The Centenary of Charlie Parker’s Birth

parkerCharlie Parker is rightly considered by many to be the most important musician in the history of jazz, certainly in bebop and probably in the whole of modern and contemporary jazz.  Others go further and regard him as one of the most important and influential musicians of the 20th Century in any genre; Lee Konitz regarded Parker and Stockhausen as the two most important musicians of that century, while George Lewis regarded Parker and John Cage as the two most significant musicians in that century’s experimental music.

Parker’s music has been extremely important for me, but I was initially quite strongly opposed to it. My first love in music was the New Orleans style and the 1950s British versions of it and at that time if one was into traditional jazz, one was duty bound to hate modern jazz.  I’m glad those days have passed!

I gradually broadened my taste and learnt to enjoy the music of the 1930s and 1940s big bands and the small groups that came out of the Ellington and Basie bands, bands such as the small groups led by Johnny Hodges, Lester Young, and others led by Coleman Hawkins and Roy Eldridge.  That led fairly naturally into an appreciation of bebop and especially the music of Charlie Parker.  I can still remember the excitement of discovering his music and listening over and over again to certain tracks – I only had a few at the beginning!   I particularly remember listening to and being blown away by the intensity of Donna Lee, an up tempo track that has a passionate Parker solo.  I also remember repeatedly playing Koko, Ornithology and being moved by the blues feel of Parker’s Mood.  Then there was that amazing break on Night In Tunisia and the more relaxed tracks that Parker made after his stay in Camarillo Hospital, e.g. Relaxin’ at Camarillo.  I especially enjoyed the live recordings with Dizzy Gillespie such as that at Carnegie Hall and the later concert at Massey Hall in Canada.

I bought the albums with all the alternate takes of the tracks on the Eros Savoy label; there were often up to five takes of a given tune and I used to drive my parents mad by playing these straight through. I also read various books about Parker’s life and music

There was quite a long period when I regarded my Parker albums as the only ones really worth playing, and I retain a huge respect and love of Parker’s music.  However, I hardly ever play these albums now; initially that was because they were all on vinyl and I was not able to play them.  But even now I have not played a Parker album since the beginning of lockdown, a period when I have been listening to a lot of music.  There are a number of reasons for this.  One is that having listened to the records so often, I know them off by heart and have begun to find quite a bit of repetition in the solos.

Lee Konitz describes this aspect of Parker’s playing very well; he describes going to hear Parker in a club after hearing some of his early records and finding his live playing very similar to his playing on the records.  His reaction was to say ‘Wow, that sounded like the record.” Konitz goes on to say that he realised then that Parker ‘was really prepared, well-prepared, and listened to him that way and appreciated how well he did it—when he did it well—in the same way that you would appreciate a classical player’ (https://dantepfer.com/blog/?p=424).   Konitz develops this point in an interview with Andy Hamilton (Hamilton, 2007, p.103) where he suggests that Parker was really a great composer who ‘conceived of these great phrases and fit (sic.) them together in the most logical way and played them until they came alive – and then decided to depend on what really communicated with the audience’.  In other words, Konitz is suggesting that Parker had a set of brilliant phrases that he used in different keys and in different combinations.

This is certainly very apparent in the many takes of the tracks made in the late 1940s on the Savoy label where Parker would play a very different solo for each take by varying the mosaic of his phrases.  Konitz also suggests in an interview (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQasBBGbttY) that Parker suffered from the way he was widely imitated by other musicians, but for health reasons was not able to develop a new approach in the way that later players such as Miles Davis and John Coltrane were able several times to re-invent themselves musically.

parker with red rodneyThis leads on to my second point; most of Parker’s recordings were with small groups, and these recordings were often rather formulaic with a nice tune leading into a series of short solos and finishing with the repeat of the tune.  This is the standard bop formula and it is an approach that is still very much in use today.  Andy Hamilton in interviewing Konitz (Hamilton, ibid, p. 105) refers to a comment by Red Rodney (pictured with Parker here) that he found playing with Parker as ‘a bit predictable’ and tried to persuade Parker to try ‘different songs and in different keys’ .

These comments by Konitz and Rodney resonate with me and I have to admit that I find that many of Parker’s small group recordings are, despite the brilliance of Parker’s solos, not really great pieces of music.  They are very enjoyable and listenable, and established the dominance of the small group in modern jazz, but do not have the breadth and ambition of later work from Miles Davis and John Coltrane.  Of course both Davis and Coltrane had long careers and the opportunities to develop more ambitious work and new approaches, while Parker suffered from drug addiction and died very young.  It is known that Parker was keen to develop work other than in the standard small group bop format, and the sessions with strings are an example of this, but his lifestyle meant that these experiments were limited in number.

My conclusion is that we should regard Parker as the early pioneer whose revolutionary ideas reached their fruition in the later work of other giants.  To take a metaphor from linguistics, he changed both the grammar and the discourse of jazz – no mean feat – but the full potential of these changes came later.

I am grateful to Peter Bacon for comments on an early draft of this piece.

Reference

Hamilton, Andy (2007) Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press

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