August 12, 2020


Charlie Parker at 100: Like Mozart, he transformed an art form and his music has never stopped (HOWARD REICH, AUG 10, 2020, Chicago Tribune)

[I]t's critical to remember that his instrumental prowess and musical breakthroughs were not the result of innate genius alone. Unlike the prodigy Mozart, Parker -- born Aug. 29, 1920 -- came to music comparatively late, as a teenager, struggling to play alto and baritone saxophones in Kansas City, Missouri, joints.

"I was doing all right until I tried doing double tempo on 'Body and Soul,'" he recalled of an early session at the High Hat, at 22nd and Vine. "Everybody fell out laughing. I went home and cried and didn't play again for three months. Even before that time, I tried playing a job at the Orchid Room with my friend Robert Simpson, and they threw us out."

Such humiliations may have driven Parker to try to attain a kind of perfection on alto saxophone. Like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's stratospheric solos or pianist Art Tatum's all-over-the-keyboard wizardry or vocalist Ella Fitzgerald's phenomenally fleet and unerring scat, Parker's work reached technical and expressive heights not matched before or since.

The first time pianist-bandleader Jay McShann encountered Parker, when the saxophonist was still a teenager in the 1930s, McShann couldn't believe his ears.

"I had just gotten to Kansas City a couple weeks before, and I happened to be coming through 12th Street, when I heard this sound I simply hadn't heard before," McShann told me in 1990. "I immediately had to go in and see who it was, and it was Bird, though that's not what anyone called him. So I went right up to him and said, 'Man, where have you been? I thought I had met all the cats in Kansas City.'

"And Bird said, 'No, you haven't met me. I just got back to town. I live here, but I've been down in the Ozarks with George Lee's band. I wanted to go down there to do some woodshedding."

McShann soon hired him and was startled at his artistic evolution.

"He was the blowing cat in the band, developing so fast you couldn't even measure his potential," McShann said. "I can remember once when we were having rehearsals, Bird told me: 'Man, I can't make rehearsals tomorrow because I need to go do a little woodshedding. That old John Jackson sitting next to me is making me look bad.'

"All I could say was, 'What do you mean?' Because Bird already was doing things I never heard anybody else doing. Although there were plenty good alto players around - Benny Carter, Willie Smith - Bird was revolutionizing everything. He was coming up with things nobody else did; and the more he blew, the more he came up with.

"But Bird insisted: 'I've got to go off and brush up on my reading, because old J.J. is blowing rings around me.' ... Sure enough, a few nights later, when we're playing Kansas State University, we started out on this new arrangement we had been over three or four different times. And Bird cut right through it - on his first time. He could do anything he wanted. He would take a motif and expand on it and keep on expanding and expanding."

Parker wasn't merely embellishing familiar melodies in the swing tradition of the day. He was transforming them, taking snippets of a tune and building new musical structures upon it. Harmonically, he was venturing into what musicians call ninths, elevenths, thirteenths, tritones and whatnot, finding new melodic possibilities in those rarefied realms.

Suddenly jazz was sounding different than before - more rhythmically volatile, more harmonically ornate, more turbulent and mercurial and surprising.

Posted by at August 12, 2020 1:52 PM