"The Big Birdie" Charlie Parker: The Source

I studied Bird by listening to his playing, and reading books about him. Charlie Parker is the most important musician of the last 80 years, he changed music across the musical spectrum. Rhythm & Blues came from jazz, and the saxophone players and the guitar players who played it were born from Jazz.   Jazz had a baby and they called it Rock & Roll.   Funk, Smooth Jazz, Pop,  are all children of Jazz (American Classical Music), and you can  hear Charlie Parker in ALL OF IT.

Charlie is the Bach of our time. I've been blessed to travel and tour the world, and I can find a bit of Bird in music everywhere. I was listening to a recording on YouTube with Miles, Sonny Rollins, & Jackie McClean, and someone posted, they are all friends of Charlie Parker. I replied, they are not Charlie's friends but his disciples.  Music Students who graduated from the College of Charles Parker.

He hired Miles before he was developed because Bird could already hear his greatness, Miles went to the School Of Charlie Parker every night. Sonny Rollins is born of Bird, when he heard Charlie record on tenor, it pointed a new direction for Sonny to follow.  In addition, the language, phrasing and articulation that New uses was coming directly out of Bird, if one studies the sides that Charlie recorded on tenor with Miles, we hear a direct lineage.  

Jackie McClean directly hung out with Charlie, learned the music from him, and as most did then, idolized him.  As Bill Crow said in my interview with him, 'we knew there was Charlie Parker.......and then there was everybody else'.  Musically he means Bird stood towering over us all.  Now we know Jackie got hooked to heroin because of Charlie, and many others did also, Sonny, Miles, too many to name.  

There's a dark side, of being a genius, of being the first, and in America worst yet, doing it while being a Black Man in America.  So there was a lot of self-medicating going on.   Remember on the one video we have of Charlies playing with Dizzy, and the MC says, "do you Boys have anything else to say?"  (Now please understand the history, white folks called grown African-American Men, Negroes then, Boy to demean them, boy shine my shoes, boy open that door, boy step away from the table.  BOY meant you were not a Man to be respected.  

On that video you can see Mr Parker's head snap suddenly and turn, when he heard the "signal", and his terse reply was "Well Earl, we think music speaks louder than words, and we'd like to voice our opinion that way if you don't mind..."  Charlie was already upset when the announcer said Charlie Parker and "The Famous Dizzy Gillespie of Jazz".  

As they started Hot House, Bird never closes his eyes, and to begin his solo, starts with two of his classic phrases, yet the double time phrase had a certain ferocious taste to it.  He then plays a perfectly constructed solo, dark tone, eye wide open.  On the last 8 bars, he again whips off his signature double time phrase, and then ends with a three note phrase which my brother always heard the words "CALLED ME BOY!  CALLED ME BOY!", and finishes with a Birdism, allowing Dizzy to open his solo with the 'called me boy' lick.   

Some folks on Youtube wrote that Miles is not a virtuoso. They are absolutely idiots. Not only had he mastered this music, he found his own sound and could play with anyone. Geri Allen was getting her Doctorate while I was in Undergrad at University of Pittsburgh, I never forget her inviting to her apartment to share food.  She was a strict vegetarian at the time.  I was wondering about Miles Davis and technique.  She quietly pointed me to some Mile's recordings in the 50s where he was playing bebop on the gigs at very rapid tempos.  She noted that Miles had studied under Bird, and instead of becoming Bird, he forged his own sound, and clearly mastered the ability to play rapidly over chord changes.  It was a lesson, I still remember to this day.  

Miles Davis and this group of American musicians completely changed the world.  But the toll of Blackness did not go away for Miles Davis either, as he stood in front of the New York Jazz Club, and a policed told him to move on.  Miles replied that's my name up on the Marquee.  The cop quickly took out his baton and bashed Miles in the head, spreading blood over his face and arresting him.

So what does the racism have to do with Miles Davis?  And Charlie Parker, or Bud Powell, or Dizzy Gillespie.  Well.  Everything, it has everything to do with who they were, what PTSD they suffered from, why them played and chose the notes they did, and why sometimes they escaped the pain with drugs and alcohol.  The music was born in and out of a racist culture.     

These realizations helped me to understand the music on another level.  Miles went on to change music several times, and he was a child of Charlie Parker. John Coltrane traces his roots to Charlie Parker, and since Michael Brecker said to me, 'why are you listening to me, you should listen to Trane'...there is a direct lineage from Bird to Trane to Michael Brecker.  

So after reading this, I hope you listen to the music of Charlie Parker with a little extra thought.  I find the recordings with Strings to be some of the most beautiful music ever played.  Charlie was extremely proud of those, as he thought he finally had a platform he deserved to express his musical beauty.  Carl Arter, pianist and educator of Pittsburgh told me, don't believe this idea that Bird didn't practice.  He said "Whenever Bird came to Pittsburgh, he had a lady's house he would, and I personally know that all during the day Charlie spent his time practicing. Yep, practice makes perfect.  

The beauty of his playing and the 16 hour practice days it took to reach that level are extraordinary. The recording equipment  of the day pales to the technology that was to soon follow, so we never really get to hear what Bird actually sounded like.  Those musicians whom I have met, who played with Bird or heard him live, said those old mics and records don't capture an inkling of what it was like to hear the genius play right in front of you.  Bill Crow said his so was full, dark, and carried to the back wall, yet it was not loud.  

Charlie only listened to Classical music at home, and he and Dizzy used to study classical scores, and Charlie Mastered studies like The Klose Studies.  Bill Crow tells a great story of hanging out with Bird during the day, and just wanted to listen to the Classical Music.  Bill said, Bird spent the time reading a Classical Study book he found there (just looking through the pages) and later that night when Mr. Crow went to Charlie's evening show at the Savoy, he was stunned to notice that Bird kept playing phrases he had simply read by sight during the day in all of his solos.  

Charlie Parker stands alone.  He knew and understood what he had mastered with the music, and I am grateful for the gifts and beauty he left us.  

Bird and Dizzy 1952:  Receiving the Downbeat Awards

Leave a comment