Thursday was the 99th birthday of the most influential American musician of the 20th century, Charlie Parker. It should be — but is not — a day of annual national rejoicing, and study, of this musical genius.
The United States was blessed with a cornucopia of great musicians in the 20th century —Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, and on and on. It would be pointless to claim that one of them was “the greatest,” but it is undeniable that Charlie Parker was the most influential.
Bird’s style of composition and improvisation, once derided as unintelligible “Chinese music,” is everywhere today — in orchestra pits, on the bandstand, and — I shudder to say this — in grocery stores and elevators.
Bird was so influential that in the last days of his short life, he lamented that he was living in a musical hall of mirrors. All the young cats, and many of the older ones, were trying to play like him.
“The thing about Charlie Parker was that he was so much better than anybody else,” tenor saxophonist Al Cohn said. “It was not like there was this guy and that guy. There was everybody else, and then there was Charlie.”
Bird was such a dominant influence that even today, 65 years after his death, any serious jazz musician faces two difficult problems: to learn Bird’s style, then try to find a way to adapt it into his or her own style.
We never will know what Bird really sounded like. My saxophone teacher, the late, great Joe Allard, said he’d never heard a recording that accurately reproduced Bird’s tone, which, Joe added, was never duplicated by anyone he’d ever heard.
Bird was the pivotal figure in turning jazz from pop into high art — at the cost of mass appeal.
His compositions and improvisations were always based on the black American blues tradition, but with advanced harmonies derived from Debussy and others.
Dizzy Gillespie said that Bird stood alone in being able to transform complex harmony into melody. And Bird could do it on the spot.
Bird had ears like radar. It’s difficult to see what he saw in the young Miles Davis. In their early recordings, Miles’ tone leaves much to be desired; he fluffs notes and his improvisations border upon lame. Miles said in his autobiography that he wanted to quit on the stand every night, but Bird wouldn’t let him. And Miles, of course, went on to change the course of music several times.
(In an anecdote in his autobiography, Miles recounted sitting at a White House dinner next to a white lady. She asked him why was there, and Miles replied, in his charming way: “Well, I guess I’m here because I changed music four or five times. What did you ever do but be white?”)
Hundreds of articles have been written about Bird and his music — many of them wretched. But fortunately, MTO — A Journal for the Study of Music Theory, has published an excellent article by Henry Martin: Four Studies of Charlie Parker’s Compositional Processes, with a comprehensive bibliography of Charlie Parker studies.
Kudos also to Stanley Crouch, for his 2013 biography “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker,” the first reliable biography of Bird. We eagerly await the promised second volume.
An excellent book of anecdotes, with photos, “Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker,” was collected and edited by Robert Reisner, and published in 1975. It has been reprinted at least seven times, and is available in an oversize paperback for $18.
Here, to my mind, are the greatest 10 words ever said about American music, from Thelonious Monk: “Jazz is freedom. Think about that. You think about that.”
And here are some YouTube takes of Bird’s music, and interviews with musicians who knew him.
(Thanks to my musical advisers Peter Spitzer, Peter Hurley and Kenny Goldberg for providing most of the insights for this column.)