Charlie Parker at 100

Today would have been the 100th birthday of jazz great Charlie Parker.

If you’re unfamiliar with Charlie Parker, he was one of the founders of bebop, a musical style that followed (and supplanted) the big bands and swing that had been popular before World War II. Bird, as he was nicknamed, played the alto sax. He his playing was fast[fn1] and it was rhythmically and harmonically complicated; it, more than almost any other musical style (except, perhaps, mid-century classical music) encapsulated the same modernism that developed in art and literature during the first half of the 20th century.

And why commemorate Bird on a Mormon blog? There is absolutely no reason to think that he had any connection to Mormonism, nor Mormonism any particular connection to Bird. In fact, according to Michael Hicks’s Mormonism and Music, church leaders in the early 20th century “defined jazz as ‘departure from the correct'” and condemned improvisation. As late as 1948, BYU faculty “scuttled” a proposed concert by Dizzy Gillespie, a contemporary of Bird and another of the founders of bebop, possibly fearing repercussions by church leaders.

But if Charlie Parker—and bebop generally—isn’t part of Mormon culture, he should be. After all, art is a critical part of our mortal experience, and we’ve had church programs focusing on enculturating our youth and our members.

And while there’s no objective connection between Mormonism and Charlie Parker, I have at least some personal connection. The first is that I’m almost entirely sure that I first heard (and heard about) Bird from Ray Smith, who was over the saxophones and jazz program at BYU. One year when I was in high school I went to a music camp at BYU. My jazz familiarity (because of personal taste and teachers in San Diego) ran toward 70s and 80s fusion, people like Michael Brecker and David Sanborn. At that camp, Ray introduced me to Bird and Coltrane. They didn’t immediately stick, but slowly their music began to infiltrate my ears and my brain.

At some point in high school I read a biography about Bird. And I used tidbits in that biography in a talk. I can’t remember if it was as I left for BYU or as I left on my mission. But I do remember that in talking about hard work, I used Bird’s report that he practiced between 11 and 15 hours a day for several years.

Which is to say, my connection to Charlie Parker, while not principally filtered through my Mormon experience, has nonetheless had at least a tangential relationship to it.

All that to introduce the music. Here are 4 songs performed by Charlie Parker. I’m not going to say these are his best recordings or his most important recordings. They’re entirely subjectively the handful of recordings that are most salient to me right now:

My Little Suede Shoes

I’ve been learning to play this on soprano. It’s laid-back and just a happy, funky song. It’s a great and accessible introduction to a genius of modern music.

Now’s the Time

Parker wrote a lot of songs over the 12-bar blues. This is one of my favorites. You can hear his speed and his thoughtfulness on this, and some licks that are just mind-blowing.

Anthropology

He also wrote a lot of songs over rhythm changes. “Anthropology” is one of my favorites. (I really love Lucky Thompson’s version too.)

Moose the Mooche

The song was allegedly named after Parker’s heroin dealer. True or not, it’s a wonderful song.

Finally, it seemed appropriate on what would have been Charlie Parker’s 100th birthday to bike over to my local record store (Dusty Groove in this case) and see if I could get my hands on the Record Store Day release of Charlie Parker’s Jazz at Midnite. On its website, I saw that the store opens at 9:00 so I shot to get there at 8:00. When I arrived., though,. I didn’t see any line. It turns out that on RSD it opened at 7 am.

But I was in luck: it hadn’t sold out and I am now the proud owner of a live set of Bird tunes on vinyl.


[fn1] Most of the songs in my copy of the Charlie Parker Omnibook have tempos in the mid-200 bpm. Some were recorded at up to 300 bpm. In fact, Parker could be the subject of the first verse of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music”:

I have no kick against modern jazz
Unless they try to play it too darn fast
And change the beauty of the melody
Until they sound just like a symphony

(Note that, as much as I like Chuck Berry, he’s entirely wrong about modern jazz.)

Comments

  1. never forget says:

    Love this! Thanks so much.

  2. Thx for this, Sam. Mr. Parker’s final resting place right down the road in KC MO – and yes, entirely fitting & delightfully incongruous to celebrate Charlie Parker in a Mormon blog. Plz let us discuss golden platters in lieu of golden plates sometimes! Recommend TELEGRAPH AVENUE by Michael Charon for all fans of lit/jazz. Ah Berkeley!

  3. Charon

  4. Chabon (stupid AC)

  5. Fun post. Did you know John Coltrane had a church named after him? https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/saint-john-coltrane-african-orthodox-church-skb

  6. As the director of student activities at Oklahoma State University, I brought in another founder of bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, for 3 days of concerts and workshops as part of the National Foundation for the Arts grant. I remember picking him up at the airport. He was dressed exactly like you would expect a 1950’s gentleman who has no idea that he is a legend: baggy gray slacks and an old dress hat (this was in 1982). He worked with the school’s jazz band and then gave a free concert. It was cool seeing college kids get their first taste of Night In Tunisia.

    What a great memory.

  7. larryco_, that is so awesome! I’m totally jealous.

    And Poser, I had no idea; thanks for letting me know!

    p and never forget, thanks!

  8. Thanks for the education and sharing your selection of some of Bird’s best songs. A great diversion from the heavy current events we’re dealing with. If you hadn’t told me he was playing 12 bar blues on that one track I wouldn’t have known—he plays it like no one else. If a tragic cautionary example of a huge talent and a life cut short by drug addiction, Bird was also an example of what an amazing work ethic and devotion to your craft can help you achieve. I’m always in awe of people who come along and pioneer a whole new style of music with the same 12 notes everyone else has access to.

  9. Love this post. My musical diet has included heavy helpings of Bird, Dizzy, Miles, Bud Powell, Cliff Brown, Max Roach, et al. since I was a freshman in college. Listening to “Parker’s Mood” ministers to me in a way few other recordings can. I have always thought it was cool that the Coltrane Church has Sound Ministers who sing God’s praises with their instruments.

  10. Derl Sanderson says:

    In the 1970’s there was a group named Supersax. They were a kind of “tribute” group to Charlie Parker and honored him by transcribing his incredibly complicated improvised solos and voicing them for five saxophones that played the solo in unison rhythmically but harmonized it in five parts. SICK!