Charlie Parker at 100: Chasin’ the Bird’s tone

JJ writer and young saxophonist Thomas Fletcher underlines the enduring legacy of the co-inventor of bebop, whose centenary is this month

I was eight years old when I first began to play the saxophone and since that time, I always remember my grandfather mentioning somebody named Charlie Parker. Of course, I took no notice of this performer at that age but as I continued to develop and enjoy playing, this name seemed to be mentioned regularly. It was only when I took music further at college that I started to appreciate the great work that this musician had achieved.

Charlie Parker is among the very few jazz musicians who forever transform the performance and writing of jazz music. Parker’s influence on contemporary styles of jazz continues, forming a vital part of jazz education and of pedagogical conventions in jazz harmony. His development of bebop alongside notable influencers such as Dizzy Gillespie paved a way out of the swing and dance era into a vibrant and youthful modern jazz idiom.

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Unfortunately, due to the strike from 1942-1943 by the American Federations of Musicians, much of the early evolution of bebop was never recorded. Additionally, bebop is thought of as one of the first movements in jazz to advance the idiom beyond the realm of simple entertainment. By the early 50s, it was near impossible to perform “modern jazz” without closely analysing the work of Charlie Parker.

Parker’s musical technique is one reason he achieved his fame. His theoretical understanding of melody and harmony saw him dismissing the conventional diatonic scales of early jazz and replacing them with complex chromatic passages. His general approach was to subtly hint at original chord changes, adding new harmonic content, his ear being exceptionally sensitive to consonance and dissonance. Today, with The Charlie Parker Omnibook readily available, it’s never been easier to study the complex harmony that Parker implements. His solos would repeatedly explore musical motifs as he sought expand and develop vocabulary, much like a composer.

Parker’s tone was reasonably hard with an edge that was well suited for bebop, however his ability to adapt to multiple ensemble settings was extraordinary. Considered one of his most successful recordings under the watchful eye of Norman Granz, Charlie Parker with Strings (Mercury, 1950) was a colossal achievement that not only exposed Parker’s tone in a new context but showed that the classical European orchestra and lyricism of jazz could find common ground. Many scholars have questioned and criticised With Strings for commercialising jazz and making concessions to a wider demographic. Hipsters also accused the harmonies of being too pleasant and not moving with the modern times. Other records thus targeted have included Music For Loving (Norgran, 1954) by Ben Webster and Focus (Verve, 1962) by Stan Getz. Should our view of these works really be skewed through the prism of commercial success? Or do they offer more than that?

Parker was a man expressing himself through what he did best. His innovative achievements have and always will influence musicians on all instruments. With a plethora of revamped alternative takes and content reissued, Parker has never been more accessible to generations such as mine. After his death, “Bird Lives” could been seen graffitied all over New York. That proclamation still has strong currency in jazz today.

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