Home featured Charlie Parker at 100: What to Read, Watch and Dig

Charlie Parker at 100: What to Read, Watch and Dig


Charlie Parker’s brief swing through this world kicked off a century ago on Saturday with his birth in Kansas City, Kan. Eleven years later, he would take up the saxophone. A couple of years after that, inspired by the hot bands tearing up K.C. in the ’30s, the man who was later known as Bird dedicated himself to his instrument, the alto, woodshedding for 11 to 15 hours a day, he would later say.

A decade later, the complexity, beauty and “tommy-gun velocity” (as Stanley Crouch once put it) of his improvisations would hasten jazz’s departure from the dance hall. With his bebop cohort of Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and others, Bird declared “Now’s the Time,” thrilling audiences and scarifying critics, who mostly took a while to catch up to the advanced harmonics and polyrhythms. His brash modernism jolted New York and then the world.

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And then, just 34 years into a life of epochal consequence, Parker died, his body ravaged by appetites as outsized as his genius.

In the decades since, his influence has never waned, even as the modern music he created evolved restlessly in his absence. Recent tribute recordings come from the patron saint of the avant-garde, via Anthony Braxton’s 11-disc archival treasure “Sextet (Parker) 1993,” and the heart of the mainstream, with the Italian guitar phenom Pasquale Grasso’s “Solo Bird” EP from Sony Masterworks.

Birdland, the club that bears Parker’s name — and once banned the sometimes unreliable master from its stage — remains an institution, updated for the age of streaming, and the annual Charlie Parker Festival, a free summer tradition since 1992, promises to return whenever live music lives again.

Jazz thrives most fully in live performance — now’s the time, after all. But there’s plenty of Parker (and Parker-inspired) art to thrill us at home, too. (All times listed for live events are Eastern.)

“Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker” (University of Minnesota Press)

Revised in 2013, Gary Giddins’s slim study (first published in 1987) remains the best single-volume examination of Parker’s life and art, a welcome corrective to sensationalist works like Ross Russell’s 1965 biography “Charlie Parker: His Life and Hard Times.” As focused as a Bird solo on a Savoy 78, Giddins eschews myth and romance in favor of facts and achievements. He emphasizes Parker’s breakthroughs — what they meant, how they came about and why they still resonate — rather than his addictions. Listening to Parker’s 1945 recording of “Ko Ko” after reading Giddins’s explication feels like bearing witness to the birth of modern jazz.

Credit…Sonny Figueroa/The New York Times

“Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker” (Harper-Collins)

Less a biography than an incantation, the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s decades-in-the-making Bird portrait ends before bebop’s invention. But its seeds are planted in uncommonly rich soil. Drawing on his own interviews with Bird’s contemporaries, Mr. Crouch summons up the milieu in which Parker flourished, evoking Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom and Kansas City’s gangland club scene with novelistic detail and a critic’s understanding of the individual artist’s relationship to the culture. Mr. Crouch centers the Blackness of Bird, his collaborators, and his audience with singular perceptive power — and virtuoso patter. (Here’s David Hadju’s review for The Times.)

“Chasin’ the Bird: Charlie Parker in California” (Z2 Comics)

Dave Chisholm, the writer and artist of this extraordinary new graphic novel, has crafted a penetrating work of biographical art that rejects the often reductive portrayal of a harrowed, joyless Bird in popular fiction and film. “Chasin’ the Bird” instead presents anecdotal glimpses of the man from a variety of perspectives, often in searching conversation about art, music and philosophy with Angelenos circa 1947. This polymath Parker extols Bach, contemplates physics and feels stunned when confronted with ancient Egyptian art. He disappoints Dizzy Gillespie, who had brought him west for a string of dates, and shoves a young John Coltrane onto the path to transcendence. Mr. Chisholm runs the changes as an artist, drawing in a variety of styles, but his panels of Bird blowing his horn are ecstatic eruptions of fractals.

“Hot House” with Dizzy Gillespie (1952)

Tragically, only two filmed Parker performances have been discovered, and one of those finds the musicians miming along to a prerecorded track rather than actually playing. (Bird looks both amused and bored by the exercise.) This dash through Tadd Dameron’s composition “Hot House,” then, stands alone. Bird, Gillespie and the pianist Dick Hyman swap fleet, fiery solos. The cameras move more than Parker does — bless the operator for the zoom in on Bird’s fingers. This occurred on Mr. Hyman’s TV show on the New York-based DuMont Television Network. In 2010, Mr. Hyman said, “As soon as Parker began a solo, you’d feel as though a current was turned on in your body.”

“The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection” (Craft Recordings)

Where to start with the tangled discography of a midcentury giant in the age of Spotify? It’s rare in jazz for the latest lavish box set to serve as an enticing entry point, but Craft Recordings’ recreation of Bird’s dazzling first bebop releases for Savoy Records, recorded between 1944 and 1948, boils Parker’s breakthroughs to their essence — you hear, in smartly upgraded sound, nothing but the performances (“Ko Ko,” “Warmin’ Up a Riff,” “Parker’s Mood,” “Ah-Leu-Cha”) that changed the world. It’s a dip into the headwaters of modern music.

“The Complete Savoy & Dial Master Takes” (Savoy)

Don’t let that “completethrow you. Loving jazz doesn’t demand endeavoring to become some kind of archivist. Parker’s official recordings from 1944 to 1948 run the length of just three CDs but offer lifetimes of pleasure and revelation. This 2002 edition, available to stream, is uncluttered with the scraps from the apple — alternate takes and repetitious bonus tracks — that collectors prize. “The Complete Verve Master Takes, surveying Bird’s early ’50s work including his sessions with strings, is also streamlined but less consistently superior.

American Masters: “Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker”

Based on Gary Giddins’s book, this 1989 PBS presentation makes the case for Parker’s pre-eminence with a welcome lack of bunk. Interviews with Gillespie, Frank Morgan, the Kansas City bandleader Jay McShann and Chan Parker, Bird’s final partner, reveal the multifaceted man behind the legends while also serving as a reminder of how quickly the past is receding from us — all of these contemporaries of Parker’s are now gone. Compared to later filmed treatments of jazz greats, which tend toward the impatient, this “American Masters” special, which Giddens helped write and direct, is refreshingly committed to inviting viewers to listen to actual jazz solos.

Dizzy’s Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Jazz at Lincoln Center had planned an ambitious 2020 tribute concert and tour to toast the Parker centennial, with the guest saxophonists Patrick Bartley, Immanuel Wilkins and Zoe Obadia joining the artistic director Wynton Marsalis and the J.A.L.C. orchestra. (That lineup is provisionally planned for next February.) Bird kept playing through hardships, though, and J.A.L.C. does, too, with socially distanced live performances streamed on Dizzy’s Club’s Facebook page.

Friday night at 7 p.m. Dizzy’s will stream an archive performance from the saxophonist Tia Fuller followed by a live Zoom conversation with Fuller and the sax stars Justin Robinson, Bruce Williams and Lakecia Benjamin. That’s followed up by full live sets at 7:30 p.m. the next two nights from the up-and-coming sax stars Wilkins (Saturday) and Godwin Louis (Sunday). If you’re late, don’t worry: Shows remain available to stream after the original broadcast.

“Bird & Beyond: Celebrating Charlie Parker at 100”

This lively discussion from the 2020 Jazz at Lincoln Center Jazz Congress finds a diverse array of musicians and Bird-watchers (Terri Lyne Carrington, Kokayi, Charles McPherson) considering the Parker legacy from a 2020 perch. The altoist Rudresh Mahanthappa proves as ebullient in conversation as he is on record: “With younger folks there’s a tendency to think that we’re doing everything better now,” Mahanthappa says. “But the reality is that nobody’s better than Charlie Parker. It never gets better. Maybe the vocabulary expands somehow, but it never gets better.

Radio Free Birdland’s Streaming Concerts

Parker wasn’t just banned, temporarily, from playing at Birdland, a club in which, despite its name, he held no financial stake. Sometimes he was even denied entry as a customer. “‘Can you believe this, Sheila? They name a club after me and I can’t even get in,’” Sheila Jordan reports in her SummerStage conversation with McBride. Bird’s crime: insufficient dapperness. He was wearing a T-shirt. Today, of course, no customers can get into Birdland or most any other New York City jazz club at all, no matter what we’re wearing. Fortunately, Birdland now hosts Radio Free Birdland, one of the scene’s best streaming concert setups, with multiple cameras and excellent sound. Before Covid-19, Birdland had planned a full month of Parker performances. This Tuesday, Birdland hosted Pasquale Grasso’s Parker tribute, which remains available to view on demand. Tuesday, Sept. 1, the singer and pianist Champian Fulton and her quartet take flight with “Birdsong,” a live set inspired by her buoyant new album of the same name, and Joe Lovano and his Us Five band revisit their 2011 album “Bird Songs” on Sept. 8.

92Y Streaming Events

92Y’s robust series of “Celebrating Bird at 100” online events includes a free 12-hour Bird-a-thon listening party hosted by Brian Delp of WBGO’s Midday Jazz Show starting at noon on Saturday. That follows a free online screening of Clint Eastwood’s “Bird” film, hosted by its star Forest Whitaker, Friday night at 7 p.m. (Both events require registration.) Ticketed events include the 2 p.m. Saturday round table discussion “Celebrating Bird: A Conversation with Music,” hosted by Gary Giddins and featuring the saxophonists Joe Lovano, Grace Kelly, Charles McPherson, Antonio Hart and Barry Harris, who played with Parker. The premiere of Hope Boykin’s “ … a movement. Journey.,a dance film inspired by Bird’s music, follows on Saturday at 7 p.m., with a Q. and A. afterward.

SummerStage Anywhere Culture Talk: Sheila Jordan and Christian McBride

The singer Sheila Jordan, a Parker contemporary, regales the bassist and composer Christian McBride with her warm, firsthand Bird tales in this entertaining July discussion hosted by SummerStage. Ms. Jordan reports that Parker treated her like a sister, often crashing on a cot in her loft she called “Bird’s bed” — and asking “What are you, a damned ventriloquist?” the time Jordan’s parakeet alighted on to the saxophonist’s leg and spoke the words Jordan had taught it: “Hello, Bird!” SummerStage also offers streaming video of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson’s 2012 concert celebration of the still divisive 1949 and 1950 Mercury albums titled “Charlie Parker With Strings.”

Jazz Museum Online Events

Standing proud at the storied Kansas City address of 18th and Vine, the American Jazz Museum’s party for its favorite son peaks with a 12-hour live jam session on Saturday from the historic Gem Theater. Much of it will be broadcast live on the museum’s Facebook page, starting at 8 a.m. Eastern. And Loren Schoenberg, senior scholar at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, hosts “The Rarest Bird,” a N.J.M.H. discussion and listening party at noon on Thursday.

Vincent Herring, Bobby Watson and Gary Bartz: “Bird at 100” (Smoke Session Records)

Recorded at Smoke last year, for Bird’s 99th, this birthday party/cutting contest bubbles over like uncorked champagne. Three top-flight altoists harmonize, twine and showboat on tunes from the Parker repertoire and several appealing in-the-spirit originals. Each also gets a songbook ballad as a solo piece, offering fresh takes on last-century material still not ready to be mothballed.

Rudresh Mahanthappa: “Bird Calls” (ACT Records)

Mahanthappa has always shared Parker’s exuberance, rapidity and dizzying intelligence as a soloist. Also like Parker, Mr. Mahanthappa has dedicated himself to expanding the music that he loves, in his case an inspired synthesis of Western jazz and the music of India, Pakistan and elsewhere. This towering 2015 quintet set finds Mr. Mahanthappa and company crafting wholly new, forward-thinking jazz from Parker’s last-century creative explosion, with each of these original compositions built upon a Parker melody or quotation. You don’t need to be an expert Bird spotter to relish the spirit of joyous, global invention, here. Mr. Mahanthappa also pays more traditional tribute to Bird on his recent “Hero Trio” LP, a lively set book ended by treatments of Bird’s “Red Cross” and “Dewey Square.” (Ben Ratliff reviewed “Bird Calls for the Times” here.)

With Paul Desmond in 1954

Hear Bird speak in this too-brief 1954 interview with the saxophonist Paul Desmond, recorded at a Boston radio station. Desmond, famous from Dave Brubeck’s quartet, can fairly be said to geek out in the presence of the master, while Parker, for his part, takes pains to dispel the pernicious myth of Black jazzmen as wild, natural talents: “Study is absolutely necessary in all forms,” he says, after describing countless hours of practice. “It’s just like any talent that’s born within somebody. It’s just like a good pair of shoes when you put a shine on it, you know?”

With DownBeat Magazine in 1949

What a difference five years makes. Desmond’s reverant ’54 interview stands in sharp contrast to this 1949 encounter with skeptical, even adversarial unnamed representatives from DownBeat, who refer to him as “the chubby little alto man” and insist he “has no roots in traditional jazz.” No wonder the writers note that he takes “self-effacement to fantastic lengths.” Of special interest, though, is the emphasis on Bird’s interest in contemporary classical music, his refusal to prognosticate about bop’s future development, and the choice of the verb “admits” in this sentence: “He admits the music eventually may be atonal.”

“Chasin’ the Bird” is more than the title of one of Mr. Parker’s signature compositions. It also characterizes something of the critical establishment’s relationship with him. Outside of Leonard Feather and few others, music critics found themselves a couple of years behind Parker’s art — and eventually hustling double time to demonstrate their belated appreciation.

That means The Times ran precious little coverage of Bird during his life. There are stray references in “Music Notes” pieces when the bop crowd headlined Town Hall or Carnegie Hall. (From a 1947 review of a Gillespie concert by Carter Harman: “Mr. Gillespie’s own technical deficiencies are many, however, and the lack of form in his work pervades the whole impression.”)

Harman caught up, some, by the time of his February 1948 piece “Jazz at Midnight Pays its Own Way,” which credits Parker and Gillespie as “pioneers” of “re-bop.” That December, Harman followed up with a piece acknowledging it might not be “re-bop” after all. In “Bop: Skee, Re or Be, ‘It’s Still Got to Swing’” he touts the music’s sophistication while addressing the tension between swing fans and bop heads.

Bird receives just a quick mention there, but Harman singles him out in “Annual Jazz Concert Given at Carnegie” from 1950: “Charlie Parker played a set with the accompaniment of strings, harp, oboe, and drums. Mr. Parker has toned down his style to a shapely, sparsely padded medium and benefits thereby. However, he has not yet turned down the volume control on his amplification system.”

Bird turns up in Howard Taubman’s fascinating 1952 roundup, “A Basic Repertoire of Jazz Records,” which touts “Lover” — recorded with a string arrangement and the Joe Lipman Orchestra — as a key bop single.

Bird’s death notice ran on page 17 in 1955, alongside news pieces rather than obits. It calls him “one of the founders of progressive jazz, or be-bop” and touts a couple accomplishments but is mostly about the circumstances of his death.

As they say, though, Bird Lives. Lengthy celebrations and reappraisals of Parker’s art would appear consistently in subsequent decades. Some key entries include Martin Williams’ 1969 essay “The Man Who Shook Up Jazz,” John S. Wilson’s 1975 piece “Sound of Charlie Parker Still Echoes in Jazz World” and Peter Watrous’s 1988 primer “The Man Who Defined Modern Jazz.”

In 1984, Robert Palmer voiced concern about the then-new trend of conglomerates breaking up discographies like Parker’s into unwieldy box sets, and in “Jazzmen Sound Off on the State and Status of Their Art” from 1972, the drummer Rashied Ali notes that “The public is still trying to figure” Bird out.


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