The Night When Charlie Parker Played for Igor Stravinsky (1951)


Image (left) by William P. Got­tlieb, image (right) by Library of Con­gress, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

The his­to­ry of 20th-cen­tu­ry music offers plen­ty of sto­ries of lumi­nar­ies meet­ing, play­ing togeth­er, and some­times even enter­ing into long-term col­lab­o­ra­tion. But it typ­i­cal­ly only hap­pened with­in tra­di­tions: encoun­ters between rock and rock, jazz and jazz, mod­ernism and mod­ernism. And so it still thrills to hear of the time in 1951 when Char­lie Park­er added one more sto­ry to the most sto­ried jazz club of all by per­form­ing for Igor Stravin­sky at Bird­land. Alfred Appel tells it defin­i­tive­ly in his book Jazz Mod­ernism: From Elling­ton and Arm­strong to Matisse and Joyce:

The house was almost full, even before the open­ing set — Bil­ly Taylor’s piano trio — except for the con­spic­u­ous emp­ty table to my right, which bore a RESERVED sign, unusu­al for Bird­land. After the pianist fin­ished his forty-five-minute set, a par­ty of four men and a woman set­tled in at the table, rather clam­orous­ly, three wait­ers swoop­ing in quick­ly to take their orders as a rip­ple of whis­pers and excla­ma­tions ran through Bird­land at the sight of one of the men, Igor Stravin­sky. He was a celebri­ty, and an icon to jazz fans because he sanc­ti­fied mod­ern jazz by com­pos­ing Ebony Con­cer­to for Woody Her­man and his Orches­tra (1946) — a Covar­ru­bias “Impos­si­ble Inter­view” come true.

As Parker’s quin­tet walked onto the band­stand, trum­peter Red Rod­ney rec­og­nized Stravin­sky, front and almost cen­ter. Rod­ney leaned over and told Park­er, who did not look at Stravin­sky. Park­er imme­di­ate­ly called the first num­ber for his band, and, for­go­ing the cus­tom­ary greet­ing to the crowd, was off like a shot. At the sound of the open­ing notes, played in uni­son by trum­pet and alto, a chill went up and down the back of my neck.

They were play­ing “KoKo,” which, because of its epochal break­neck tem­po — over three hun­dred beats per minute on the metronome — Park­er nev­er assayed before his sec­ond set, when he was suf­fi­cient­ly warmed up. Parker’s phras­es were fly­ing as flu­ent­ly as ever on this par­tic­u­lar daunt­ing “Koko.” At the begin­ning of his sec­ond cho­rus he inter­po­lat­ed the open­ing of Stravinsky’s Fire­bird Suite as though it had always been there, a per­fect fit, and then sailed on with the rest of the num­ber. Stravin­sky roared with delight, pound­ing his glass on the table, the upward arc of the glass send­ing its liquor and ice cubes onto the peo­ple behind him, who threw up their hands or ducked.

Park­er did­n’t just hap­pen to know a few bits of Stravin­sky to whip out as a nov­el­ty; he had, at that point, already deeply inter­nal­ized the work of the man who com­posed The Rite of Spring (1913), the most rhyth­mi­cal­ly com­plex piece of orches­tral music to date.

“Jazz musi­cians sat up in their seats when Stravinsky’s music start­ed play­ing; he was speak­ing some­thing close to their lan­guage,” writes New York­er music crit­ic Alex Ross in his book The Rest Is Noise: Lis­ten­ing to the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry. “When Char­lie Park­er came to Paris in 1949, he marked the occa­sion by incor­po­rat­ing the first notes of the Rite into his solo on ‘Salt Peanuts’.”

In a piece on why jazz musi­cians love The Rite of Spring, NPR’s Patrick Jaren­wat­tananon dis­cuss­es oth­er instances where Park­er quot­ed (or paid musi­cal trib­ute to) Stravin­sky: “A per­son­al favorite comes from 1947, when Park­er was a guest soloist on trum­peter and arranger Neal Hefti’s ‘Rep­e­ti­tion,’ as heard on a com­pi­la­tion called The Jazz Scene. Not only does Hefti’s arrange­ment quote the tran­si­tion­al horn motif which sig­nals the sec­ond half of the ‘Augurs of Spring’ move­ment from The Rite, but Park­er riffs on the same motif to start his solo.”

Dylan Thomas: A Cen­te­nary Cel­e­bra­tion con­tains a chap­ter by Daniel G. Williams on Dylan Thomas and Char­lie Park­er, which, in estab­lish­ing Park­er’s engage­ment in “reviv­i­fy­ing the vocab­u­lary of jazz,” gets into how that got him draw­ing from Stravin­sky, whose work Park­er called “music at its best.” Williams quotes Park­er’s trum­peter Howard McGhee as remem­ber­ing that Park­er “knew every­thing, and he hipped me to, like, Stravin­sky and all those guys. I did­n’t now noth­in’ about Stravin­sky.” When Park­er brought The Rite of Spring over to lis­ten to at McGhee’s house, he pref­aced the expe­ri­ence with these words: “Yeah, this cat, he’s kind of cool, you know; he knows what he’s doing.” And the more we learn about what went into Park­er’s music, the more we real­ize that he, too, knew even more thor­ough­ly what he was doing than we’d ever real­ized.

via Jer­ry Jazz Musi­cian/Dan­ger­ous Minds

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Char­lie Park­er Plays with Dizzy Gille­spie in Only Footage Cap­tur­ing the “Bird” in True Live Per­for­mance

Ani­mat­ed Sheet Music of 3 Char­lie Park­er Jazz Clas­sics: “Con­fir­ma­tion,” “Au Pri­vave” & “Bloom­di­do”

Watch 82-Year-Old Igor Stravin­sky Con­duct The Fire­bird, the Bal­let Mas­ter­piece That First Made Him Famous (1965)

Hear 46 Ver­sions of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in 3 Min­utes: A Clas­sic Mashup

Stravinsky’s “Ille­gal” Arrange­ment of “The Star Span­gled Ban­ner” (1944)

Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Visu­al­ized in a Com­put­er Ani­ma­tion for Its 100th Anniver­sary

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (8)
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  • Jim Jedeikin says:

    Good arti­cle, but the last sen­tence is incor­rect, unless the author is speak­ing for him­self: “And the more we learn about what went into Parker’s music, the more we real­ize that he, too, knew even more thor­ough­ly what he was doing than we’d ever real­ized.”

  • Ricardo da Mata says:

    Stravin­sky is a car­i­ca­tur­ist; Park­er is an artist.

  • Toad says:

    “Stravin­sky is a car­i­ca­tur­ist; Park­er is an artist.”

    Nobody took the bait, but don’t be dis­cour­aged; that’s very good trolling.

  • David B. says:

    Very inter­est­ing arti­cle! But why are you using low-con­trast gray text, when black text would be much more sen­si­ble, and eas­i­er on your read­ers’ eyes?

  • Grant Izmirlian says:

    The last four bars of “Hot House” is a “Rite of Spring” quote

  • Grant Izmirlian says:

    The the last four bars of the bridge on “Hot House” con­tain a quote to “Rite of Spring”

  • ismael Martinez says:

    Toad, I have a pecu­liar inter­est in trolls and the sim­plic­i­ty in which you have fed one his own

  • Roy Holland says:

    Hot House (What Is This Thing Called Love) writ­ten by Tadd Dameron.

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