August 29th marks the 101th birthday of Charlie Parker, Jr., one of the founding fathers of Be-Bop. His approach to music was considered innovative, revolutionary, thought-provoking, radical and progressive. His musicality was unique; when you process and showcase different from the crowd you are traditionally called these types of names. But as history has taught us, pioneering philosophy becomes contagious and, in many instances, it can become the fabric of society. Basically, Bird was the Black Lives Matter movement of his time. Back then, many of the established musical artist were not feeling his style of improvisation. I’m sure not being able to comprehend, fear of being left behind, jealousy and/or just not willing to fully-immerse themselves into their craft contributed to the industry and the artist not appreciating Bird’s skills. However, through his shortcomings, Bird was able to carve a path, find a musically social-conscious and extend his artistic interpretations of jazz to heights that still inspire beats, rhythms and rhymes in today’s contemporary music.
A few years ago, I was honored with the opportunity to write this piece. My goal was to birth a text from an angle that gives you an intimate portrait of the person that was called “Bird,” his inspiration and legacy. I must admit, this was a difficult direction to discover. Most written pieces about Parker only heavily discuss his beginning, the alcohol, drug and depression issues; and finally, his untimely end. Fortunately, through connections from several friends, I was able to have an old-school phone conversation with his grandson, Bryan Parker to obtain a fresher perspective. If you would, find your favorite reading space, play the embedded link below featuring “The Quintet,” pour your favorite sipping beverage and take a journey with me into the “Ornithology of Charlie Parker.”
Let the live performance marinate for a few moments before you continue. In today’s valuation, there is about a billion dollars of talent on this track. You are listening to history; this is the only time this crew has been assembled for a recording…savor the moment before continuing the passage below.
Who was Charlie Parker?
Bryan is a strong advocate of Charlie Parker, “He was my grandfather…my father’s father. He was more than an incredible and innovative musician. I believe he was a God-send.”
Charlie Parker, Jr. was born in Kansas City, KS in August 1920 to his parents Charles and Addie. In the late 20s, his family moved to across the state line to Kansas City, MO. Like many black folks during this time, they lived in close proximity to the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. Yes, the district was known for music and entertainment, but it was a self-contained neighborhood with housing, storefronts, churches and schools like Crispus Attucks Elementary and Lincoln High both attended by Parker. The neighborhood was the playlist to the growth of Young Charlie Parker helping him discover his talent by listening to the notes that bounced through the air and becoming active in school’s band programs. Bryan recalled, “I remember hearing my grandmother talk about how Addie (Charlie Parker’s mother) loved and supported his musical ambition. She bought him his first saxophone for $40. That was big money in that era.”
Barely a teenager, Charlie Parker started playing in jam sessions to progress his improvisational skills. This is where he catches the eyes of Jay McShann and receives an invite to join his band. Parker played for McShann for approximately four years before joining the Earl Hines Band. This is when he met Dizzy Gillespie and was a precursor for the future of jazz, “My grandfather was an African-American born during the Great Depression. He saw and experienced a lot of pain and strife. I truly believe he was placed on this earth with his talent to influence the world to focus, listen, absorb, think and elevate. To help our country move past the depression through his music. You know how they say classical music builds intelligence…I believe Charlie Parker was the Mozart of Jazz.”
What was his inspiration?
Charlie Parker had a vision of music that was beyond the swing music of his era. His vision was the musical notes in his mind and heart. In his pre-teen years, his biggest influence was a young trombone player named Robert Simpson who taught him the basics of improvisation. His teachings were the building blocks to self-practice and confidence he needed to get on stages to display his chops. Often unsuccessful in the beginning yet self-assured to persevere past playing notes on a sheet of paper but to play notes based on instantaneous thoughts, raw emotions and passionate energy. This was the beginning of Parker finding his voice and developing his style that became known as bebop. Think of it as a long-distance sprint with unheard of harmonies that travel through hills and valleys using altered terrain to arrive at a desired destination that can only be achieved through hours of consistent study.
Bryan Parker describes his grandfather’s music as an awakening conversation, “I like the thought that people have concerning there was jazz before and after Charlie Parker. I define jazz before my grandfather as being more dance and entertainment — product driven music. I define my grandfather’s works as productivity music, an effort to enhance and stimulate your mind. It wasn’t the music of big money; large dancehalls, fine attire, big bands and overall money spending. It was the music of sit-down and pay attention to what I have to say. I think that God inspired him to bring this conversation of love to a depressed time.”
The effect of his music
Independently, and with collaboration from folks like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Miles Davis, Charlie Parker was expanding his sound and bebop was fast becoming the new type of jazz. However, just like in the emergence of Beethoven (classical), N.W.A. (hip-hop), and Kenny G. (smooth jazz), even though bebop had a growing fan base, the established and traditional artist and fans of the time were critical of the style. Pianist, Thelonious Monk was quoted as saying, “We wanted a music that they couldn’t play.” The word “they” is referencing the white bandleaders of the time like Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Artie Shaw that were comfortable profiting from the “product music” that Bryan Parker describes above, “Swing music was a part of the product driven music era. It was big business, corruption and politically led.”
Now, don’t think that the emergence of bebop ended the infrastructure of the industry of music. It wasn’t meant to be destructive. The business, the venues and the vices were still etched in the stone.
The music that was inspired by Bird was revolutionary. It helped change how the music was consumed, “The beauty of my grandfather’s music was it made you stop and observe. It wasn’t dance music. It was built around intimacy…smaller venues, quiet observation and provocative thought”. However, starting in 1942, there was a two-year Musicians’ Union Ban of all commercial recordings, a large portion of bebop’s history was not detailed. Because of the ban, bebop had limited radio exposure and it architects had difficulty gaining notoriety. Not until 1945, when the recording ban ended, Parker’s solo and collaborative pieces launched its effect on the genre of jazz.
Through his work, Charlie Parker helped create a style of music that African American artist owned, garnered attention, expanded the world of jazz, and ultimately built their musical livelihood.
As we look back on history, bebop was the footings for hip-hop music and is rooted in the fabric of the legacy of the Historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. I asked Bryan if he thought his grandfather was making iconic history with his music, “I’m not sure, but I think he knew he was different, I think he believed he was creating and expressing himself very differently from others. I truly believe that God used him for a purpose through his music”
Throughout my conversation with Bryan Parker, he emphasizes spirituality and purpose when speaking about his grandfather. My last question to Bryan was what he wanted people to know about Charles Parker, Jr., “That he was beautiful person. He is part of African American history like Rosa Park, Dr. King, Malcom X and Barack Obama. His music didn’t just change the art of music, it change art itself. He was a black visionary. He did amazing work in a time when America wasn’t accepting of Black Greatness.
In perspective, Charlie Parker died at the age of 35 which means he spent approximately twenty years of his life finding his passion, studying his craft, discovering his style, changing the game, and speaking what his God placed on his heart to deliver to us. All this happening in the backdrop of the Great Depression and its aftermath plus engulfed in his own personal demons. That is an impactful life! I think we should all try to be more impactful with our giving circumstances.