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.