Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Music Column with William Price King – #Jazz Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker #Saxaphone

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.

Charlie was a dedicated musician despite being so young and in an interview he said he spent the first three to four years of his career practicing and mastering improvisation up to 15 hours a day. His other early influences included band leaders such as Count Basie and Bennie Moten. As he played with local bands around Kansas City, he continued to perfect his technique with the help of Buster Smith, whose dynamic transitions to double and triple time helped develop Charlie Parker’s unique style.

In 1936 when on the road with a band to play in Missouri, the cars carrying the musicians were involved in a serious accident resulting in Charlie breaking three ribs and fracturing his spine. This led to a lifetime struggle with painkillers and opioids. Despite the accident, Charlie continued to play and in 1938 joined Jay McShann’s band which toured nightclubs in the southwest including Chicago and New York and it led to Charlie’s first recording.

“Now’s The Time” was first recorded in 1945 by Parker, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Curley Russell, and Max Roach. This is a riff* – based blues. Parker drew on his Kansas City jazz roots to craft this simple, bluesy composition. It goes without saying that Parker is at the helm here. His beautiful, soulful tone and his technical expertise are out of this world. The melody of “Now’s the Time” was used for the recording ‘The Hucklebuck,’ which became a hit for saxophonist Paul Williams four years after Parker’s original recording. Despite being released by the same record label and the same producer, Parker was not given credit; instead, the composition was attributed to Andy Gibson, who recorded it as ‘D-Natural Blues.’

Riff – a short rhythm phrase, an ostinato, a repeated chord progression or melody used in music that is often played when a soloist is performing or when chords and harmonies are changing.

In 1939 Charlie moved to New York City to pursue his career but also had to work other jobs to pay the rent. However, this was to be a pivotal moment in his musical career as he played with the established musicians in New York, and he returned to Kansas City in 1940 bringing this new sound with him. He would later state in an interview in the 1950s, how one night in 1939 he was playing “Cherokee” in a jam session with guitarist William “Biddy” Fleet when he hit upon a method for developing his solos that enabled one of his main musical innovations. He realized that the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key, breaking some of the confines of simpler jazz soloing.

Early in the development of bebop, this new type of jazz was rejected by many of the established, traditional jazz musicians who disdained their younger counterparts. The beboppers responded by calling these traditionalists “moldy figs”. However, some musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins and Tatum, were more positive about its development, and participated in jam sessions and recording dates in the new approach with its adherents

He rejoined Jay McShann’s band and played some prominent gigs in the summer 1940 before embarking on a tour of the region. In 1942 Charlie left the band and played for a year with Earl Hines whose band also included Dizzy Gillespie, who would go on to play with Charlie as a duo. Few professional recordings were made during the musicians’ strike of 1942-1943 by the American Federation of Musicians, but Charlie Parker joined other young musicians and played in after-hours clubs in Harlem. These included Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk and drummer Kenny Clarke.

“Moose the Mooche” was, supposedly, named after Parker’s drug dealer, Emry ‘Moose the Mooche,’ who dealt him drugs for years. This composition is in the key of B-flat, with a 32-bar AABA structure. The chord progression is based on the George Gershwin piece “I Got Rhythm”. It was recorded in Los Angeles for Dial Records in 1946 as the Charlie Parker Septet with Miles Davis, Lucky Thompson, Dodo Marmarosa, Vic McMillan, Arvin Garrison and Roy Porter.

Because of the two-year Musicians’ Union ban of all commercial recordings from 1942 to 1944, much of bebop’s early development was not recorded. As a result, it gained limited radio exposure. It was not until 1945, when the recording ban was lifted, that Parker’s collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and others had a substantial effect on the jazz world. Bebop soon gained wider appeal among musicians and fans alike.
Charlie Parker with Strings

A longstanding desire of Parker’s was to perform with a string section. He was a keen student of classical music, and contemporaries reported he was most interested in the music and formal innovations of Igor Stravinsky and longed to engage in a project akin to what later became known as Third Stream, a new kind of music, incorporating both jazz and classical elements as opposed to merely incorporating a string section into performance of jazz standards. On November 30, 1949, Norman Granz arranged for Parker to record an album of ballads with a mixed group of jazz and chamber orchestra musicians. Six master takes from this session became the album Charlie Parker with Strings: “Just Friends”, “Everything Happens to Me”, “April in Paris”, “Summertime”, “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was”, and “If I Should Lose You”.

Parker died on March 12, 1955. The official causes of death were lobar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, but Parker also had an advanced case of cirrhosis and had suffered a heart attack. The coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker’s 34-year-old body to be between 50 and 60 years of age.

“Ornithology” was composed by Charlie Parker and Benny Harris. The title of this piece is in reference to Parker’s nickname ‘Bird’ – ornithology is the study of birds. This piece was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1989. “Ornithology” is a contrafact, a newly created melody written on the chord progression of another song, in this case from “How High The Moon”. Back in those days, jazz musicians could create new pieces for performance by using pre-existing chord progressions on which they could improvise without seeking permission or pay publishers for copyright materials.

Buy the music of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker:


About William Price King

William Price King is an American jazz singer, crooner, and composer.

His interest in music began at an early age when he studied piano and clarinet in high school. At Morehouse College in Atlanta where he grew up, he sang in the Glee Club and studied classical music. After graduation he went off to the Yale School of Music where he earned a Masters degree. From there he journeyed to New York where he created a jazz trio ‘Au Naturel’ which performed in some of the hottest venues in Manhattan including gigs on Broadway and the famous ‘Rainbow Room.’ These gigs opened doors for performances in Montreal and a European tour.

While touring Europe he met a lovely French lady, Jeanne Maïstre, who, a year later became his wife. King left the group ‘Au Naturel’ and settled in the south of France where he started a new life on the French Riviera, opening his own music school – the “Price King Ecole Internationale de Chant.” He has had the pleasure over the years of seeing many of his students excel as singers on a professional level, and some going on to become national celebrities. He continues to coach young singers today, in his spare time.

His debut jazz album was entitled “Home,” and was a collection of contemporary compositions he composed, with lyrics written by his wife Jeanne King. His second album was a Duo (Voice and Guitar) with Eric Sempé on the guitar. This album included original songs as well as well known standards from contemporary jazz and pop artists. The “King-Sempé” duo toured France and thrilled audiences for more than three years before going their separate ways. King has formed a new duo with French/Greek guitarist Manolis, and is now exploring new ideas, in a smooth jazz/soul/folk direction.

In addition to singing and composing, King has been collaborating with author Sally Cronin over the past few years on her blog “Smorgasbord – Variety is the spice of life,” with the series “A Man And His Music – Jazz, Contemporary, Classical, and Legends” and now, the “William Price King Music Column.” Working with author Sally Cronin has been an exhilarating experience in many ways and has brought a new dimension to King’s creative life. King has also created a micro blog, “Improvisation,” which features and introduces mostly jazz artists from across the jazz spectrum who have made considerable contributions in the world of jazz; and also artwork from painters who have made their mark in the world of art. This micro blog can be found on Tumblr.

His vocal mentors are two of the greatest giants in jazz, Nat King Cole and Mel Tormé. King has a distinctive wide-ranging voice which displays a remarkable technical facility and emotional depth.

William Price King on Tumblr – IMPROVISATION

Connect with William

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You can find all of the Music Column series in this directory:

As always we would love to receive your feedback.. thanks Sally and William

17 thoughts on “Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Music Column with William Price King – #Jazz Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker #Saxaphone

  1. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – The Music Column with William Price King – #Jazz Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker #Saxaphone | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

    • Ah, so glad to be taking you down memory lane. I am so happy that your Dad would really like our posts. Thanks so much. Take good care of you. All the best.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Love love love Charlier Parker. Genius. His music gets right inside you and sirs barely conscious feelings.Strangely I never know that much about him so thank you William for the biography. Paul


  3. Pingback: Smorgasbord Blog Magazine – Weekly Round Up – Bloggers Bash Nominations, Winter Warmers, Arizona, Spring Bulbs and all that Jazz | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  4. Pingback: Magical Birds Lay Fish Eggs – koolkosherkitchen

I would be delighted to receive your feedback (by commenting, you agree to Wordpress collecting your name, email address and URL) Thanks Sally

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