The United States has been blessed with great musicians: Duke Ellington, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Dizzy Gillespie, Elliott Carter, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, John Coltrane, Charles Mingus. 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 is everywhere today — in symphony halls, on the bandstand and — I shudder to say this — in elevators and grocery stores.
In the last days of his short life, Bird 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.”
Charlie Parker was an anomaly, in being a genius, but he was also just one of thousands of musicians, nearly all of them Black, who created a new kind of music, out of oppression and slavery.
Bird was such a dominant influence that even today, 69 years after he died watching Tommy Dorsey on TV, any serious jazz musician faces two big problems: to learn Bird’s style, then try to find a way to not sound like a copycat.
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 a pivotal figure in turning jazz into high art — at the cost of mass appeal.
His compositions and improvisations were based on the Black American Blues tradition, with harmonies derived from Debussy and others.
Debussy, Stravinsky and Dvorak dug jazz and considered it high art long before American White People did. Dvorak was probably the first world-class musician to acknowledge jazz as an inspiration, and write a symphony about it ("From the New World").
Joe told me a story about how Stravinsky came to write "3 Pieces for Solo Clarinet," but I ain’t a’gonna tell it to you, ‘cause I can’t remember whether it involved Sidney Bechet or not.
And Debussy? What about "Golliwog’s Cakewalk"? Straight out of Harlem, man, although Harlem then included New Orleans.
Dizzy Gillespie said that Bird stood alone in being able to transform complex harmony into melody, on the spot.
It’s hard to see what Bird saw in 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 that he wanted to quit on the stand every night, but Bird wouldn’t let him.
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?”
I asked the office of Florida’s Commissioner of Education these four questions on Monday:
Tomorrow being Charlie Parker’s birthday, I’d like to ask:
Is jazz history allowed to be taught in Florida high schools?
In light of the Critical Race Theory brouhaha, would it even be legal to teach the sociological and musical history of jazz in Florida public schools?
How many high schools do so?
Are jazz bands allowed?
I received no reply, by telephone or email.
Kudos 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,” collected and edited by Robert Reisner, was published in 1975. It has been reprinted at least seven times and is available in an oversize paperback for $18.
Hundreds of articles have been written about Bird and his music — most 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.
Here are some YouTube takes of Bird’s music, and interviews with musicians who knew him:
And 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.”
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