Charles Christopher Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29th, 1920. Parker played his last gig at Birdland on March 4th and 5th in New York in 1955. Then, on the 12th of March, 1955, at the Stanhope Hotel in New York, Bird took his leave. The musical world mourned; especially the followers of Bebop. Charlie "BIRD" Parker will live forever in the ears and hearts of the masses; he was loved by so many.
During those 34 years, Bird became a legend in his own time; he remains a legend to this day to many; his music is still being played by many a musician, and especially by the renowned ensemble known as, "Super Sax."...More on Super Sax in my article, "Bebop Is: The Music of The Future."
Parker was one of the most important innovators of melody in the history of jazz; along with Armstrong and Coltrane. When it comes to speed, during the 40's and 50's, when in a mode of coherency, Parker would come forth with a spectacular display of blazing fingers that others were hard-pressed to duplicate. Over the years, there were others that built on the foundation laid down by Bird.
"BIRD" was a dramatic person, charming, a poet, a leader (when he's straight), a husband with three little kids and an inimitable creative artist. Unfortunately, Parker had a bad case of ulcers, and at times, they would became very painful! The best way to reveal his pain "relief," is in a conversation with his comrade in arms, Berks Dizzy Gillespie.
They were at a beach party a short distance from the surf. While standing at the bar, Parker had this to offer Berks (Dizzy's first name). "Berks, I go to an ulcer doctor and pay $50. I go to a liver doctor and I pay $75. I go to that guy over there, pay $10 for some stuff, and all my pain goes away...I feel great!" The conclusion here is, his ulcer and liver problem was a product of the booze he puts down. But to ease the pain, he indulges in drugs. Sounds to like a catch-22 situation-with a temporary cure!
One time in a recording studio with a trumpet and rhythm section, BIRD was playing a ballad...the trumpet came in for the final chorus...BIRD played some beautiful lines behind the trumpet. When the tune ended, the recording engineer behind the large glass window got on the mike and told BIRD, "Very nice Charlie." Upon hearing that, Parker unhooked his horn and threw it right through the plate glass window..."CRASH!"...everybody ducked! Wouldn't you? Here's more.
Another time, Parker was to meet his wife-to-be, Chan, in the center of New York. He arrived at her apartment house astride a white horse. She looked out the window, then came downstairs and mounted the horse with her dress draped over the horses rear. Then, to top it off, Parker attempted to ride the horse into Charlie's Tavern...it didn't work!
When BIRD was in his late teens, we find him in the stage wings of a jazz club along with an entourage of other saxophonists...waiting for a chance to go on for a chorus or two. Parker's chops were not ready for this, but he went on anyway. When his turn came, he started out OK...but then, he began to stumble-playing the same phrase again and again-same with some notes. You could see the unpleasant look on the piano players face, the bass was shaking his head, but the drummer out did then all! He took off the nut holding his ride-symbol on it's stand, removed the symbol and it went soaring towards Parker and landed on the floor next to him. Then the laughter began! As I said, his chops were not ready for this. You have to hand it to him though-going up against the big-boys like that!
After his embarrassing experience with the flying symbol, he couldn't let it get him down; he didn't. Word has it through the musical grapevine that Bird began to practice the blues in every key signature; there 14 key signatures, seven in sharps, and seven in flats. Such an arduous task for a young man...it didn't stop Bird-he succeeded. After all was said and done, Parker was ready for the big-boys. By learning the blues in all 14 keys, Bird had the edge; he could not only play faster, he could expand the chords while crossing over from one key to another for a brief moment to reach the limits of chord expansion.
Parker was a genius, but he was not a humble man. He knew what he was good at, and how it got where it was; he had no reservations in letting you know. Once he said, "I lit my fire, I greased my skillet, and I cooked." BIRD made jazz into an art form. A form that has been distorted and mislabeled in so many ways. And yet, still retaining the name of jazz. In a moment, I will elaborate on this misrepresentation!
Due to his alcohol and drug affliction, Parker would, at times, be late to a gig or not show at all. A good example is with Dizzy Gillespie, who at times, was referred to by Parker as, "the other half of my heart beat." In 1945, Dizzy was booked into Billy Bergs club in Hollywood; he went to the coast with a sextet-Parker, Milt Jackson, and Al Haig were part of his musical entourage. The audience response was varied from apathy to hostility; Parker became upset and unstable. He failed to show up at the gig so often, Dizzy was asked to hire Lucky Thompson as a standby.
On September 1st, 1954, Parker came home from a gig feeling pretty good. After a few words to his wife, Chan, he proceeds to , very abruptly, remove his clothes, one piece at a time down to his T-shirt and shorts. He asked for some medicine. Chan told him it's in the bathroom. After a few moments went by, we hear the sound of breaking glass. Chan goes to the bathroom and sees her husband laying on the floor holding his stomach and screaming in pain. There was a broken bottle of Iodine in the sink, and on the floor, some blood Chan folds her arms and says, "Well, I guess we better call an ambulance." Soon, they heard the sound of a siren; an ambulance pulled up in front of their home. Parker was carried out to the ambulance and on to a psychiatric hospital.
Bird made his record debut in 1942 with the Jay McShann band. This date included musicians like Parker, Gus Johnson, and Gene Ramey. Shann's band was considered the best in Kansas City after Basie left. Birds style was quite different than that of the rest of the musicians in the band. But Shann realized that Bird really had something and kept him as long as he could.
There is a great deal of literature available about Bird, but the most comprehensive would be: Thomas Owens, "Charlie Parker: Techniques of Improvisation," Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Los Angeles, 1974. 2 volumes (available on request from University Microfilms). There is a chapter about Charlie Parker in his book, Thomas Owens, "Bebop, the Music and It's Players," Oxford, 1995. Tom has been a professor of music at El Camino College, Torrance, Ca. for about 30 years; I've had the pleasure of working with Tom and his piano artistry as a jazz quartet, and when we add Richard Simon on acoustic bass and Gary Frommer on drums, collectively, we had one of the most sophisticated and versatile quartets existent; on occasion, Tom would work with our 18 piece jazz band-a real powerhouse; our friendship began in 1980. And to this day, Tom is still teaching at El Camino, and I, well...I'm still writing..."South of The Border
On the night of March 12, 1955, Parker was walking the streets of New York in the rain. He was going to the Stanhope Hotel, house of the Baroness, Nika, a friend . As Nika opened the door, Parker fainted and fell in the doorway. When awoke, she said, "You fainted." Parker responds with a smile on his face, "Was I dignified?" Nika took him over to the couch to watch TV. She left him to get some refreshments. Parker sat there looking for something on TV that could make him laugh-he found it-a couple of jugglers...he started laughing...and laughing. The look on his face changed from laughter to one of pain...he put his hand on his chest and held it. A few moments later, his face relaxed and... Charlie Parker had expired.
When Nika returned, she could see what had happened. She put the class of juice down on the table, and went to the phone. She made several attempts to reach Chan and left messages to call her. Then she called the coroner. He arrived with a few men and a stretcher...he checked Parker out and then, on the phone, he gave a brief sketch of what happened. And about his age he said, "A man about 65." Nika was quick to respond with, "He was 34." The coroner's assessment of Parker's age was 65...but he died at 34. I'll let you draw your own conclusions...................!
Now it's time to pay the piper of jazz. But first, some of the scenes described in this text are from the movie (video), "BIRD." The film was produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, with Forest Whitaker playing BIRD. After watching the film five times, and reviewing a few books about BIRD, I'm convinced that Eastwood and Whitaker displayed an incredible realism to Charlie Parker's persona. If you have not viewed the film, may I suggest you do so...like soon-the film reveals jazz in it's most realest form. Lets take a look at jazz.
Jazz is a highly involved American art form that has become a major influence on all types of music, dance and otherwise. Some elements of early jazz are primarily of classical European origins. And yet, the influence of African traditions is by far the most important element, for without these traditions, the true essence of jazz would not exist. In jazz, we have interpretation...allowing the musicians to perform the music the way their consciousness and souls interpret. Jazz musicians may choose the tempo, dynamics, and so forth, such that they have their own understanding of the composition they are playing; this also leads to how much they will ornament the original melody; the end result may be an easily recognizable tune, or one that is altered from it's original form and not so recognizable. This process is the true essence of jazz, from which the art of improvisation has evolved.
In the video, "BIRD," you'll notice that Dizzy called Bird, Yardbird. This is where Bird came from. But then, where did yardbird come from? When he was young, Bird would hang out in the alleys of jazz clubs; he became known as Yardbird...!
According to the piper, the word jazz is used quite loosely! There are many styles of music lurking under the umbrella of jazz. How often have you listened to a jazz radio station, and, been told by the announcer that you are listening to jazz; do you accept that which you are told, or do you question what you have been told; this I believe is, the power of suggestion; which can be referred to as brain washing! The real question is , do we always believe what we are told, or do we exercise some initiative in search for the truth; what is real jazz all about?
Rather than subjecting yourself to what could be brain washing, let me offer the following suggestion (this is not a sales pitch, it's reality): Pick up a copy of the video film, "BIRD," produced and directed by Clint Eastwood (Clint knows the truth) and watch it; and if necessary, watch it again (you probably will). Listen if you will to the harmonic progressions, the melody lines, and especially to the blazing fingers of Bird as he expands the chords into the outer limits of his harmonic plateau-he really swings!
In all my 50 years as a musician, I have never heard a more realistic representation of what is..."The Essence of Real Jazz"... as I did in "BIRD."