This year, venues around the country have been celebrating the “Bird 100 Centennial” to commemorate the birth of jazz saxophonist Charles “Charlie” Parker, who was born Aug. 29, 1920. Parker is often referred to by the nicknames “Yardbird,” or just “Bird.” With the “Bird 100 Centennial” in mind, it’s fitting to kick off this first of several saxophone segments of #BlackMusicSunday in his honor.
After covering Black pianists and bassists, I got a bit overwhelmed by the Sisyphean task of shifting to the saxophone; there are just too many greats to cover in a couple of stories. After some consultation with musician friends, I decided to split it up by the instrument they played, starting with alto sax, followed by tenor, with an additional story on baritone, and soprano after that. We’ll see how it goes.
For jazz aficionados and bebop fans, Bird needs no introduction. However, for those who aren’t familiar with either Bird or bebop—the jazz genre to which Parker contributed so much—PBS’ Sound Field, hosted by drummer L.A. Buckner, produced this amusing short introduction and review, noting that Bird didn’t care if people could dance to his music.
One of the Bird’s tunes discussed in the program was “Cherokee.” Listen to a young Parker—just 21 years old— playing the jazz standard in 1941 in his hometown of Kansas City.
If you want to steep yourself in all things Charlie Parker, the Bird Lives website in the U.K. has a wealth of information.
The environment (Parker) was born into and grew up in would have had a significant influence on his development. However, understanding the first ten years of his life has been difficult largely due to the few scraps of information his family and friends have recorded, some of which are incorrect or inaccurate. Because of this, most critics tend to skip over this period and in doing so, they reinforce the myth of the enigmatic musician who appeared, as if “out of nowhere,” in the late 30s early 40s.
Known as “Paris on the Plains,” Kansas City was the most vibrant city in America at the time. With the laissez-faire political attitude of Tom Pendergast, “Jazz Age” Kansas City was alive with music, dancing, drinking, and commerce. It was the beginning of Prohibition, and later in the Depression, Kansas was a place where unemployed musicians could ply their trade, where clubs stayed open all night and where extortion, gambling, prostitution were overlooked by the authorities. In the Roaring Twenties, the music in Kansas City amalgamated blues, big brass bands, and ragtime, crediting the city as the birthplace of Swing. This music would entertain America through to the end of Second World War, but would eventually be supplanted by the innovations of an exceptional hometown boy.
Charlie was born in the same year as Okeh Records brought out the historic record of Mamie Smith singing “You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down” and “That Thing Called Love.” The success of these songs, and later “Crazy Blues,” (is) recognised as the moment the American phonograph industry realised there was money to be made from black American music, or “race” records. It was also the same month that Marcus Garvey presented his “Back to Africa” program in NYC.
The Charlie Parker website managed by his estate continues his story. This bio was written by Chuck Haddix, the author of Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker.
Parker cut his musical teeth hanging out in the alleyways behind the nightclubs lining 12th Street in Kansas City, Missouri where Count Basie, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams and other jazz legends engaged in marathon jam sessions. In 1936, Parker sat in at jam session at the legendary Reno Club and musically faltered while soloing on “Honeysuckle Rose.” Drummer Jo Jones showed his displeasure by tossing his cymbal at Parker’s feet. After being laughed off the stage, Parker vowed to never be caught off guard at a jam session again. He spent the next summer playing at a resort in the Lake of the Ozarks, 150 miles southeast of Kansas City. Off-hours, he practiced diligently, learning all the chord changes and inversions. By all reports, he returned to Kansas City a musically changed man.
After passing through the ranks of the Buster Smith and Harlan Leonard bands, Parker joined a young, up-and-coming band led by pianist Jay McShann. The genial McShann gave the undisciplined Parker the freedom to blossom musically and personally. In April 1941, the band recorded for the Decca label in Dallas, Texas. Charlie’s 12-bar solo on “Hootie Blues” astounded musicians and fans alike.
In 1942, Parker moved to New York with the McShann band, where they opened at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem. Parker became a star soloist at the Savoy. Nightly broadcasts from the Savoy attracted a throng of young musicians who crowded the stage to hear Parker in person. After-hours, Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and other modernists pioneered bebop–a revolution in jazz.
I don’t know how many of you have ever been to a jazz club, but until smoking was banned indoors, most of the jazz clubs in every town were small, dimly lit, and filled with smoke from cigarettes, cigars, and sometimes weed.
On July 26, 1953, Charlie Parker performed at the Open Door, a club near Washington Square in New York’s Greenwich Village, with trumpeter Benny Harris, pianists Bud Powell and Al Haig, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Art Taylor. This was exactly when Jack Kerouac was hanging out at the Open Door, absorbing the sights and sounds and taking notes that would soon form the basis for his novel The Subterraneans. It is possible and even likely that Kerouac was in the audience while these recordings were being made. The aural ambience is literally shaped by the room, the cigarette smoke, the crowd, the intoxicants, and the primitive tape-recording apparatus used to capture these precious moments near the end of Charlie Parker‘s brief life.
If you’re used to the crisp, clean recordings done in studios or in concert venues, you would be surprised to hear jazz the way it existed in the clubs.
As we draw towards the end of the year, another major Bird date to celebrate is his epic 1945 recording session.
Colin Fleming chronicled the details and the backstory of the amazing session for JazzTimes back in August.
It is November 26, 1945 in New York City, the Monday morning after the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and producer Teddy Reig has arrived at the apartment of Charlie Parker to fetch the alto saxophonist—who required some looking after—and bring him to WOR Studios. The previous week, toasts had been drunk over the signing of a Union contract for a standard recording session, something that hadn’t been standard for quite some time; there had been a two-year ban on such sessions to save on shellac as part of the war rationing effort. The session is to last for three hours, with the aim of producing four sides.
The paperwork stipulates the presence of Parker, Miles Davis on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums. The compositions are slated as Charlie Parker originals, which, as we will see, means nothing so simple as “These are my tunes.” The altoist opens the door, greets Reig, then informs him that the brilliant Bud Powell will not be making the date after all. He’s gone to Philly with his mom so she can buy a house.
But someone had spent the night at Parker’s crib, and that person was Dizzy Gillespie. “Here’s your piano player,” Parker informs the confused Reig as the latter eyes the man soon to be known as America’s modern trumpet virtuoso. Never mind the switch on instruments, Parker says. Everything is going to work out just fine.
And so it did. Here’s one of the results.
And then there was the incomparable Ella Fitzgerald, whose solo on the tune took scat to another level. I realize that in just about everything I write about jazz artists I somehow find my way back to Fitzgerald, who for me will always be “The First Lady of Song.”
Another example is “Parker’s Mood.” This version was recorded on Sept. 18, 1948 in New York City, and performed by “Charlie Parker’s All Stars,” with John Lewis on piano, Curly Russell on bass, and Max Roach on the drums.
King Pleasure’s version has received kudos from vocalese fans.
“Pleasure’s most profound—and eerie—lyric was for Charlie Parker’s song “Parker’s Mood.” Parker’s original recording was made in 1948, and the King Pleasure version was recorded in 1953. The song is a pensive, dirgelike blues, and Pleasure works with both the blues lexicon and the dirge quality of the original.”
Check it out.
I realize I haven’t talked about his nickname, “Yardbird,” which got shortened to “Bird.” Bandleader Jay McShann discussed the nickname in an interview for American Masters on PBS.
Charlie Parker’s nickname “Yardbird” came to be while he was on the way to a gig with some fellow musicians and involved a bird in a yard that had an unfortunate fate.
Listen for yourself.
Parker clearly had no problem with the ribbing he got about the roadkill chicken. In 1946, he composed “Yardbird Suite.”
It wasn’t long before vocal versions emerged.
McRae performed “Yardbird Suite” often and originally recorded it on her 1955 album By Special Request. However, in the liner notes to a 1991 compilation (Here to Stay) of her early Decca recordings, Dick Katz recalls that on March 12, 1955, he was on stage with Carmen when she performed the song around midnight at Carnegie Hall. “Later we learned that Bird had died that night, perhaps while Carmen was singing Eddie Jefferson’s vocal setting of his tune.” But the lyric which she sang was Parker’s own.
McRae’s version is a song of heartbreak.
It’s hard to learn How tears can burn one’s heart But that’s a thing that I found out Too late I guess, cause I’m in a mess My faith has gone Why lead me on this way? I thought there’d be no price on love But I had to pay If I could perform one miracle I’d revive your thoughts of me Yet I know that it’s hopeless You could never really care That’s why I despair! I’ll go along hoping Someday you’ll learn The flame in my heart, dear Forever will burn!
I have always loved Bob Dorough’s tribute to Bird in his “Yardbird Suite.” If fact, whenever anyone mentions Bird, I hear Dorough’s lyrics: “Charles ‘Yardbird’ Parker was his name. The facts: He carved his name in history. A sax for his axe,” in the back of my mind.
Singer/songwriter/pianist Dorough recorded his lyric on his 1956 debut album Devil May Care. Vocalist Karrin Allyson sang his lyric on her 1995 album Azure Te. Neither album credits Dorough for the lyric which pays homage to the great talent and influence of the alto saxophonist:
His improvisation was miraculous, Mastermind of rhythm was he, He blew notes that nobody had ever blown before, till then Blew ‘em as they’d never been.
Dorough told jazzstandards.com, “When Bird died (March, 1955) I decided to try a ‘vocalese’ on one of his tunes, and I picked ‘Yardbird Suite’ as being songlike and a bit atypical of Parker. I was influenced by the work of Annie Ross and King Pleasure, and I set myself the goal of lyricizing the riff and Bird’s chorus. It was quite a struggle and took several months of living with that piece. Because of legal difficulties I put no claim on the lyric, and the LP said merely ‘Yardbird Suite’ (Charlie Parker). Years later I got some sort of approval from Atlantic Music and a copyright on ‘Yardbird Suite (Charles ‘Yardbird’ Parker Was His Name).’” This explains why Dorough is not credited for the lyric on vocal versions using the original Parker title, “Yardbird Suite.”
Enjoy the Yardbird story, set to the “Yardbird Suite.”
There are hundreds of essays, articles, and sections of books written about Bird and his music since he’s long achieved the status of an icon. One that I thoroughly enjoyed reading was “Bird: The brilliance of Charlie Parker” by Whitney Balliet for The New Yorker, which was written back in 1976.
Parker had a unique tone; no other saxophonist has achieved as human a sound. It could be edgy, and even sharp. (He used the hardest and most technically difficult of the reeds.) It could be smooth and big and sombre. It could be soft and husky. Unlike most saxophonists of his time, who took their cue from Coleman Hawkins, he used almost no vibrato; when he did, it was only a flutter, a murmur. The blues lived in every room of his style, and he was one of the most striking and affecting blues improvisers we have had. His slow blues had a preaching, admonitory quality (“Parker’s Mood,” “Barbados,” and “Blue Bird”). […] All of them contained an extraordinary variety of emotion. He cajoled, he attacked, he mourned, he sang, he laughed, he cursed. Perhaps his reliance on drugs and booze was an instinctive attempt to replenish his creative well, for every solo was a free and wondrously articulated giving of himself.
But there was another, quite different Parker—the Parker who played slow ballads, such as “Embraceable You” and “Don’t Blame Me” and “White Christmas.” Here he went several steps further than he did with the blues. He literally dismantled a composer’s song and put together a structure ten times as complex. New chords and harmonies appeared, along with new melodic lines that moved high above the unsounded original. (He would, though, always inject pieces of the melody as signposts for the listener.) He could do anything he liked with time, and in his ballads he lagged behind the beat, floated easily along on it, or leapt ahead of it; he did things with time that no one had yet thought of and that no one has yet surpassed. His ballads were dense visions, glimpses into an unknown musical dimension. Although they were perfectly structured, they seemed to have no beginnings and no endings; each was simply another of the visions that stirred and maddened his mind. Thus his 1947 version of “Embraceable You,” which, so brief, so intense, so beautiful, remains one of the monuments of music.
Here’s the aforementioned “Embraceable You.”
Parker was also the subject of the Clint Eastwood biopic, Bird, for which Forest Whitaker received the Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 1988. Eastwood is a jazz fan, so it came as no surprise to those who know his musical tastes that he would attempt to capture Bird on screen.
As Roger Ebert wrote in 1988:
“Bird” wisely does not attempt to “explain” Parker’s music by connecting experiences with musical discoveries. This is a film of music, not about it, and one of the most extraordinary things about it is that we are really, literally, hearing Parker on the soundtrack.
Eastwood and Lennie Niehaus, his music coordinator, began with actual Parker recordings, some of them from Chan Parker’s private collection.
They isolated the Parker tracks, scrubbed them electronically, recombined them with contemporary sidemen, and created a pure, clean, new stereophonic soundtrack on which Parker’s saxophone is unmistakably present.
Documentary fans will want to settle in and take a look at The Bird: Charlie “Bird” Parker, 1920-1955, which tells his life in four distinct chapters.
I realize I’ve barely scratched the surface of all things Bird, and we have yet to talk about alto sax players like Don Redman, Johnny Hodges, Benny Carter, Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean, Art Pepper, and Ornette Coleman. There are also up and coming young artists who are carrying the tradition forward, and among them are some young women who are establishing themselves. Stay tuned!
I’ll close for now with this tribute. Charlie Parker died at 35 in the hotel apartment of Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter in March 1955 of lobar pneumonia, and of the accumulated effects of long-term substance abuse. After Bird died, beat poet and novelist Jack Kerouac wrote an elegy for him.
I’ll quote part of it here.
Charlie Parker looked like Buddha Charlie Parker who recently died laughing at a juggler on TV After weeks of strain and sickness Was called the perfect musician And his expression on his face Was as calm, beautiful and profound As the image of the Buddha Represented in the East — the lidded eyes The expression that says: all is well
This was what Charlie Parker said when he played: all is well You had the feeling of early-in-the-morning Like a hermit’s joy Or like the perfect cry of some wild gang at a jam session Wail! Whap! Charlie burst his lungs to reach The speed of what the speedsters wanted And what they wanted was his eternal slowdown A great musician And a great creator of forms That ultimately find expression In mores and what-have-you
Musically as important as Beethoven Yet not regarded as such at all A genteel conductor of string orchestras In front of which he stood proud and calm Like a leader of music in the great historic Worldnight And wailed his little saxophone The alto With piercing, clear lament In perfect tune and shining harmony Toot!
See you in the comments for more Bird, and more alto sax.