Loretta Barnard looks into the polarising performances of the beboppin’ Charlie “Bird” Parker who clipped his wings far too soon.


Saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, one of the creators of bebop, lived fast and died young, but unlike the character of Nick Romano played by John Derek in 1949’s Knock on Any Door, he didn’t leave a good-looking corpse.

He was an innovative musician, but a bit of a train wreck of a person. Drugs, alcohol and hard living contributed to his early death at the age of just 34.

Born in 1920, Charlie Parker grew up listening to blues, jazz and gospel, and discovered a love for the alto sax when he was about 15 years old.

He worked in a few fine bands, including Jay McShann’s Orchestra, where he honed his skills, learned the standards and worked on his solos. His solo in the 1941 recording of Hootie Blues (about 30 seconds in and quite short) made people sit up and take notice.

It wasn’t long before he met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, drummer Kenny Clarke and others. That artistic collaboration led to the creation of the musical style known as bebop.

Up until then, jazz and in particular swing music, had lots of audience appeal. It was foot-tapping, melodic and great for singing and dancing along.

In contrast, bebop chords were altered to create a sort of discordance. Quick tempi and improvisations that didn’t necessarily reflect the melody became its hallmarks and the harmonies were way more complex. Bebop lacked the melodic strains of other jazz, and – like any art movement – polarised people.

Parker, Gillespie, Monk et al. infused this new energy into jazz. Nowadays, people might think that moving up and down the instrument with rapid notes, twisting convoluted melodies and seemingly shambolic solos is what jazz is, but when these musicians did this in the 1940s, it was nothing short of revolutionary. It was a radical departure from the jazz that had gone before.

The thing about Parker was the way he played. John Coltrane, another jazz luminary, said, “The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes”; jazz writer Alyn Shipton said that Parker found “extraordinary levels of improvisational possibility in the simplest and best-known material”.

Parker played intuitively and although some of it sounds super crazy modern to this day, every note makes perfect sense.

These bebop guys were doing stuff that no one else was doing and changed the face of music. Parker, for one, was not only a local legend, but turned out to be a dynamic force in jazz and music history.

When a new jazz club opened in New York in 1949, it was named “Birdland”, an unashamed ploy to attract clientele. Such was the measure of Parker’s renown. Birdland is still one of New York’s premier jazz venues.

He loved the music of Stravinsky, and when you think about it, Stravinsky’s masterpiece The Rite of Spring was right up Bird’s alley. His classical love of stringed instruments is reflected in his 1949 album With Strings. Listen to the gorgeous richness of Parker’s Summertime.

Bird wasn’t an easy man. He developed a drug addiction in his teens and if he couldn’t get his hands on heroin, he’d substitute it with large quantities of alcohol, marijuana and God knows what else.

Because of this, his behaviour was often erratic and he was far from reliable. He’d often miss gigs, leaving bandleaders in the lurch, or he’d be off his face and unable to perform. Sometimes he’d show up without his instrument and there’d a mad scramble to find him one. He was known to sell his sax to score drugs.

He famously set fire to his bed with a burning cigar; he once urinated in the lobby of a hotel telephone booth; sometimes he had to be propped up so that he’d be close enough to the microphone to play.

Charlie Parker was like a meteor, flashing by, making a massive impact before disappearing from sight. Long-term health issues, exacerbated by substance abuse, took Bird from the world in 1955.

Such a sad waste of a phenomenal talent.

Miles Davis, no slouch himself in the development of modern jazz, once commented that jazz history could be summarised in four words: “Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker.”

Not long after his death, the phrase “Bird Lives” popped up as graffiti all over New York City.

And indeed he does.


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