Charlie Parker: The Young Man, the Music, the Memory


Richard Simon

Part II: The Music

"The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth."

Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces

"...In 1939, in Shreveport, Louisiana, while touring with the Milt Larkins band, [Eddie] Cleanhead [Vinson] first heard Bird, who was playing there with Jay McShann. At the usual after-hours jam session, Vinson was wiping out everyone in sight until, as he recalls, 'This young kid walked on the stand with his alto in his mouth and started to blow the wildest things I ever heard in my life. He cut me good-he cut me up.' Bird was then nineteen. Vinson continues, 'I put my arm around that boy and told him, man, you're not going to get out of my sight until you show me how you make your horn go like that.'

"Bird did just that; all night long, and all the next morning."

J.C. Thomas, Chasin' the Trane

"All the people would be crazy about Charles's music, but they wouldn't know what he was playing. I used to tell them, 'You'll just have to listen.'"

Mrs. Addie Parker, in R.G. Reisner's
Bird - The Legend of Charlie Parker

"Bird is not dead; he 's hiding out somewhere, and he'll be back with some new shit that will scare everyone to death."

Charles Mingus, ibid.

Teddy Hill, Baron of Bebop?

Not a name from the usual pantheon, Hill nonetheless deserves some credit. After all, as manager of Minton's Playhouse on 118th Street in Harlem, he and owner Henry Minton conceived the idea of "Celebrity Night." Monday night, an off-night for everyone in the business, would become an open jam session, where established, swing-era players could do battle with the young and the frisky. Hill hired Kenny Clarke (the same Kenny Clarke he had once drummed out of the Teddy Hill Orchestra) to organize the house band in the early 40s.

Bird biographer Ross Russell lists some of the "old guard" who started showing up to blow: saxophonists Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Chu Berry, Johnny Hodges, and Benny Carter; trumpeters Lips Page, Cootie Williams, Harry James, and Roy Eldridge; pianists Fats Waller, Mary Lou Williams, and Teddy Wilson; and band leaders including Ellington, Basie, and Hampton. In the stylistic " middle ground," Russell mentions Tadd Dameron, Dickie Wells, Art Tatum, Lester Young and Charlie Christian. And joining Clarke in the nascent avant-garde were Thelonius Monk, bassist Nick Fenton, and Dizzy Gillespie.

Charlie Parker, who had come to New York with Jay McShann (see BIRD Magazine, vol. I), was playing at Monroe's Uptown House at 133rd Street and Seventh Avenue when Clarke and Monk went to hear him.

"Bird was playing stuff we'd never heard before," recalls Kenny Clarke. "He was into figures I thought I'd invented for drums. He was twice as fast as Lester and into harmony Lester hadn't touched. Bird was running the same way we were, but he was running way out ahead of us."

Adding Charlie Parker to the house band at Minton's was not disagreeable to Teddy Hill -- he just refused to add him to the payroll.

What transpired was a bruising scene where the palace guards clashed unceremoniously with the rebels. The aforementioned titans strutted their best, established musical ideas, and the fleet-fingered, more mentally agile kids had at them.

"To make things tough for outsiders," recalls Clarke, "we invented difficult riffs. Some of our tunes used the 'A' part of one tune, like 'I Got Rhythm,''but the channel came from something else, say 'Honeysuckle Rose.' The swing guys would be completely hung up in the channel. They'd have to stop playing.

"One night, after weeks of trying, Dizzy cut Roy Eldridge. It was one night out of many, but it meant a great deal. Roy had been top dog for years. We closed our ranks after that."

A most thorough and scholarly examination of the transition from swing to the new music is Bebop - The Music and the Players by Thomas Owens, PhD. Among the striking differences, Owens mentions bebop's penchant for polyrhythms, off-beat punctuations supplied by guitar, piano and drums to prod and respond to the soloist. "Also," adds Owens, "bebop harmonies were more dissonant and the melodies improvised upon these harmonies were more chromatic and less symmetrical rhythmically." The pared-down size of most of the early bebop groups suited their preference for scaled-back arrangements, giving "...maximum emphasis to improvised melodies and to the rhythmic and harmonic interplay between soloist and rhythm section."

The refinement in the early 40s of the art of jazz drumming has been personified and articulated by Kenny Clarke. "I'd gotten tired of playing like Jo Jones. It was time for jazz drummers to move ahead," says Clarke. "I took the main beat away from the bass drum and up to the top cymbal. I found out I could get pitch and timbre variations up there, according to the way the stick struck the cymbal, and a pretty sound. The beat had a better flow. It was lighter and tastier. That left me free to use the bass drum, the tom-toms and snare for accents. I was trying to lay new rhythmic patterns over the regular beat. Solo lines were getting longer. Soloists needed more help from the drummer -- kicks, accents, cues, a lot kind of little things like that."*

Elements of swing were adapted into the bebop vocabulary. One such element Owens calls the "tritone substitution -- in essence, replacing the V7 chord with a dominant seventh on scale-degree b2, a tritone (three whole steps) away." Ellington, Tatum, Hawkins, Eldridge and Benny Goodman had all employed this substitution in their arrangements or improvisations, and the younger players devoured it ravenously. Pianists such as Ellington, Basie, and Nat Cole began to lighten the texture of their "comping," providing "irregularly timed chordal punctuations" behind soloists. Bass players, led by Jimmy Blanton, freed up the bass from strictly chord-spelling bass lines, unleashing torrents of melody and "fattening" the hitherto thumpy bass note.

Charlie Parker brought a set of swing-era ideas with him into the maelstrom. His favorite players included Lester Young, Buster Smith and Coleman Hawkins, so it is little wonder that "quotes" of their musical ideas cropped up in early Bird contexts.

But there were new, relentless, hard-and-fast Bird rules: Parker's tone was "harsh, hard-edged" and not at all the "sweet and mellow" of his swing-era forebears. Owens continues: "Another striking feature is the rhythmic aspect of his solos. In tempos of mm=200 or more, he usually played long strings of swing eighth notes (or even eighth notes if the tempo was fast), articulated in a strong-to-weak manner... Further, he often accented the highest note of the moment...and thereby produced a rich variety of rhythms within those long strings of eighth notes." Notwithstanding the presence of these elements in some soloists of the swing era, "[Parker's] skill in playing many notes per second and organizing them into coherent and interesting phrases was extraordinary in the 1940s, for few players could equal him in this regard."

Even if his particular sound and exceptionally fluid technique had not distinguished him for how he played, Bird would still be remarkable for what he played.

It might come as a disappointment, or even a shock, to consider that the brilliant soliloquies delivered by inspired soloists are not entirely "spur-of-the-moment." Hearing either a live or recorded performance of brilliantly-wrought music can (and should?) induce an only-here-and-now, only-once-ever-like-this rapture. But just as the listener generally brings a personal listening history -- and thus an idea of what to expect -- to the night club, concert hall or stereo headset, the jazz soloist brings to a performance a considerable foreknowledge of what he's going to play.

Still enriching the jazz vocabulary half a century after they came into being, the components of the musical legacy of Charlie Parker are his "personal repertory of melodic formulas that he used in the course of improvising." Owens points out that every noteworthy improviser puts together and reworks "a well-rehearsed bag of melodic tricks....His well-practiced melodic patterns are essential identifiers of his style." Earlier, Owens states that "...his 'spontaneous' performances were actually precomposed in part. This preparation was absolutely necessary, for no one can create fluent, coherent melodies in real time without [it]...."

Of course, there's more than a constant re-combination of patterns and "licks" that makes Charlie Parker's solos so remarkable. Beyond these, and after acknowledging the use of musical "quotes" from sources popular to classical, factoring in his superb musicianship, his "sheer energy and self-confidence," Professor Owens himself reaches a thematic crescendo by detailing "...another factor that helps generate the sense of rightness in his music. Typically entire phrases, and even entire choruses and groupings of choruses, are goal-oriented; they arrive on a final note that lies at the end of a lengthy stepwise descent." This downward-scaling structure was something Parker alone contributed to jazz, perhaps the capstone of his great gift to the art form.

The bounty of that gift is best appreciated by examining both the recordings of Parker and the transcriptions of his solos. With regard to the latter, the Charlie Parker Omnibook, first published in 1957 by Michael Goldsen, affords the opportunity to examine the makings of the style in freeze-frame. Even under the dry template of bar lines, rests and conventional notation, the vigor and ingenuity are there: phrases start in unexpected places; half-tones slither seductively around chord tones; sudden bursts of sixteenth notes -- an aviary in an uproar -- careen across three measures; and the outline of that idiosyncratic descending-scale pattern bursts forth on page after random page (e.g., system 13 of "Confirmation," system 8 of "Yardbird Suite," systems 14-15 of "Koko").

Studying the musical development of Charlie Parker and his cohorts presents a several challenges. The American Federation of Musicians had imposed a recording ban on its members between 1942 and 1944. Some amateur "bootleg" recordings from that period are extant, though the fidelity is often lamentable. Even after the ban was lifted, the evolution of the music had surpassed the level of recording technique: there are numerous problems with balance and microphone placement in many of the mid-40s sessions. But Bird's power and presence transcend the engineering deficiencies. No matter how studiously we scrutinize written versions of Parker's permutations of twelve notes, it is in listening to Bird that we are lifted on the wings of his art.

In the opinion of Parker's dedicated and ardent scholar, Dr. Thomas Owens, these are "some of his finest recorded moments":

"Koko," take 2 - November 26, 1945, Savoy 597 (reissued on Savoy CD 70737)

"Ornithology," take 4 and "A Night in Tunisia," take 5 - March 28, 1946, Dial 1002 (reissued on Spotlite 101)

"A Night in Tunisia," "Dizzy Atmosphere," and "Groovin' High" - September

29, 1947, Roost 2234

"Embraceable You," October 28, 1947, Dial 1024 (reissued on Spotlite 104)

"Out of Nowhere" and "Don't Blame Me," November 4, 1947, Dial 102l (reissued on Spotlite 105)

"Donna Lee," November 8, 1947, Spotlite 108

"Parker's Mood," September 18, 1948, Savoy 936 and 12000 (reissued on Savoy 5500)

"Perhaps," September 24, 1948, Savoy 938 and Savoy 5500

"Salt Peanuts," December 12, 1948, Charlie Parker Records 701B and other bootleg records

"Scrapple from the Apple," January 15, 1949, Charlie Parker Records 701C and other bootleg reissues

"The Closer," September 18, 1949, Mercury 35013 (reissued on Verve CD 837141-2)

"Au Privave," January 17, 1951, Mercury/Clef 11087 (reissue: same as above)

"Anthropology," March 31, 1951, Alamac 2430 and other bootleg reissues

"What Is This Thing Called Love?" March 25, 1952, Mercury/Clef 11102 (reissued on Verve 837 141-2)

"Hot House" and "A Night in Tunisia," May 15, 1953, Debut 4 (and many bootleg reissues - from the famous Massey Hall concert in Toronto, Canada)

"Chi Chi," August 4, 1953, Clef and Verve (reissued on Verve CD 837 141-2)

*Kenny Clarke's remarks are quoted from BIRD LIVES by Ross Russell. (c) 1973 by Ross Russell. Republished by Da Capo Press, 1996.

**Explications of "bebop" in general, Charlie Parker's contributions in particular, and the list of recommended listening are from BEBOP: THE MUSIC AND ITS PLAYERS by Thomas Owens. (c) 1995 by Thomas Owens. Used by permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

*Ross Russell, Bird Lives, Da Capo Press, 1996 edition.

**Gary Giddins, Celebrating Bird, William Morrow Co., 1987.