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From 1941, when Charlie Parker’s first commercially recorded solos (“Hootie Blues” and “Jumpin’ the Blues,” with the Jay McShann Orchestra) dropped on Decca Records, his aesthetic decisions and virtuoso flair moved the collective sensibility of jazz in a new direction. And, to paraphrase the mantra that cropped up after Parker died in March 1955, Bird still lives.
To illuminate the degree to which he continues to influence and inspire, we asked six elite jazz artists to share their thoughts about Parker. Through their work, on and off the bandstand (each of the respondents teaches), Bird’s notes and tones will go on living through the 21st century and, perhaps, beyond.
It is the signal achievement of alto saxophonist-composer Steve Coleman, 63, to have dissected rhythmic, tuning and harmonic systems from various non-Western and ancient Mediterranean cultures, and integrate them into a cohesive weave that refracts his own experiences and cultural roots. Post-Boomers like Vijay Iyer, Ravi Coltrane, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Miguel Zenón and Dafnis Prieto have drawn upon Coleman’s investigations — documented over the past quarter-century on close to 30 recordings and elaborated upon in numerous workshops and residencies — in constructing their own hybrid tonal identities.
[caption id="attachment_27657" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] “To me, Charlie Parker is a rhythmic player; my father used to say, ‘It sounds like he has a drum in his horn,’ and that’s the perfect description.”[/caption]
More than Bird’s tunes, I’m into his playing — though I like his tunes, don’t get me wrong. I tend to like the rarer tunes more — “She Rote” and “Ko-Ko,” things people don’t play so much. I thought his band had the perfect balance when Miles and Max Roach were in it. I’ve tried to emulate how they played together without emulating the music. So my Five Elements group is really based on Bird’s band. To me, Charlie Parker is a rhythmic player; my father used to say, “It sounds like he has a drum in his horn,” and that’s the perfect description. If you take away the notes and just sing the rhythm, he’s still interesting. I can go [sings pattern of “Moose the Mooche”], and you know it’s “Moose the Mooche” without singing a note. But I see melody and rhythm as the same thing, and I also think of Bird as a melodic genius, in the notes he chose and where they led to.
Von Freeman used to say that his goal was to play like he talked, and Chan Parker once said that Bird said that all the time. Most people today play what I call run-on sentences, the way auctioneers sound, running everything together; but they played the natural cadences and flow of talking, of conversation. Bird had what I call a wide style, with so many elements. Cats come out of him and latch onto different things, so they don’t sound anything like each other. I hear this speech-rhythmic thing, while some people I talk to don’t hear that at all. Ornette Coleman had part of that speech thing, too. I feel he listened to those very early Bird-and-Miles records, which you can definitely hear Don Cherry coming out of, but he didn’t live there or dive into the details; he just got the shape, and then went in his direction. He sparked a whole group of things.
Sonny Rollins and Coltrane both come out of different aspects of Bird. Bird was very intuitive and very precise at the same time. Trane took the precision part and got the intuitive part later. Sonny took the intuitive part; of course he was also very precise. Trane comes more out of Bird’s mathematical side, while Sonny comes out of what I call the “trickster” side, incorporating quotes and little tricks with the rhythms, twisting the beat around.
The heartbeat of bebop lives on in the singing of Sheila Jordan (née Sheila Jeannette Dawson), who took her surname in 1952 after marrying Duke Jordan — the pianist in Charlie Parker’s band during 1947 and ’48 — and kept it after their divorce 10 years later. Although Jordan tabled her career during the 1960s and ’70s while holding a day job and raising her daughter, she would make up for lost time with a vengeance after returning to the scene. At 91, she sustains a robust global performing and teaching schedule.
[caption id="attachment_27659" align="aligncenter" width="611"] Sheila Jordan: “He was it! It was the fierceness and heart and soul that he put into his music. He played tempos that were unheard of and never missed a note. Each solo he took was a song within itself.” Photo: Michael Binstok.[/caption]
I first heard Charlie Parker my last year of high school, at Cass Tech in Detroit. One day I was looking at the jukebox of the hamburger joint across the street, and I saw this listing of Charlie Parker and his Reboppers, “Now’s the Time.” I put my nickel in. Four notes. Blew my mind. I said, “Oh, my God, that’s the music I’ll dedicate my life to, whether I sing it or teach it or just support it.” After that I met Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell and Barry Harris, who I grew up with, and two guys who were singing Bird — Skeeter Spight and Leroi Mitchell. I’d been buying all these Bird records to learn these tunes, and I asked if I could sing with them. They took me in, and we became a trio. They called us Skeeter, Mitch and Jean; my middle name is Jeannette. Skeeter was the greatest scat singer I ever heard. Then Bird came to town to play the Graystone Ballroom, and [saxophonist] Billy Mitchell, who was living in Detroit then, introduced him to us. After the break, Bird played an incredible song — I can’t remember which one — then he invited us up. We were terrified, but we sang. I think it was “Confirmation.” Bird complimented us, then he looked at me and said, “Kid, you’ve got million-dollar ears.”
After I moved to New York in 1951, I went to Birdland with a friend who was close to Bird, and we went backstage during the break. Bird said, “I know you. You’re the kid with the million-dollar ears.” Anyway, we got very close. I had a loft on 26th Street right off of 8th Avenue, where I let all the Detroiters stay when they came to town. I had extra cots, and I had a bed for Bird. Maybe he’d have had a fight with his wife, and he’d come by and ask if he could rest. There was nothing romantic going on; he was like my big brother.
He was a sweet, giving human being. He had the cunning, baffling, powerful disease of drug addiction and alcohol. And he was a genius. He was it! It was the fierceness and heart and soul that he put into his music. He played tempos that were unheard of and never missed a note. Each solo he took was a song within itself. It was Charlie Parker who turned me on to Béla Bartók and Stravinsky. He was looking to move ahead.
“I’ve always lived in different camps of music,” says saxophonist Joe Lovano, 67. “That means to be very free with inside approaches and to be really in there on freer music — what they call ‘outside.’” Lovano has embodied this aesthetic self-description since his formative years in Cleveland, Ohio, never more formidably than on the 2011 Parker homage, Bird Songs (Blue Note), with the still extant group Us Five, which will tour with Bird’s repertoire during 2020.
[caption id="attachment_27661" align="aligncenter" width="1240"] Joe Lovano: “He always created melodies and he spoke those melodies with love. That was how he lived. That’s how he influenced everyone.”[/caption]
I think Charlie Parker’s impact is in the flowing way that he played, the total organic expression of constant free-flowing ideas. His sound was all about what he was trying to express; his tone captures you within the ideas that he’s expressing. When I listen to Bird, he takes me with him, every phrase. I think we’ve all learned from the way he swung and felt the music and expressed his feelings; he impacted all the instrumentalists who were on the scene with him and afterwards. But I don’t hear it as much in a lot of young cats today, who haven’t listened to him in depth and really felt all the songs that he knew and loved to play. Every song you ever heard on any recording of his was something that he loved to play. Sinatra touches a wide scope of all kinds of folks, because he’s speaking to you and he’s speaking the truth, the way he’s feeling it. Charlie Parker had that, for sure. The swinging feeling and the pronunciation of his notes, like words, is incredible. It’s just a natural thing.
Bird’s technique around the horn was astonishing. He had amazing ears, and he just knew music. He was in all 12 keys all the time; whatever key he was in, he knew all these things in any key, expressing himself throughout the instrument and not as a technical exercise. He had the most amazing recall as far as melodies and tunes, and they would all come out in such a natural way. He always created melodies and he spoke those melodies with love. That was how he lived. That’s how he influenced everyone. He taught a lot of people how to play — drummers, piano players, bass players. The melodic phrasing of some of Bird’s tunes taught me how to play the drums. Trying to play “Confirmation” on the snare drum and the bass drum, and moving that melody around with the cymbals and the hi-hat and the whole thing. I was trying to learn a language on the saxophone, and then having it in my head and memorizing it and speaking that on the drums taught me everything, man.
“What I do is all the same material as Charlie Parker, just rearranged a little — a different perspective,” alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa told me in 2010. A multiple “Best Alto Saxophonist” poll-winner during the 2010s, and currently the Anthony H. P. Lee ’79 Director of Jazz at Princeton University, Mahanthappa, 48, has been a force in the international jazz arena since the turn of the century. From his initial duo and quartet recordings with Vijay Iyer through his 2015 Charlie Parker homage, Bird Calls [ACT], Mahanthappa has developed tuneful, compelling ways to remap and recontextualize the tunings and rhythms of South Indian Carnatic music within a Western jazz setting.
[caption id="attachment_27663" align="aligncenter" width="1240"] Rudresh Mahanthappa: “There’s a lot of talk about innovation in the jazz world, but the reality is that it’s very hard to actually create something truly new — and very hard to create something not somehow related to Charlie Parker.” Photo: Ethan Levitas.[/caption]
In the last 10-15 years, more attention than ever is being paid to rhythm, and a lot of that can be traced back to Charlie Parker. It’s the idea of not only rhythmic fluidity, but rhythmic variety. For me, that goes hand in hand with things that sound like speaking, like somebody actually telling you something when he takes a solo. Hearing Bird was my first experience like that. His playing has the flow and variety and nuance of beautifully constructed yet spontaneous speech. I think we’ve all experienced somebody who speaks very well, even in off-the-cuff situations. Bird always carried that spirit in an exemplary way. For me, everybody should know four or five Bird solos. He’s foundational. If you’re playing jazz, it’s “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” There’s a lot of talk about innovation in the jazz world, but the reality is that it’s very hard to actually create something truly new — and very hard to create something not somehow related to Charlie Parker.
On the Bird Calls album, one thing I did with his solo on “Dexterity” was use only its rhythm and change all the notes. It has a very contemporary rhythmic content and contour. Some harmonic things he did are as advanced as anything happening today. For example, the head of “Donna Lee,” is tagged to a particular era, but parts of its melody sound as modern as any 20th- or 21st-century classical music, as modern as anything that Steve Coleman or Evan Parker plays. I never feel obligated to play like Bird, to try to play bop when I’m playing one of those tunes with my band. I feel like there’s so much material in there that lends itself to more modern playing.
“Red Cross” was the first Bird tune I ever learned, probably when I was 12. It immediately spoke to me. The pure virtuosity bowled me over; he was playing the shit out of the saxophone. But also this joy, this humor coming out of his horn — the flexibility and flow, going from the low part of the horn to the high part with total ease. I hadn’t heard anything like it. It always made me happy, and it had this charisma. I couldn’t stop listening to it. It made me want to play, and it made me want to practice. There are people who play the saxophone as well as Charlie Parker, but no one plays it better.
No jazz musician of the past 60 years has more palpably channeled the sound of Charlie Parker than alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, who turned 80 last July and recently recorded his 25th album as a leader. A San Diego resident for several decades, McPherson — who spent his teens in Detroit, and relocated to New York at 20, promptly establishing bona fides on consequential albums with Charles Mingus and Detroit mentor Barry Harris — spoke to JAZZIZ a few days after a four-night engagement at New York’s Jazz Standard.
[caption id="attachment_27665" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Charles McPherson: “In February 1955, I saw Bird play a Saturday night dance. I remember looking at his eyes. To me, he looked like there was nothing that he didn’t understand.” Photo: Antonio Porcar Cano.[/caption]
Charlie Parker did so many things well that he’s A-plus on any one of them you want to isolate. A lot of people are impressed with his technique when they first hear him; he plays a lot of notes and he’s clean as a whistle. But other people have the technique to play a lot of notes — Don Byas, Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges. Other people have the harmonic knowledge. Where Bird sticks out for me is his creative ability in phrasing and rhythm, which is very syncopated and present on almost any tune of his. “Moose the Mooche” is a perfect example, the way he uses accents on the offbeat, and uses unexpected offbeats. A later tune, “She Rote,” is very rhythmic, and so is “Bird Feathers.” His music is much more rhythmical than what people did in the 1960s. He taught the world how to phrase. When you hear John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins or Clifford Brown, they all play eighth notes in the way that Charlie Parker instigated.
When I was 14, I heard Bird play “Tico-Tico” on the jukebox at a candy store. I got it immediately; something resonated right then and there. It was unlike anything I’d heard. I thought, “This guy makes more sense than anybody.” It’s the melodic, linear sense of logic, musical phrases that seamlessly connect to the next phrase, like sentences in a well-written paragraph; his ability to take the best four or five notes of the moment and find the right sequence and rhythmic configuration of those notes, and string them along for days. When you listen to his interviews, he speaks in long, perfectly connected sentences, with perfect grammar — very much like his music pattern. It’s like Bach. Even though many notes are being played, everything fits like a glove, as though he’d thought about it for years and then wrote it out.
In February 1955, I saw Bird play a Saturday night dance. I remember looking at his eyes. To me, he looked like there was nothing that he didn’t understand. He’s in a ballroom, surrounded by hundreds of people, and he is acting no differently than he would if he was in his living room. He wasn’t putting on a face. Without even trying, without being overbearing, his way of being radiated animal magnetism.
Tenor saxophone “colossus” Sonny Rollins, 89, is a peerless master of thematic improvisation with a walking-the-highwire attitude. Rollins refined that rarefied art through 65 years of sustained development along a path that included a 1953 session led by his good friend and frequent ’50s employer Miles Davis on which Rollins and Charlie Parker matched wits on tenor. In Bird’s manner, Rollins explains, “I always have the melody in my mind, so I can extemporize in any kind of crazy way, but it still contains something people can relate to.”
[caption id="attachment_27667" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Sonny Rollins: “He had his influences, but he came out with his own sound. It was his time to emerge and do his thing. Bird was the word.” Photo: John Abbott.[/caption]
My first guy was Louis Jordan, my second guy was Coleman Hawkins, my third guy was Bird, my fourth guy was Lester Young, then my fifth guy was Don Byas. But although I certainly love and got a lot from all these other people, Bird’s improvisations were so salient that he was my main guy. They were so powerful and strong and unique for that time. He brought things beyond people like Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges, whose playing also stood out, because they were extemporizing, improvising, and it was all singular; it was all good. The bebop language had come to the fore, and, as Dizzy Gillespie said, Bird created it. He had his influences, but he came out with his own sound. It was his time to emerge and do his thing. Bird was the word. Everybody was trying to play like Charlie Parker.
I can certainly see Bird’s influence in my own development. In fact, when I was living in Chicago, a radio disk jockey named Daddy-O Daylie would refer to me as “the Bird of the tenors.” One thing I got from Bird was the way I use a lot of quotes. Miles Davis heard that aspect of Bird in me; that’s one reason why he loved me so. Probably a lot of other people, like Daddy-O Daylie, heard it also. One day in 1947 or 1948, I was at a music store on 48th Street, and Bird and Budd Johnson, the tenor player, were also there. Budd knew my reputation, and he told Charlie Parker, “I want you to hear this young guy play.” I played for Bird, and Bird said, “Hey, man, that’s me!” So Bird felt that I was one of his protégés or acolytes.
One thing that made Bird special is that he represented a counter to music that just entertained, which was the way much of jazz was looked at then, when there was so much racial and social injustice in the country. He stood very still when he played, as the so-called “Classical” artists would do. Then, too, the music he was playing was so advanced. For a lot of us, Bird represented the pattern of someone new who had the right social message for us young musicians. I was just one of a multitude that looked up to Bird as our god. He was our prophet.