Kim Parker is spinning a yarn about her stepfather, Charlie Parker, when a hummingbird swings by to greet her. “It’s a beautiful thing to see them,” the jazz singer tells Discogs from her garden in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. One year, she says, Kim and her neighbor, Bud, who she describes as “a very interesting and unpredictable man,” only spotted one each. “We were really upset,” she says. “We thought it was the end of hummingbirds.”
While hummingbirds have returned, a different bird — this one with a capital B — never left the public consciousness. To the world, Charlie “Bird” Parker was a bebop pioneer and a countercultural icon — jazz fans still can’t get the alto saxophonist out of their heads and musicians can’t shake him from their fingers. But to Kim, Parker was simply “Daddy,” the man who let her pretend to drive his Cadillac and ate roast beef sandwiches with her on Ninth Avenue.
“Nobody has these memories but me,” she says. “And it’s important that people realize Bird was a wonderful human being when he wasn’t fucked up.”
This Saturday (August 29, 2020) would have been Parker’s 100th birthday. Purists still pour over every note he recorded, and some directors and biographers have dramatized the tragic, lurid aspects of his life. Often lost in the equation is the music, which still exudes otherworldly joy. Addicts come a dime a dozen, but there will never be another Bird — and his legacy deserves to be dynamic rather than static.
Bird’s story is a blend of myth and reality today, but this much is clear: He was born in Kansas City, Kansas, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. With more zeal than experience, he was laughed out of jam sessions — there’s a famous story about Jo Jones dropping a cymbal at his feet to howls from the audience. Perhaps feeling the sting of rejection, he devoted himself to private practice, and in 1937, he had a major creative breakthrough while working out the song “Cherokee.”
“I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes,” he later told Down Beat. “By using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.” He composed a handful of songs, like “Ornithology,” “Ko-Ko,” and “Yardbird Suite,” which remain standards to this day. Sixty-five years after his death, Bird has inspired artists of all persuasions to spread their wings.
“When someone is dubbed a genius, it ends up being this meaningless blanket statement,” alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa tells Discogs. “It behooves all of us, that if we dedicated our lives to this music, to dig deeper and try to figure out what about him was ingenious and what that means to each of us individually. Why is he considered a genius, and why does that resonate now?”
To answer these questions, Discogs spoke to 20 jazz musicians and authors to grasp the essence of who he was. A few have been around long enough to know Bird, but most are simply students and admirers of him.
With their help, here are 100 reasons to love Charlie Parker on his 100th birthday.
1. He had a beautiful mind outside of music.
Charles McPherson (alto sax): Bird was an interesting thinker. He was this mixture of a street guy with all the street wiles but also a guy who read a lot of books. So it’s the mixture that is kind of novel because he could talk about quantum mechanics and cosmology and he had a basic understanding of theory along those lines.
Laurence Hobgood (piano): Pigeonholing him as this savant-level genius who couldn’t help being the way he was almost does him a disservice in terms of not fully recognizing how deep a person he really was.
2. Hardly anyone knows where he got that knowledge.
Kim Parker: My mother [Chan Parker] never saw him pick up a book. He knew all this stuff about yoga and classical music, but it was like he absorbed it through his skin or something.
Bruce Williams (alto sax): Those that knew him were shocked. They were like, “Man, how could you be this great musician and have time to understand this stuff too?”
3. He blended his inspirations in an unparseable way.
Craig Taborn (piano): He wears his influences on his sleeve, but those are transmuted so completely into his individual expression. Unlike a lot of other players in jazz, nobody refers to him sort of taxonomically as a catalog of his influences.
4. He sounds extremely modern today.
Taborn: Even if you drop a needle on his music and take him out of context, he’s so hyper-modern even to this day — hyper-contemporary. It’s a really radical expression even now. There are things in there that are just astounding.
5. You don’t need to be a jazz snob to enjoy him.
Jim Snidero (alto sax): If you were a layperson, his music wouldn’t strike you as anything other than beautiful.
Mahanthappa: People hear Bird and they’re happy. They connect to him. He has a certain reach that has nothing to do with the jazz aficionados.
“Ever since I’ve heard music, I’ve thought it should be … more or less to the people. Something they could understand, something that was beautiful,” said Charlie Parker in an interview with Paul Desmond.
6. Nor do you need to know music theory.
Mahanthappa: We can always pick apart what he played on the D-minor, G-seventh, C-major, but that’s actually the easier part of comprehending his artistry, I think. Who cares what the musicians think in the end?
7. But what’s under the hood is absolutely worth appreciating.
Senri Oe (piano): He was a rare genius who could create a melody, harmony, and rhythm — three big musical principles — using alto saxophone, a monophonic instrument. Bird expressed three elements with a single line of music and his saxophone alone.
Do Yeon Kim (gayageum): The contouring and resolution of Bird’s phrases often feel unexpected yet somehow still make sense.
Alan Goldsher (bass): He was one of the first, if not the first jazz improviser, to work around the chord rather than within the chord. Initially, musicians, critics, and listeners kvetched that Bird was playing wrong notes, but to that, either Parker or Dizzy Gillespie said — and I’m paraphrasing — “It’s not the note you play, but the next note.” Bird’s ability to resolve lines was astounding and beautiful.
Lou Donaldson (alto sax): He taught everybody how to move through chords, you know? At the time, most of us players were a slave to what we called riffs, which were sequences based on the chords. He played through the chord and it was altogether different.
8. He scaled higher-than-high chord extensions.
Taborn: He’s playing upper extensions of rudimentary chords. It’s kind of stratospheric. It has a space-age quality.
9. Few others can say they’ve pioneered an entire genre.
Kim: It is extremely rare and difficult to develop a genuinely new approach to music. Bird’s vision represented a complete stylistic way of playing which elevated bebop to an art form.
10. He divided jazz history in two.
Lakecia Benjamin (alto sax): After Charlie Parker, we leave the era of big band. The alto saxophone is no longer something that controls a 19-piece group. It’s something that can control a quartet. If you [skip] the big-band period and start with Charlie Parker, you can make modern-day jazz. You have all the tools you need.
Kim: Jazz is a musical language comprised of phrases and ideas from past masters; Bird’s playing is an integral part of the language.
Oe: Before Bird, there was a swing era. The musicians at that time had used the ii-V-I progression faithfully. As the originator, Bird changed this rule. Instead of a typical ii-V-I, he used tritone substitute chords and they sounded very mysterious.
11. His creative antenna was aloft from a young age.
“He spent many a night at the back door listening to the [Count] Basie rhythm section’s superb introductions, to the blend of the saxophones, the stinging brass … Young Charlie would cadge a cigarette and stand off to the side with his hand in his pocket … trying to give off the look of an older player swimming deeply but easefully in the nightlife,” said Stanley Crouch in Kansas City Lightning (2007).
Champian Fulton (vocals, piano): I love the stories of how Bird would climb into the rafters of the Reno Club in Kansas City to hear the jazz bands passing through, specifically Count Basie with Lester Young.
12. He loved cowboys and B-Westerns.
Parker: “We were walking up Sixth Avenue coming from my grandma’s house, where he probably came to pick me up. Bird stopped in his tracks on the sidewalk and said [incredulous voice], “Gabby Hayes?!” And Gabby looked at him and said, “Bird?!” He was so thrilled.”
13. He loved country music too.
“Much to his fellow musicians’ shock, they found him feeding nickels into the jukebox, playing country music songs. ‘Bird,’ they asked … ‘How can you play that music?’ Parker replied, ‘Listen to the stories,’” said Ken Burns in Country Music: An Illustrated History (2019).
14. And he never lost sight of the blues.
Darius Jones (alto sax): I wish that people would see that Bird mastered the blues. He was a great blues musician. He played the blues beautifully.
Donaldson: He was a great blues player. He was born and raised in Kansas City, you know? That’s the home of the blues and he played with Jay McShann’s band, which was a blues band.
Jones: We talk about bebop and all that shit, but Bird, man. He could play the blues so, so good.
Donaldson: Too many people know too much about music, you know? But they don’t know too much about playing jazz. They’re good musicians but they don’t know how to play jazz music, because jazz music is about playing the blues.
15. Exhibit A: “Blues for Alice.”
Jones: “Blues for Alice” is my absolute favorite solo and my favorite tune. The chord changes are a reimagination of the typical blues changes. Then he proceeds to play all those changes in the most open and free manner you could possibly think of. He’s not outlining everything all the time. His lines are just flowing. It’s immaculate — his rhythm, his feel, everything is just loose.
16. Exhibit B: “K.C. Blues.”
Benjamin: The first Bird song I heard was “K.C. Blues.” I was a big, big blues fan at that time, so to hear a lead saxophone playing that … It had a melody, but it didn’t have an identifiable I-can-sing-along-to-this melody.
That’s the first time I felt he was improvising through the whole thing, even though I know he wasn’t. It gave me the mindset that you don’t have to compose every song the same way. There are alternate variations and ways to express your message.
17. His studio work is a masterclass in concision.
Mahanthappa: I feel like there’s not enough discussion about the conciseness of his work. Because of the technology, he only plays, like, two choruses on these tunes, and they’re some of the greatest solos that have ever been played.
There were eight choruses before and eight choruses after that we didn’t even hear, you know? It’s like a moment in time. It’s almost like the music is running like a river, and Charlie Parker dips his toe in for 30 seconds and we hear those 30 seconds.
18. “Just Friends” contains all his magic in 3 minutes and 33 seconds.
Snidero: There’s no question that “Just Friends” from [1950’s] Charlie Parker With Strings is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. It’s absolutely perfect on both an artistic and technical level. It’s a masterpiece.
19. But you’ve got to hear him live.
Miguel Zenón (alto sax): In the studio, I feel like he’s a lot more — I don’t want to say subdued — but he’s more careful. He takes less chances, even though he’s amazing when he plays. But when he plays live, he’s literally playing. Like a kid! He’s like, “Oh, let me try this. And now let me try this.”
20. He didn’t just play fast; he played clean.
Snidero: The way he articulates and shapes notes — it’s hard to get your brain around.
Benjamin: The articulation — he’s so clean! To have the technique be so clean but the expression still be dirty, every note mattered.
“Ever since I’ve ever heard music, I thought it should be very clean, very precise … as clean as possible, anyway,” said Charlie Parker in an interview with Paul Desmond.
21. “Ko-Ko” is proof positive of this.
Benjamin: “Ko-Ko” is monumental. He’s a monster! If you’re 10 or 11 years old and you’ve never heard something up, up, uptempo — I mean like way uptempo! — when I heard his performance on this, I was like, “Whoa!”
22. He was a rhythmic innovator, not just a harmonic one.
Taborn: That harmonic language had been around. As much as they were extending harmony — and I think that was focused on in jazz pedagogy — there’s so much in what Bird’s playing that’s really rhythmically advanced. He’s displacing the harmonic changes in really interesting ways.
Jaleel Shaw (alto sax): He had such a strong rhythmic concept that he could play under the beat, on the beat … and anything that he played, he always knew where he was going to finish.
23. He built on what Art Tatum did.
Taborn: If you look back, Art Tatum was doing that kind of stuff, but maybe it wasn’t as rhythmic. It wasn’t the same rhythmic stuff. He’s kind of taking that Art Tatum harmonic language and doing all sorts of weird, off-kilter rhythmic stuff to it, in a way.
24. His rhythms paved the way for hip-hop.
Taborn: When people talk about the relationship between bebop and hip-hop, the same way those rhymes land is the way Bird would land certain melodic phrases. That’s the closest correlation — the rhythmic games they’re doing and how things land.
25. He contemplated sampling and/or streaming decades in advance.
“Someday in the future, they’ll be able to put your music in a can. Then, whenever they want to, they’ll do it just like they were using a spoon to take out as much of you, or as little of you as they need … Your future, my dear fellow, is in a can.” Charlie Parker to one of his colleagues in 1952.
26. There’s plenty of humor in his music.
Mahanthappa: “Red Cross” is a tune that kids love. The head sounds like something you’d hear in a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.
McPherson: When you listen to Bird, you hear humor as well as intellect and organization.
Mahanthappa: The way he turns rhythm around and brings it back again, it’s almost like he’s telling a rhythmic joke sometimes.
27. He was rooted in the American songbook.
Taborn: He was really steeped in this American song tradition and hyper-extending it. I find that really interesting because it’s extremely rooted. People like Bud Powell were composerly in a different kind of way where Bird was working with tunes.
28. As proven on “Marmaduke.”
Williams: I like the way he plays on “Marmaduke.” Because “Marmaduke” is really rooted in the American songbook. It really changes “Honeysuckle Rose.” That’s kind of a deep song. A lot of people don’t know it. He developed it with “Marmaduke.”
29. And, by extension, “Scrapple from the Apple.”
Williams: Then, he put a rhythm change on the bridge in the key of F to make “Scrapple from the Apple.” It’s really complex ideas with sometimes, somewhat simple themes.
30. He was artistically balanced and complete.
McPherson: He’s the complete picture to me as a musician, as a saxophonist and as an artist. Just very complete, and at such an early age.
Snidero: He’s the one that truly had the complete package as far as music is concerned. He had incredible mastery of the instrument.
McPherson: His approach to music — his melodicism, his rhythm, his sense of harmony, his sense of balance, his emotional dimension — when he executes art, there’s everything there.
31. His talent wasn’t just dazzling; it was rare.
McPherson: One of the reasons we’re still talking about Charlie Parker because that gift is only handed out very sparingly to people no matter what age it is. That kind of person comes along every hundred years if that.
32. The nickname “Bird” now implies grace and mastery.
McPherson: Guys like me, we actually use his name, Bird, as a noun. With some of us, it’s like part of the English language. When we use Bird, it’s an icon of excellence, of superiority, of genius. It’s kind of like a noun. And also an adjective. And an adverb. It’s all these functionalities of language. So if someone is writing a book, for instance, there are people that would say, “Oh man, he’s Bird.” They mean that his ability to write is as complete as Bird’s was: head and heart, technique and craft.
33. He embodies genius.
Taborn: He kind of stands as an expression of genius. African-American genius, but genius writ large, reconfigured and transposed to other spaces. I think he’s the quintessential 20th-century figure in a lot of ways.
34. Nobody to this day can truly rip him off.
Taborn: As much as he’s imitated, there still aren’t really Charlie Parker [replications]. It never really sounds quite like that. You could play his solos and sort of try and sound like him, but people can’t improvise that way still. Because it’s a different level.
Jones: The people who cop Bird, I feel like, don’t really cop Bird. They don’t really understand. You know what they did? They copped content rather than rhythm and spirit.
Kim: In addition to Bird’s historical importance, his technical and creative virtuosity has been paralleled by very few select saxophonists even to this day.
Snidero: There were other saxophonists that perhaps matched his technical (e.g. fingering) ability, but no one equaled his rapport on the horn.
35. We’re still talking about his musical idiosyncrasies.
Jones: One of the things I love about Charlie Parker is that I don’t think his eighth notes are really eighth notes. His eighth notes are, like, two sounds and a beat. Charlie Parker eighth notes are not normal! They’re something else.
Jason Moran (piano): He knows how to pull a phrase back or delete the phrase or add a sharper angle to the phrase to make it have more impact.
Jones: He’s addressing changes but not really addressing them sometimes. When I listen, he’s just free.
36. He avoided stock phrases like the plague.
Jones: He didn’t play digital patterns — pattern-y sounding types of phrases. He was constantly moving the music forward. He’d play something then invent something else, then invent something else. Obviously, he had his own licks and vernacular, but you don’t hear those marker-type things.
37. He had a sense of musical unpredictability.
Jones: The way he plays is so spontaneous to me that it’s thrilling. Like, “What’s going to happen now? What’s he going to do?” That’s what’s exciting to me about Bird. You don’t know what’s going to take place.
38. He dukes it out with Satchmo for best improviser.
Zenón: Aside from maybe Louis Armstrong, I think Charlie Parker is the most important improviser in the history of jazz.
39. His velocity was a force of nature.
Kim: His intensity and fast pace made me feel uncomfortable at first because his style was opposite of the Korean music approach, which focuses on breathing cycles and space without a fixed tempo.
40. But he wasn’t only built for speed.
Shaw: Nothing is like, “I’m going to play a fast line,” even though he goes into double-time and 32nd notes. He plays all these ideas and it’s like a literal bird flying over a song.
Fulton: I think a lot of people have a misconception about bebop — that it’s just fast and crazy. I want to remind people that this is beautiful music with melodies and rhythm.
Oe: People say Bird was good at playing super-fast and eccentrically. I think he’s the one who made jazz into art.
Goldsher: Bird crushed at mid-tempo. “Quasimodo,” a chill tune based on the chord changes of “Embraceable You,” is an underappreciated classic.”
Shaw: My favorite Bird performance is “Embraceable You.” To hear him play a ballad, his ideas are so clear. Nothing is pretentious, you know?
McPherson: The ballad form is the artist’s ability to execute the emotionality of not being content — restless, unhappy, dark, depressed, sad. Bird was great at that.
41. Case in point: “My Old Flame.”
McPherson: ‘”My Old Flame” is a ballad, part of the Great American Songbook. I love it because Bird — his sound — is just absolutely perfect. It has a beautifully constructed solo where he’s doing a great job of playing the melody and his improv is doing exactly what the melody is asking for.
42. He was a great bandleader.
Walt Weiskopf (alto, tenor, soprano sax): Something else I believe about Bird being a leader is that he didn’t wait around for other musicians to catch up to him. When I hear those recordings, I don’t hear anyone else on his level except maybe Bud Powell, and that’s a different subject. He’s not waiting for anyone else to lean on him. He’s just forging ahead. That kind of leadership is so inspiring to me and many other musicians, and we keep trying to emulate it.
43. He wasn’t pretentious when discussing his work.
Charles Haddix (biographer): He dropped out of school when he was a teenager yet he read widely and he’s a very educated individual. When you hear or read his interviews, he’s a man who chooses his words very carefully and is very articulate. Most people don’t think about him that way.
“Charlie Parker wasn’t one to talk in musical detail about what he was doing. He rarely raised technical specifics in his conversation, and when he did talk, Parker sometimes gave them the impression that he was largely a natural, an innocent into whom the cosmos poured its knowledge … The facts of his development were quite different,” said Crouch in Kansas City Lightning.
44. His talent wasn’t beamed from above; he simply worked harder than anyone else.
Gary Bartz (alto saxophone): For three-and-a-half years, for 12 to 15 hours a day, he practiced. Anyone could be Bird doing that!
Taborn: The concept of woodshedding is his. That’s his concept. That was the thing he did.
45. His lyricism was second-to-none.
Snidero: There were such extreme lyricism and a sense of time and rhythm. That whole package allowed him to say whatever he wanted.
Mahanthappa: My son has been singing “Red Cross” for the last month. He’s seven! He doesn’t have any allegiance to jazz or anything like that. He doesn’t care about genre. He doesn’t care that it’s jazz. He doesn’t care that I like it. I think it’s really great to experience Bird through his ears.
46. He had a virtually perfect sense of recall.
“He had a photographic memory. He would sit down and play some altogether foreign music … [then] he could go back later — months later — and he could play the same music,” said trumpeter Buddy Anderson in Kansas City Lightning.
47. He had bizarre fashion sense — if any.
Parker: Bird had the first Bermuda shorts in New York. He cut off his suit pants! A rust-colored suit with shorts. He looked so silly!
48. He was the master even while worse for wear.
Benjamin: I can’t imagine how that feels for somebody to be nodded out at the bar, go upstage, and kill you and go back. He didn’t even have to be on this planet to take care of you.
49. He was reportedly ready to abandon bebop.
Williams: I did read one time that he said the bebop era was becoming passé. The bebop thing was becoming a thing he was ready to leave because it was starting to become kind of mundane. I guess there were enough people trying to copy what he was doing and not really challenging themselves to find their own way.
50. You can view his work through the lens of photography.
Moran: One thing I love about Charlie Parker is his angles. There’s a term some kids use about taking selfies and knowing your angles. Parker knows his angles. He knows how to phrase the melody to give it the best light.
51. Or basketball.
Benjamin: From my generation, he’d be the Michael Jordan of the saxophone. I guess maybe Wilt Chamberlain, really.
52. Or golf.
McPherson: Tiger Woods — there are people who would say he’s like Bird, you know what I mean?
53. Or dance.
Moran: He’s about the flourish. He pirouettes through these blues and, if it dazzles right, he also lets the audience know it’s not just him that pirouettes through these blues, but he’s taught that choreography to his bandmates as well.
54. Or mountain-climbing.
Taborn: You can imagine him tiptoeing on the very top of the mountain. “What’s the highest point on this chord that I can leap to from the next highest point?” He’s finding ways to link things at a point where the chords cease to be identifiable.
55. Or modernist philosophy.
Moran: The revolution he sparked gives us kind of a second wave of creative modernism.
Taborn: There’s something about the action [of his genius]. It’s modernism projected. All of those considerations are embodied in one person who had a fairly short span of influence.
56. He once had tea with Albert Einstein.
Haddix: There was an interesting incident where he was on the road with Earl “Fatha” Hines. They played Princeton and he saw Albert Einstein walking across campus. He accosted Einstein and Einstein asked him to come have tea with him. Bird went, and he and Albert Einstein talked for an hour. A meeting of minds.
57. He could field dress and prepare a rabbit.
“When they did get hold of some rabbits later that day, Charlie [was] perfectly prepared. These Western boys knew how to dress the animals, slicing into the carcasses, peeling away their coats, chopping off the heads and feet, and then cutting up what remained to make a tasty dinner,” said Crouch in Kansas City Lightning.
58. His lessons are far from exclusive to the sax.
Goldsher: When I evolved from a newbie musician into a not-so-bad bassist, I got myself a copy of the Charlie Parker Omnibook, a collection of transcriptions of his compositions and improvisations from most of his studio sessions. I learned a bunch of his solos, and they remain in my musical DNA. Even all these years later, whenever I improvise, there are some Bird licks hiding in there. The riffs don’t lay easily on the bass, but they transcend instruments.
Oe: “Donna Lee” has been my daily routine song in 12 keys for the past five years. Even though I have been playing this a lot in every key, I can still feel [its mystery] and find some new theory and rhythmic figures.
59. He had more than a few personalities.
Haddix: If you read the interviews in Robert Reisner’s book [Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (1962)], it’s like there were 86 different Birds. He could connect with people on a one-on-one basis.
Hobgood: He was almost what you could refer to as an exponential hedonist. He just inhaled life.
Haddix: He was multifaceted. He was this dichotomy, in a way. He could sit and talk to professors on their level about what they talk about, but he would also talk to some guy at the bar and be fine with that.
60. For all his problems, he was a genial man.
Snidero: There’s no doubt in my mind that he was a very kind soul. It comes out in the music. Bird always said that he wanted his music to project warmth, and it’s really hard to do that if you’re not a warm person, I would say.
61. In fact, you could call him a square.
Parker: Bird was a square. And he would drive my mother crazy.
“The other side is interesting to people because of the sensational aspect of it. He was square and he was corny. He wasn’t like a wildman. I never saw that in him. Maybe others did, but I never saw him really out of control,” said Parker in a 2015 interview.
62. He was generous with his praise.
Parker: I had never heard the Paul Desmond interview with Bird. I was working in a club in Copenhagen and this DJ came up and handed me a cassette of Paul Desmond’s interview with Bird. It was so wonderful for me to hear Bird’s voice again because I didn’t really remember his voice. He had a courtly manner in the way he spoke to Paul and made Paul feel like a real musician. Here was Bird saying — and I’m paraphrasing — “Well, I don’t know, Paul, I think you play pretty good.”
63. He even shared cherry pie with his fans.
Snidero: I knew Phil Woods, and Phil would always tell stories about Charlie Parker — meeting him, having Bird play his horn, and Bird sharing cherry pie with the young kids when they were there checking him out.
64. He was part of a greater Kansas City milieu.
Haddix: He was a great improviser because he came up in the tradition of Kansas City, where there were all-night jam sessions where musicians would test each others’ mettle by going in and out of key and playing double-time.
“The musicians of the Midwest were doing more than merely aping either the New Orleans musicians or the Easterners. They were nurturing ideas that would reshape the very thrust of the music,” said Crouch in Kansas City Lightning.
65. He loved his hometown despite rumors to the contrary.
Haddix: There’s this myth that he did not want to return to Kansas City, did not want to be buried in Kansas City, and all that. But whenever he would travel, he would always stop off in Kansas City and play a few gigs, either at the El Capitan on 18th Street or Tutty’s Mayfair out in the county. He always had strong ties to Kansas City because of his family here.
66. He wrung stellar music out of racist police brutality.
Haddix: My favorite [Bird song] is “Yardbird Suite.” It is so bright. It came out of a really tragic situation where … Walter Brown and Charlie Parker were on a front porch of a rooming house because they couldn’t stay in hotels down south. There were very few African-American hotels, so they stayed in people’s homes. The police pulled them off the porch and beat them so bad that they had knots on their head that Gene Ramey said they could hang a hat on. As a result of that, he wrote the song “What Price Love” and that later became “Yardbird Suite.” So he turned this tragic and hurtful situation into a song that is a celebration of life.
67. He possibly got his nickname “Yardbird” from a roadkill incident.
“Once … when the car Charlie was traveling in hit a chicken in the road, he shouted to the driver: ‘No, stop! Go back and pick up that yardbird.’ The bird was brought back to the hotel and cooked up for the band,” said Crouch in Kansas City Lightning.
68. He hurled a colorful rejoinder at a racist.
“Now, this is a shame right here, mister. You called this man a n****r and didn’t know a thing about him. Not a thing. You messed up then. Now you got to go home to your wife and explain to her how you broke your glasses and why your face is red and puffy and your lip is all cut up. I bet you feel like a fool right now. Perhaps I can say it better. You probably look like an elephantine anus. You sure look like one.” Charlie Parker, paraphrased by Billy Eckstine in Kansas City Lightning.
69. Jack Kerouac found spiritual solace in him.
“Charley Parker looked like Buddha / Charley Parker, who recently died / Laughing at a juggler on the TV / After weeks of strain and sickness, was called the Perfect Musician. And his expression on his face / Was as calm, beautiful and profound / As the image of the Buddha / Represented in the East, the lidded eyes / The expression that says ‘All is Well’ / This is what Charley Parker / Said when he played, All is Well.” Jack Kerouac, “Mexico City Blues” 239th Chorus (1959)
70. And compared him to Beethoven.
“Musically as important as Beethoven / Yet not regarded as such at all.” Jack Kerouac, “Mexico City Blues” 240th Chorus
71. He’s like Bach too.
Weiskopf: He codified the jazz language much as J.S. Bach codified the classical language.
McPherson: That’s why he’s still relevant. Bach is still relevant. That’s not to say there aren’t other great composers; of course there are. But he’s still relevant because when you listen to Bach, it is what it is and it’s just perfect. That’s what Bird is.
Snidero: If you were a jazz musician that ignored Charlie Parker, it’d be akin to a classical composer ignoring Bach. There’s just too much there to learn and build upon.
Bartz: You have to go back to the foundations. There’s a lot of Bach in Charlie Parker because he studied a lot of Bach. He took what Bach did and used it in today’s music with the instruments we have today.
72. And his understanding of classical music goes deeper than that.
Hobgood: With Bird, you’re talking about somebody who had a composer’s mind. He was an admirer of Stravinsky. He was interested in 20th-century musical history. He was interested in the lineage of developments that led to modern harmony, modern rhythmic theory, and consciousness.
Jones: The idea of adding classical elements to his jazz concept? That shit was wild, man!
73. His influence leaps and flutters between mediums.
Haddix: He influenced subsequent generations of musicians across the broad musical landscape. And not only that, he influenced writers, poets, painters, sculptors, and all the arts that followed.
74. He didn’t just have a musical philosophy; he saw philosophy as music.
“[Boris] Vian also brought [John-Paul] Sartre to see Charlie Parker play at the St. Germain. When he introduced them, Parker said to Sartre, ‘I like your playing very much.’ (Even today, the French still puzzle over the meaning of that remark.)” said John Szwed in So What: The Life of Miles Davis (2001).
75. Some of his songs remain overlooked.
Mahanthappa: There’s untapped information. There’s a lot to offer. You don’t hear people play “Bloomdido.” That’s a great one. Or “Ah-Leu-Cha,” which has that snaking counterpoint between Bird and Dizzy. Those are amazing.
76. Musicians proudly admit to copying him.
Zenón: Language-wise, 90% of what I play is pretty much directly coming out of him. When I’m playing, I’m basically trying to do what he did.
Donaldson: My playing is based on Charlie Parker’s style. I’m a copy of Charlie Parker!
77. And they don’t need to cover his songs to pay homage.
Mahanthappa: My album Bird Calls is a real homage to Bird without playing any of his music. Taking things that he wrote and writing music around them or taking rhythms that he played and writing tunes with them. I think you honor someone in a much more meaningful way by showing what they’ve given you as opposed to playing their music — regurgitating their work.
78. He was a breeze to jam with.
Shaw: I’ve been playing with [drummer] Roy Haynes for the past 15 years now. One day, we were on tour and we were having dinner before the show — and every so often he would break into a story of someone that he’d play with. He said, “The two people I’ve played with who were the easiest to play with — who I could play anything behind — were Charlie Parker and John Coltrane.”
79. He had complete control as a musician.
Williams: When people talk about Charlie Parker, they often want to talk about his music in a nerdy kind of way, when I just hear it as sound, speed, and velocity. And so much control. Control over the elements.
Zenón: Have you ever seen The Matrix? Where [Neo] just kind of looks at all this code and he can just do whatever he wants? That’s kind of how it feels to me when I hear him play. In any situation, he’s in control and he can do whatever he wants at any moment.
80. He touched on Latin music in innovative ways.
McPherson: Some of the records he did with Machito — the Afro-Cuban collaboration between Machito and Charlie Parker — those to me are some great records. Any of those. “Tico-Tico” is one; it’s kind of a south-of-the-border thing.
Zenón: When I heard him play Machito [songs] with Afro-Cuban percussion, it just sounds so seamless to me. So natural. Even more than Dizzy, in a way.
81. His 1946 version of “Lover Man” is beautifully broken.
“Drunk and exhausted, Charlie broke down in the studio … overwhelmed by the medication, Charlie became musically incoherent and confused … There was a last, eerie, suspended, unfinished phrase, then silence. Those in the control booth were slightly embarrassed, disturbed, and deeply affected,” said Haddix in Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker (2013).
82. But as a whole, what he gave us doesn’t need fixing.
Moran: It’s still our best code we can use today. And that code is old. That shit is like 60 or 70 years old now. Eighty years old, damn.
83. Merely transcribing him won’t cut it.
Williams: We can see it on paper or transcribe a bunch of eighth notes, but there are things about where the intervals are placed. They sort of have different kinds of rhythms than you wouldn’t necessarily expect at times.
McPherson: [We can’t] imitate or Xerox his notes, but [we can] have that standard of excellence in terms of technique, craft, and inspiration.
84. He accomplished what he did with often-borrowed horns.
Shaw: Once, I broke my mouthpiece that I was playing on for years. I had been playing on it for such a long time that I didn’t realize the value of it. I learned the mouthpiece was $1,700 at least and I nearly had a heart attack. As I looked for places that had it, I heard Charlie Parker playing in the background and I had a giant realization. This is a man that, at times, didn’t have his own saxophone. Or mouthpiece. Or ligature. He was playing on other saxophones. And I realized that I don’t have a recording where I can differentiate what horn he’s playing. That shows the power of his sound. He could play any [horn] and it sounded like him.
85. Want to get into jazz? You can’t skip over him.
Goldsher: You can’t deal with jazz without dealing with Charlie Parker, just like you can’t deal with comedy without dealing with Buster Keaton or food with Auguste Escoffier. Bird laid the modern melodic and harmonic foundation — and without foundation, you’ve got chaos.
86. It’s anyone’s guess where he could have gone.
Taborn: It’s the hackneyed statement about Bird, but he died really young. So you really don’t know where he would have gone after that. He was poised to do more and to move into some really interesting areas, then he was gone at an incredibly young age.
87. But today, we can separate him from the trope of the tortured artist.
Mahanthappa: We like to glorify the troubled artist addict. That shit’s played out. That gets old. I think Basquiat suffered a similar fate. I think people like that. People are attracted to stories of success peppered with some sort of misery and trouble. That sort of permeates this culture.
88. We can appreciate that the system failed him.
Weiskopf: He did all this innovation from a point of disadvantage, economically and socially. He was a drug addict. There are lots of alcoholics and drug addicts [in his field] — creative people have always been afflicted by this. It’s better not to line that up with the accomplishments of those people.
Moran: We look at the symptoms of an artist and then we partially blame the artist. Especially if there’s a tragic end, an early demise.
Goldsher: It’s unfortunate that medical science circa the 1940s didn’t have the skills to properly deal with mental health issues. Back then — and now, to some extent — Bird was viewed as an addict, but if you dig deeper — and I’ve dug — you can tell that he was likely suffering from bipolar disorder or something similar.
Moran: It’s a larger problem than, “Ah, he was on smack.” It was endemic of the times and endemic of America.
Goldsher: He wasn’t [only] a junkie, but rather a man who was able to create some of the finest art in American history, all while dealing with an illness that was, at the time, untreatable.
Moran: It’s a system that aims to make the Black body a commodity, but it does not take into account the health of that body.
Weiskopf: So it’s amazing that he endured and had tenacity and humor. He was an elegant man. He did all this by the time he was 34 years old. He’s exactly like Mozart was — a gifted, talented person that contributed in a way that was so important.
89. At his core, he was the consummate individualist.
Jones: When talking about Charlie Parker, people don’t really talk about that component of being a type of free artist. You’re dealing with an artistic person living in a world that has certain types of expectations and I don’t think Charlie’s mind was the same [as others’]. I think he was thinking about life from a much freer point of view.
90. This has a lot to do with being Black in America.
Jones: You have to understand living as a Black man at that time and being a person who wants to be free. When I use that word “free,” I mean free in all aspects: This is who I am, this is how I see life, this is what life is to me, this is how I’m going to move through the world. That was something that wasn’t necessarily easy for Black folk.
91. At the same time, he was part of a clan.
Moran: Bird is a community organizer. He’s part of a crew. That’s a collective, you know, with Monk, Bird, Mary Lou Williams, Roy Haynes, and Charles Mingus. We don’t talk about it as such, but that’s a community-organized group that is looking to make radical change.
92. The legendary New York jazz club Birdland was named after him.
“Birdland, a new nightclub on Broadway at 52nd Street, [was] named in Charlie’s honor … A long bar stretched along the left wall. To the right of the bar in the peanut gallery several lines of chairs faced the bandstand. Serious fans crowded this area, nursing drinks while listening intently to the music,” said Haddix in Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker.
93. When he showed up, music skipped forward a few decades.
Zenón: It’s almost like music jumped ahead into the future by 50 years.
Moran: He takes another 40 steps forward from what Louis Armstrong did 20 years before.
94. So it’s incumbent on jazz students to dive into him.
Mahanthappa: My role as an educator — no matter what we’re playing or what sort of repertoire we’re looking at — is to make sure, in any given concert, that my students are playing one Monk tune and one Bird tune. No matter what else is going on! That kind of keeps us … planted in the river that is this music.
95. His life and work demand to be taken as a whole.
Jones: I admire Bird a lot in the totality of who he is. When you separate a player from how they move through life, I think you’re not getting the true essence of their artistic expression.
Benjamin: People don’t want to talk about the ugly sides of Bird. That’s the dirt in the sound. That’s what you’re hearing. This guy is barely able to walk and he’s still killing you onstage!
96. His legacy can be understood as a sacrifice.
Moran: I can only talk about it as a sacrifice now. He really put his whole being through a lot to get there. And despite that, he’ll still come out and play your ass!
97. In death, he opened the door for his disciples.
Williams: I guess sometimes the gate has to close for someone else to come in. We may not have had Trane and Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon, you know? We definitely wouldn’t have had Sonny Stitt, Jackie McLean, Phil Woods, and Lee Konitz without Bird. That would not have happened.
98. And in life, he never gave up.
Benjamin: The original story I heard about Charlie Parker is that he came to New York and he sounded terrible. The idea that someone of his level sounded like trash, got ran out, came back, and took care of business, changed the face of music, created a whole style with other contemporaries that were also changing the face of music, and we’re still talking about him 100 years later!
99. Which is something we can all take to heart.
Benjamin: In my earlier days, people were laughing at me coming to the session, kicking me out, not letting me play songs, telling me to go learn changes. So I studied with teachers trying to get better. I was going out six or seven nights a week to four or five different jam sessions and I knew in each session I was going to be laughed out. That’s the model of my career. If something tells you you can’t do something, keep trying to do it over and over. If the first album doesn’t do well, make a second. If the second album doesn’t do well, make a third. I can respect people with that kind of mindset.
100. Bird lives.
Moran: Bird is everywhere. His spirit permeates everything.
Mahanthappa: His innovation and his genius are still very much alive. It’s easy to think that just because something happened 70 years ago that it’s obsolete. But no one on the planet plays better than Charlie Parker. He’s not obsolete.
Fulton: Musicians 60-odd years after his death are still trying to attain the levels of artistry Bird exhibited.
Shaw: I’m still studying him today. I’m still transcribing him. I’m still listening to him.
Moran: If you look up wherever you are, you might see him. He might even show up in a bird.