stock CrashThe Stock Market Crash of 1929 had lots of people singing the blues, continuing for many years into the Great Depression.  In the Mississippi Delta, lots of blues singers were being recorded, and those records sold throughout the American South.  One of the most popular blues records that year was “That Crawlin Baby Blues” by Blind Lemon Jefferson.

Blind Lemon Jefferson, “That Crawlin Baby Blues”

One of the most influential musicians of the day was the blues and folk singer Charlie Patton.  Just a few years ago, the great Bob Dylan released a song paying tribute to Patton.  Patton had to be one of the more organized musicians of his day. Instead of just wandering around the Mississippi Delta looking for places to play, he actually had scheduled gigs from place to place.  His recordings are more essential listening from the Delta.

Charlie Patton, “High Water Everywhere”

Elsewhere in the world, Arnold Schoenberg was causing a stir by throwing out tonality and writing music using his twelve-tone system.  Schoenberg was in full serial dodecaphonic mode in 1929 when he wrote the Piano Piece Opus 33a.  Arnold had turned Vienna and the rest of the classical music world on its ear by “emancipating the dissonance” and writing music that did not center around one home note.  At first listen, this may sound like chaos, but it is highly ordered music around a structure that keeps all twelve tones of the chromatic scale circulating all the time.  I love this video, because of the way it demonstrates the critical nature of using multiple colors of highlighters to analyze Schoenberg’s music.

Arnold Schoenberg, Piano Piece Op 33a

In Russia, a young Dmitri Shostakovich was a rising star in the Russian musical world.  He hadn’t yet felt the full oppressive force of the Stalinist dictatorship that would haunt his whole existence.  His opera, “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District”, wouldn’t get him in hot water with the Party for another 5 years.  In 1929, Dimitri was finishing his third Symphony, with a vocal finale either celebrating or satirizing the revolution.  (It’s sometimes hard to tell with Shostakovich).

Dmitri Shostakovich, Symphony No. 3, Opus 20.  “The First of May”

Heading back to where we started, in New York City, the Kern and Hammerstein musical “Show Boat” was in its second year on Broadway.  This was near the birth of a whole new genre, the Broadway musical, something different than opera or light operetta.  It is an entirely different category of musical theatre that has reached millions of people.   One of the biggest hit tunes of “Show Boat” is “Ol Man River”

Kern and Hammerstein, Show Boat, “Ol Man River”

Broadway_Melody_posterIn the world of motion pictures, both sound and technicolor were now available for films, ending the career of more than one silent movie star.  1929 was near the beginning of the “Golden Age of Hollywood”, where the major studio system dominated the production of movies.  The Academy Award for Best Picture in 1929 went to “The Broadway Melody”, the first time the award was given to a sound movie.  One of the popular tunes to come out of that movie was “You Were Meant For Me”

The Broadway Melody, “Your Were Meant For Me”

This has been just a handful of things that could be heard around the world in 1929.  The selection of examples is of course weighted to the stuff I am familiar with, but that is my privilege because it’s my blog.  Please feel free to share your favorite examples of music from 1929 by posting your comments.

Pops Is Still Hot After All These Years

Pops Is Still Hot After All These Years

another young louisA couple of months ago, I wrote a bit about the recordings of the delta bluesman, Robert Johnson.    The mere 42 tracks left by Johnson at the time of his death are some of the most influential music ever recorded.  That thought got me thinking about what other recordings have had a giant influence in the world of music.  The first thing that came to mind was the legendary recordings of Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five and Hot Seven.  If you have ever played a jazz solo, or picked up a trumpet, or sang a popular song, you owe a debt of gratitude to Louis Armstrong.

Hot five photoNicknamed “Satchmo” or “Pops”, Louis Armstrong followed Joe “King” Oliver from New Orleans to Chicago and played in Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band.  Armstrong followed the advice of his second wife, piano player Lil Hardin Armstrong, and broke away from Oliver to record under his own name.  The Hot Five and Hot Seven groups were the first recordings made with Louis leading his own group.  They were studio recordings made in Chicago from 1925 to 1928.  There were actually two different Hot Five bands with different musicians playing with Armstrong.  The instrumentation was a classic New Orleans jazz group, with a trumpet, clarinet and trombone horn line, backed by a piano and either a guitar or banjo.  The Hot Seven session added drums and a tuba to the group.

One of my favorite tracks from the Hot Seven sessions is “Potato Head Blues”

Pops blows some great trumpet on this recording.

Potato Head Blues

Although all of these recordings have roots in the collective improvisation style of a Dixieland band, increasingly it was Louis Armstrong’s trumpet solos and vocals that stood out.  Take the opening trumpet line of “West End Blues” for example.  Satchmo just stood up with his horn and blew, and out came this solo that trumpet players have been practicing ever since.

West End Blues

A careful listening of these recordings reveals a wide range of emotional expression.  These were made to be popular records, of a certain length to fit on a single to sell.  Many people point out the occasional flub or missed note, but for me there is a great deal of artistry packed into the 3 or 4 minutes of each track.  There is melancholy sadness underlying  tunes like “St. James Infirmary”.

St James Infirmary

This sorrowful tone is exaggerated even more on a slower version recorded by Pops later in his career.

St. James Infirmary, slower version

On the opposite end of the emotional spectrum is the unbridled fun of “Irish Black Bottom”.  The “black bottom” was a popular dance in the 1920’s.  I will refrain from trying to demonstrate it, and I am sure you will thank me for my restraint.  This novelty tune pretends that this dance was becoming all the rage in Ireland.  It’s a record that doesn’t try to be anything but fun.

Irish Black Bottom

Complete hot five and sevenThese records are still hot after all these years.  They have been collected as the Complete Hot Five and Seven Recordings, and every last one is worth hearing.  A great place to start might be the selections in The Best of the Hot 5 & Hot 7 Recordings.  Pops was a star for decades, even displacing the Beatles from the number one spot on the Billboard charts during the height of their popularity.  Armstrong taught us how to swing, to phrase, and how to solo.  He is definitely one of the foundations of American music.

The Best of the Hot 5 & Hot 7 Recordings on Spotify