Charlie Parker: The Man and His Music

“Critics and musicians have placed him in that inviolable musical trinity with Ellington and Armstrong, and still he remains the most elusive of our native-born geniuses”


August 29, 1975, marks the 55th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth and follows, by five months, the 20th anniversary of his death. There will be the usual tributes on radio, a memorial concert at Avery Fisher, and acknowledgements in jazz publications. Yet to most Americans, Parker’s name means little and his music less. Critics and musicians have placed him in that inviolable musical trinity with Ellington and Armstrong, and still he remains the most elusive of our native-born geniuses. Some observers, having noted the belated recognition of Scott Joplin and Billie Holiday, suggest that Charlie Parker’s time will come as well.

But this seems unlikely. True, Supersax, a band that plays transcriptions of Parker improvisations but without Parker’s expres­sive immediacy, is enjoying moderate popu­larity. Steely Dan, a rock group, has record­ed “Parker’s Band,” a stringing together of Parker cliches, which, in the absence of a liner annotation, is unlikely to be recognized as such by most of its fans. There is abundant movie material in Parker’s story and several books have been inspired by him, but there is little in his music to provide a foothold for mass acceptance, despite his own commer­cial recordings with strings and Latin rhythm. For that matter, the popular successes achieved by Ellington and Armstrong were unrelated to their best work. Moreover, if Parker was the pivotal figure in the founding of modern jazz, he was also the central force in moving jazz from the dance floor to a plateau where it had to be attended as an art or not at all. Parker was not a self-conscious revolutionary and though he evolved his music logically from prevailing jazz styles, he brought the music into an elitist arena where few swing fans were prepared to follow.

The music Parker innovated in conjunc­tion with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and others is still known by the onomatopoeia bebop. But bop was not created in a vacuum. Such epochal Parker-Gillespie masterpieces as “Shaw Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Koko” define a very different tableau from that imagined by Lester Young or Roy Eldridge, yet the styles of the younger players were originally mod­eled after their idols. Bop became a tradition unto itself when a new wave of players came along drawing exclusively on the achieve­ment of Parker’s generation. The originators of bop, however, were intimately involved with the playing of Young, Eldridge, Art Tatum, Jo Jones, Sid Catlett, Charlie Chris­tian, Bobby Hackett, Jimmy Blanton, Teddy Wilson, and other masters of the swing period. They must certainly have recognized the falsity of some of the claims made on behalf of bop.

It is easy enough to recognize bop as a style of music different from, say, swing or avante-garde, but attempts to isolate the distinguishing characteristics of bop can be treacherous. We hear a great deal about the complexity of bop, for example, yet nothing in its fabric was foreign to Ellington. Much has been made of the intensity and speed demanded by most bop compositions, but speed was also endemic to Eldridge, Tatum, and Armstrong. Bop musicians have been credited with first superimposing their own compositions on familiar chord progres­sions; but earlier examples of this practice include Benny Moten’s “Moten’s Swing” (based on “You’re Driving Me Crazy”), Sidney Bechet’s “Shag” (”I Got Rhythm”), and Ellington’s “In a Mellotone” (“Rose Room”). Most dramatically, bop musicians are said to have been the first to improvise on chords, rather than simply embellishing the given melody. Almost any handful of classic jazz recordings from the ’30s will refute this.

Another area of confusion concerns the relationship of bop to the big bands. The instrumentation of the Charlie Parker Quin­tet — sax. trumpet, piano, bass, drums — became the standard instrumentation for jazz until the ’60s, but it wasn’t the nature of the beast that required a small-group context nor did the musicians reject big bands entirely for musical reasons. The key figures in bop were actually trained in big bands: Parker with Jay McShann, Gillespie with Cab Calloway, Dexter Gordon with Armstrong, Max Roach with Benny Carter. Economic considerations have played a de­cisive role in every phase of jazz. The shoestring labels that recorded bop were hardly able to offer a musician the freedom to hire 15 men for a record date. But bop, like most schools of jazz, aspired to larger en­sembles. Gillespie formed a big band as soon as he could get the backing, Woody Her­man’s second herd was a bop band, and Tadd Dameron, the preeminent composer-ar­ranger of the movement, wrote for orches­tras whenever possible. Parker himself toured with a string ensemble of his own vo­lition.

The distinguishing characteristics of bop are immediately recognizable. The absence of vibrato and tonal coloration is necessitat­ed by the blazing tempos and the many-noted character of the solos. The techniques with which a bop solo is constructed might be discussed in jargon like flattened fifths, the higher intervals of chords, diminished scales, and chromaticism, but while the musician has to understand these terms, the listener doesn’t. In order to hear the melo­dies of a bop improvisation, one simply has to become familiar enough with the idiom to hear the component phrases of a solo. There is no greater melodist in jazz than Parker.

The central innovation in Parker’s music was rhythmic. Swing rhythm was exemplified by the Basie band’s brisk 4/4, with each beat evenly accented. The soloist seemed to be confined by the bar lines, or, in the case of an advanced player like Lester Young, to float above the chomp/chomp/chomp, knitting his melodies into four-bar phrases, and booting them along with riffs. Lester’s two choruses on “Honeysuckle Rose,” from Benny Goodman’s 1938 Carnegie Hall con­cert, are representative of his alternation of rich, fluent melodies and repeated rhythmic phrases. By contrast, listen to Parker’s 1946 “Lady Be Good” solo, recorded at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. Essentially, he adopts blues diction to the pop song form, but in his use of space (the first phrase is followed by a full rest) and in his variety of note-values (from whole notes to 32nd notes), he opens up the time, establishing rhythmic freedom rather than coursing over the 4/4.

With the arrival of bop, the bassist be­came the time-keeper and the drummer was free to dispense “bombs” in response to the soloist. Young improvised in a situation governed by the time, while Parker made himself the focal point around which the time coalesced.

Parker’s need for an alert drummer is seen in the performance of his blues, “Cheryl,” at a 1949 Christmas eve Carnegie Hall concert — available on several pirate labels but never legally issued. In the fifth measure of the fifth chorus, Parker ends his phrase on the third beat. He repeats this for several measures until the drummer, Roy Haynes, responds by accenting the third beat and suspending the fourth. They play in this fashion throughout the following chorus. Another aspect of his music — the sometimes satiric quoting of familiar melodies to en­hance his solos — is illustrated by the same piece: he paraphrases Armstrong’s “West End Blues” cadenza, an ingenious reminder that all styles of jazz are bound by the blues. (On the studio version of “Cheryl,” he quoted the New Orleans standard “High Society.”)

Neither Parker nor Gillespie considered themselves revolutionaries in the sense that they wished to destroy anything. If their music was rhythmically unsuitable for jit­terbugging, it was nonetheless an inevitable and heartfelt extension of the jazz they had grown up with and cherished. Critical feud­ing in the press, esoteric discussions of technique, and even the fashionable accou­trements of the period — goatees, berets, shades, and drugs — obscured, for many, the blues-based strain underlining their music. Parker might well have voiced the “confes­sion” once expressed by Stravinsky: “The novelty of the ‘Rite’ consisted, not in the writing, not in the orchestration, not in the technical apparatus of the work, but in the musical entity. I was made a revolutionary in spite of myself.”

Parker’s mature style was intimated in his earliest recordings, with the Jay McShann orchestra. On “Swingmatism” he played 16 bars and a pickup measure replete with Lestorian triplets and a rounded intonation. With “Jumping Blues,” his personality became more apparent. His chorus begins with one of the many phrases that would become the meat, and eventually the cliches, of modern jazz. Little Benny Harris, the trumpeter-composer, extracted this phrase and extended it into “Ornithology,” a classic bop theme based on “How High the Moon,” (The first few notes in both are the same.) Parker’s recording of “Ornithology,” five years later, revealed his fully matured ability to dance into solos with rhythmic ideas that complemented those of the composition. Ironically, he brought the “Ornithology” lick back to the blues when he re-recorded “Now’s the Time” in 1953, tossing it into the theme statement. The solo on this version of “Now’s the Time,” an especially gay and insouciant invention, begins with another phrase which had become a cliche, the one he had used to begin the original version of that blues, in 1945. Parker knew he had become an “academy” and he enjoyed it.

Charlie Parker’s chief legacy is his records, and there is a sizable number of them considering the brevity of his career. Won­drous as the individual masterpieces are, the sum of his work is even more impressive. He was nothing if not an expressive player and the more we listen to him, the more vivid his vision becomes. For if there is a light side to his music — the clean order and virtuosic structuring of solos, the lovely ballads­ — there is also a dark, nightmarish side. Parker was a heroin addict most of his life. His body was so ravaged at his death that a doctor, filling out a report, estimated his age at 60 rather than 34. The horrors he lived were transfigured into music. The best known example is “Lover Man,” recorded during the breakdown which landed him in Camarillo for a year. He could hardly stand or fill his horn with air, yet he created fleeting moments of dynamic tension and surprise. In his 26th to 27th measures, he tenuously shapes a comely melody that sways and finally dips to the lowest note of the solo. This yearning, frustrated side of Charlie Parker is revealed more fully in some of the private tapes and broadcasts now surfacing. It is disgraceful that the work of a great artist should be shoddily pack­aged, indifferently treated, and unpaid for, but this emerging cache of tapes cannot go unattended simply because they’re being issued illegally. There is a newly discovered 1949 Brooklyn broadcast of “Cool Blues” which tells us much about the longing in Parker’s music, and prefigures the breakthrough in expressive techniques of Ornette Coleman.

Even Parker’s legitimate recordings are in dubious hands. The Dial sessions have been expertly issued in a six-volume variorum edition by Spotlight, a bootleg outfit. The Savoys remain scrambled. Too many of the Verves, including “Lady Be Good,” are unavailable.

Charlie Parker’s music was delirious, funny, wise, terrifying, tragic, funky, sad, exultant, wistful, haunt­ing, electrifying. His is one of the monumental achievements in contemporary art, and still it is consigned to the shadows. ■

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 29, 2020