If you’re a saxophone player, you really need to know about Charlie Parker, also known as “Bird”.
Pro sax legend and Sax School tutor Fred Vigdor takes a look at the amazing music and career of Charlie Parker, and suggests some albums and tracks you might want to explore on your own. Plus, you can grab our FREE transcription of a classic Parker solo called “Yardbird Suite”.
In Sax School this month we’re looking at Be-Bop. Our members are learning an original Challenge Song in the style of Charlie Parker, called “Bird Bounces In”. So, as part of our Be-Bop month, we’re looking at one of the founders of Be-Bop, Charlie Parker.
Why Charlie Parker?
So, why do you need to know about Charlie Parker? Well it’s hard to overstate the impact he has had on jazz and the saxophone–he was truly a revolutionary. There are stories that people gave up music after hearing him play!
Back in the 1940s and 50s when Big Band Swing was the popular music of the day, Charlie Parker was one of a small group of musicians who created something totally new, called Be-Bop – and it blew people away.
Charlie Parker was also known as “Bird”. He really loved to eat chicken – and in the south of the USA, another name for chicken is “yardbird”. This eventually got shortened to Bird and the nickname stuck.
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1920, and grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, during Prohibition. He began playing the saxophone at age 11. In his early teens, he would sneak into the local speakeasies to listen to artists like Lester Young, Count Basie, and other jazz legends who were playing in these late night jam sessions.
During the early 40’s he toured with Jay McShann‘s band, which is where he met his future collaborator, Dizzy Gillespie. Parker became a star soloist of McShann’s nightly radio broadcasts from the Savoy in New York. He attracted a throng of young musicians who crowded the stage to hear him play in person.
While 52nd Street clubs in New York were featuring big bands playing swing, at the after-hours clubs uptown in Harlem, Parker and Gillespie, along with Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke and others, were experimenting with a new style of jazz. With blistering tempos and complex rhythms and harmonies, the musicians playing it just called it “modern jazz.” But it came to be known as Be-Bop.
A common practice in Be-Bop was the use of contrafacts. These were new, intricate melodies over standard chord progressions. Since melodies can be copyrighted, but not chord progressions, musicians could improvise over songs without obtaining permission from the original tune’s publisher. Some notable examples of this are Parker’s Ornithology, which is based on the chord changes to How High The Moon, Scrapple From the Apple which is based on Honeysuckle Rose and dozens (maybe hundreds) of heads written over the chord changes to I Got Rhythm.
Of course, not everyone liked this new style of music being played by Bird and his Be-Bop stable-mates. Louis Armstrong called it “Chinese music,” presumably because it sounded incomprehensible to him.
The Music of Charlie Parker
If you’re new to Charlie Parker, and looking for an album to start with, then Yardbird Suite, is a really good entry point. It is one of the best compilations from the different labels Bird recorded for, and contains some of his best known work. Check out “Now’s The Time”, “Confirmation”, “Moose The Mooche”, and of course the title track,“Yardbird Suite.” It’s a classic Bird composition with a great solo and a perfect example of Parker’s style.We’ll be looking at this solo in more detail in a moment.
Another classic album is Jazz at Massey Hall – an all-star live concert from 1953, featuring Parker and Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach. It was dubbed the“Greatest Jazz Concert Ever”. This recording is also notable because Parker (credited on the album as “Charlie Chan” due to contract issues) played the concert using a Grafton plastic saxophone after pawning his King Super 20 before the gig.
More Charlie Parker Recordings to check out
- “Ko-Ko”–with some difficult chord changes navigated at a breakneck tempo
- “Just Friends” from the album “Charlie Parker with Strings” which features Bird’s great ballad playing with some incredibly fluid lines.
- “Parker’s Mood” which is a slow blues, and is included in the Yardbird Suite album. It’s a classic example of Bird’s blues mastery.
In many ways, Charlie Parker was a troubled genius. When people talk about his life they often focus on his heroin addiction, and he was certainly a chaotic character. In New York, a club was named “Birdland” in his honour, and he headlined there on its opening night. But later he was banned from the club because of his heavy drinking and trouble-making.
Sadly, Bird died at the age of just 34.He had lived such a hard life that the doctor examining his body after his death guessed his age to be 55. It seems incredible that he had such a huge impact on music in such a short career.Who knows what he would have accomplished if he had lived longer.
The Influence of Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker was a massive influence on legends like Phil Woods, Sonny Stitt and just about every other living alto sax player. In fact the great Charles Mingus wrote a tune that sums it up, entitled “If Charlie Parker was a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of dead copycats”.
The Solo: Yardbird Suite
Now let’s look more closely at one of Charlie Parker’s iconic solos. You can grab the transcription of this solo, for both alto and tenor, above.
Follow the solo and the transcription in the video above.
One of the essential elements of Bird’s style, and Be-Bop in general, is the use of ornamentation. This means taking a simple melodic line and embellishing the target notes from above and below using sixteenth notes or sixteenth note triplets. Take a look at the opening line for an example. In the video you can hear it both with and and without the embellishment.
Without the embellishment it still sounds good and makes sense, but you can hear how much more intricate it sounds with the ornamentation.
While it looks like a super-complex solo, if you break it down into the basic elements it become much simpler. This is a great example of why it’s so important to really be familiar with your chord structure.
Using the chords to help us find the right notes for our solos is one of the tactics we talk about a lot in the improvising courses inside Sax School.
If we’ve inspired you to learn more about Charlie Parker, and try playing in his style, check out “Bird Bounces In”. It’s our original, Bird-inspired tune inside Sax School. It includes a slower, easier version for beginners, and a Parker-style faster version if you fancy a challenge.
Learning about great players like Charlie Parker will really help you develop as a saxophone player yourself. So check out more of his music – and don’t forget to grab your free transcription above.
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