How Charlie Parker Changed Jazz Forever

Jazz has often moved for­ward in seis­mic shifts, pow­ered by rev­o­lu­tion­ary fig­ures who make every­thing that came before them seem quaint by com­par­i­son and radi­ate their influ­ence beyond the jazz world. Per­haps no fig­ure epit­o­mizes such a leap for­ward more than Char­lie Park­er. The leg­endary inven­tor of bebop, born a lit­tle over a cen­tu­ry ago, may be the most uni­ver­sal­ly respect­ed and admired musi­cian in jazz, and far beyond.

Kansas City trum­pet play­er Lon­nie McFad­den, who grew up hear­ing sto­ries about home­town hero Park­er, was told by every­one he met to learn from the mas­ter. “Every­body. It was a con­sen­sus. All of them said, ‘You got to lis­ten to Bird. You got to lis­ten to Char­lie Park­er.’” Fur­ther­more, he says, “every tap dancer I know, every jazz musi­cian I know, every rock and blues musi­cian I know hon­ors Char­lie Park­er.”

Park­er has been called “The Great­est Indi­vid­ual Musi­cian Who Ever Lived.” Not just jazz musi­cian, but musi­cian, peri­od, as the PBS Sound Field short intro­duc­tion above notes, because there had nev­er been one sin­gle musi­cian who influ­enced “all instru­ments.” Kansas City sax­o­phone play­er Bob­by Wat­son and archivist Chuck Had­dix explain how Park­er made such an impact at such a young age, before dying at 34.

Unlike the swing of Ben­ny Good­man or Louis Arm­strong, Parker’s bebop is com­plete­ly non-dance­able. He didn’t care. He was not an enter­tain­er, he insist­ed, but an artist. Jazz might even­tu­al­ly return to dance­abil­i­ty in the late 20th cen­tu­ry, but the music—and pop­u­lar music writ large—would nev­er be the same.

The video’s host, LA Buck­n­er gives a brief sum­ma­ry of the evo­lu­tion of jazz in four region­al centers—New Orleans, Chica­go, Kansas City, and New York. Park­er made a tran­sit through the last three of these cities, even­tu­al­ly end­ing up on big apple stages. “By 1944,” Jazz­wise writes, “the altoist was… mak­ing a huge impact on the young Turks hang­ing out in Harlem, Dizzy Gille­spie and Thelo­nious Monk in par­tic­u­lar… no one had ever played sax­o­phone in this man­ner before, the har­mon­ic, rhyth­mic and melod­ic imag­i­na­tion and the emo­tion­al inten­si­ty prov­ing an over­whelm­ing expe­ri­ence.”

It’s too bad more musi­cians didn’t lis­ten to Bird when it came to play­ing high. “Any­one who said they played bet­ter when on drugs or booze ‘are liars. I know,’” he said. Hero­in and alco­hol abuse end­ed his career pre­ma­ture­ly, but per­haps no sin­gle instru­men­tal musi­cian since has cast a longer shad­ow. Jazz crit­ic Stan­ley Crouch, author of Park­er biog­ra­phy Kansas City Light­ning: The Rise and Times of Char­lie Park­er, explains in an inter­view how Park­er cre­at­ed his own mys­tique.

Park­er some­times gave the impres­sion that he was large­ly a nat­ur­al, an inno­cent into whom the cos­mos poured its knowl­edge while nev­er both­er­ing his con­scious­ness with expla­na­tions.

The facts of his devel­op­ment were quite dif­fer­ent. He worked for every­thing he got, and when­ev­er pos­si­ble, he did that work in asso­ci­a­tion with a mas­ter.

Park­er was not appre­ci­at­ed at first, either in his home­town of Kansas City or in New York, where “peo­ple didn’t like the way he played” when he first arrived in 1939. He respond­ed to crit­i­cism with cease­less prac­tice, learn­ing, and exper­i­men­ta­tion, an almost super­hu­man work eth­ic that prob­a­bly wasn’t great for his health but has grown into a leg­end all its own, giv­ing musi­cians in every form of music a mod­el of ded­i­ca­tion, inten­si­ty, and fear­less­ness to strive toward.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

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

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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