Today William Price King shares the life and music of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. His name is very familiar to jazz lovers, but I had not idea that he was only thirty-four years old when he died. He certainly left an amazing legacy behind of unique and memorable music. I am sure that you will enjoy the music that William has selected to showcase this remarkable talent.
Charles Parker Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955), also known as Yardbird and Bird, was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. He was a highly influential jazz soloist and a leading figure in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, virtuosic technique and advanced harmonies. Parker acquired the nickname “Yardbird” early in his career on the road with Jay McShann. This, and the shortened form “Bird”, continued to be used for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles of a number of Parker compositions, such as “Yardbird Suite”, “Ornithology”, “Bird Gets the Worm”, and “Bird of Paradise”.
“Swingmatism”, recorded in 1942 by Charlie Parker, was written by William Scott. This piece, composed in F minor and modulates to its parallel major, is noted for its implied 12 – bar blues in a 16 – bar form. This structural ambiguity is highlighted both by the composer and Parker because whatever he played, and however complex it was, he always managed to make it swing (as you will hear in this piece), illustrating how a good ‘swing’ rhythm section can play bebop and make it fit. Parker’s tone on the alto sax was clipped, light, skittering – actually more like solo piano than other saxophone players of the time.
Charles Parker was born in Kansas City to Charles and Adelaide Parker, Her was raised there and then Westport. His father was a pianist, dancer and singer on the vaudeville circuit for African American performers in the 1920s and when home provided the early musical influence for Charlie.After a year in high school he left to join the local musicians’ union and to pursue his music career full time. He had begun to play saxophone at the age of 11 and joined his high school band at 14, with an alto saxophone which was a gift from his mother. This led to Charlie meeting a young trombone player called Robert Simpson who taught him improvisation.
“Yardbird Suite”,* composed by Charlie Parker in 1946, is a bebop standard. The title comes from Parker’s nickname ‘Bird.’ This piece is not a suite, rather, it follows an AABA* form. Charlie Parker was fascinated by Igor Stravinsky, the classical composer. In Carl Woideck’s book “Charlie Parker: His Music and Life” he states that ‘although Parker generally tended to only write new melodies over pre-existent forms, “Yardbird Suite” whose title is a pun on the piece “Firebird Suite” by Stravinsky, is a wholly original composition in both melody and chord progression.’ You will hear that each note is articulated with focused energy, each phrase smoothly executed but infused with an acerbic aftertaste. Parker made the most radical innovations seem instantly understandable, masking both the bristling complexity of the musical language and the disciplined intellect behind it.”
*Suite – In music a suite is a collection of short musical pieces which can be played one after another. The pieces are usually dance movements.
*AABA – The AABA song form (a thirty-two-bar form) is a song structure commonly found in Tin Pan Alley songs and other American popular music, especially in the first half of the 20th century.