In my last year at University, I became obsessed with Charlie “Bird” Parker, the enormously influential jazz musician.
Parker was an American saxophonist and composer. He was born in Kansas City in 1920 and died in the Stanhope Hotel, New York in 1955, aged only 34. Such was his fame and reputation, that only a few hours after his death, a giant graffiti “Bird Lives” appeared in the New York subways. He had abused his body with drugs and alcohol to such an extent that the coroner mistakenly estimated his body to be between 50 and 60 years old.
Parker was a leading developer of bebop which was characterised by a blistering pace, virtuoso improvisation and technique built on harmonic structures. Many of his tracks became standards such as “Anthropology,” “Billy’s Bounce” and “Now Is the Time.” He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including a tonal vocabulary employing 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords, rapidly implied passing chords, and new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. Parker was also a consummate blues player and could fuse jazz with other styles from Latin music to classical. In his day, he was so admired by other musicians that they shamelessly copied him. After his death, his numerous recordings blazed paths that were followed by others.
Parker also became an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat generation, personifying the conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than just a popular entertainer.
A huge amount has been written about Parker and he was the subject of the acclaimed 1988 film, Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Forest Whittaker. My father bought me arguably the best book about Parker called The Triumph of Charlie Parker by Gary Giddins (first published in 1987 by Hodder & Stoughton). It’s superbly written, full of wonderful photographs and a book I still treasure today.
However, the purpose of this blog is not to provide a biographical account of Parker’s life but to give you a slight favour of Bird’s genius by means of a few contemporary and personal anecdotes. Of course, it goes without saying that the best way to appreciate Parker is to listen to his music. Any “Best of” collection will do!
In 1937, Parker joined a band led by a pianist called Jay McShann. Bird rehearsed relentlessly (15 hours a day for 3 to 4 years) and became so good that his colleagues could only marvel at his talent. They were amused, too, by how fast his mind worked, as he imitated sounds echoing in from the street – engines, backfiring tires, auto horns – and worked them into musical phrases. He also learnt the trick of quoting melodies that had lyrical relevance to the moment. He might nod to a woman in blue with a snippet of “Alice Blue Gown,” or to woman in red with “The Lady in Red,” or comment on a woman headed to the ladies’ room with “I Know Where You’re Going.”
Later in his career, Parker became friendly with another musician called Buddy De Franco. When interviewed by Gary Giddins, De Franco recalled a young tenor saxophonist who challenged Bird on a track called “All the Things You Are.” Parker welcomed him to the stand, counted off the number and played in a key that nobody played. “The kid was devastated and Bird could do that to anybody. He taught me that trick of playing in all the keys, because it forces you away from your basic patterns – from what we call fail-safe jazz.”
Parker’s conversation with De Franco often turned to the great Russian composer, Prokofiev, since Bird knew Prokofiev was his favourite composer.
“Every time he’d get a new recording of Prokofiev, he’d say let’s go to my place and listen. He knew about so many things. We were in New York in the winter, working some concert together, and we’d been up all night. It was snowing, freezing cold, and I wanted to get back to the hotel and sleep, but we passed the Salvation Army band, and he says, “Wait a minute, let me hear this.” I can’t believe this is Charlie Parker standing in the snow listening to this horrible band – I missed whatever cues he found in there. Finally, I said, “OK, I’ll catch you later.” It wasn’t until next spring that I got a job on Fifty-Second Street. He was playing at another club and I go down during my breaks to hear him. The first time I walked in I sat very close to the stage; he gave me a little nod, pointed his sax at me, and played one of those pieces from the Salvation Army.”
In 1982, at the age of 15, I bought a used tenor saxophone, mainly because Marilyn Monroe said in Billy Wilder’s classic 1959 film, Some Like It Hot, that she always fell for the tenor sax players. However, I always found the tenor too heavy and in 1987, I switched to the smaller alto and started to practise compulsively. I also played the clarinet up to Grade 8 standard and this gave me an advantage.
There was one book I was desperate to buy but it was so popular that it was very difficult to obtain. Finally, in 1988, I was able to swap a load of records for what saxophonists reverentially called The Bible. This was a yellow book called the “Charlie Parker Omnibook” that transcribed Parker’s recorded solos exactly.
I remember how excited I was when I took my alto out of its case and leafed through the well worn pages of The Bible for the first time. I settled on “Ornithology” which is one of Parker’s most famous tracks. I stumbled slowly and awkwardly through Parker’s solo and then played it again and again. It was incredibly difficult to play but worse was to come. Once I’d played it numerous times, I listened to Parker’s original recording through my Walkman headphones and tried to keep up on my alto. Bird played the solo flawlessly about ten times faster than me and it was just impossible for me to maintain his pace.
At that point, I made a decision. Come what may, I would learn to play Ornithology at its proper speed and without a mistake. I thought it would take me a few days to do this. In fact, it took me three weeks of hard practise (at least two hours a day, every day) and even then I still sounded nothing like Parker. Meanwhile, the more I practised, the more I was filled with awe and admiration for Bird.
Once I’d finally got the hang of “Ornithology”, I moved on to another famous number, “Koko”. This was even faster and more complicated and it took me months to play it at the correct speed. Parker was a maestro and a genius and trying to emulate him only reinforced this. It was a truly humbling experience.
Eventually, I gave up trying to play Parker, it was just too damn hard but I still listen to his recordings all the time. And each time I hear a track, I hear something new.