March 12, 2008
It was 53 years ago that Charlie Parker died (ostensibly from pneumonia but more than likely from years of alcohol and drug abuse) while famously watching television. Legend has it that at the moment he passed, a tremendous thunder-clap could be heard in the skies over New York City. Also legendarily, the doctor who attended to Bird’s lifeless body estimated his age to be between 50 and 60 years old. Parker was actually only 34 - he would have been 87 this year.
What more can be said about Bird? The fluidity of his saxophone lines, the blisteringly fast solos, the pure inspiration he called on to challenge himself to increasingly complex improvisations, often on songs played many, many times before – all part of the lore of bebop.
Yet perhaps not enough has been said about his truly unique and gifted way of “borrowing” from existing chord structures to create new tunes. Several songs that Parker wrote are “based on” the chordal changes of other jazz or pop standards, like Bird’s Nest, Chasin' the Bird, Cheers, Constellation, Dexterity, Moose the Mooche, Passport and Red Cross, all inspired by Gershwin's I Got Rhythm.(1) It was aural appropriation, or a re-contexualization of existing source material as "something new." Jazz musicians often play what is referred to as the “head” (the main melody) at the beginning of the piece to establish chord progressions. The "head" then provides the “jumping off” point for improvisations based on the melody. Yet Parker’s genius was to improvise on the chords themselves, to find an alternate chording structure that worked within the pattern itself:
“Rather than basing his improvisations closely on the melody as was done in swing, he was a master of chordal improvising, creating new melodies that were based on the structure of a song. In fact, Bird wrote several future standards (such as ‘Anthropology,’ ‘Ornithology,’ ‘Scrapple from the Apple,’ and ‘Ko Ko,’ along with such blues numbers as ‘Now's the Time’ and ‘Parker's Mood’) that ‘borrowed’ and modernized the chord structures of older tunes.”(2)
This citation of previous song structures to make new compositions is reliant on the listener’s memory yet the new melodies achieve a transcendence from the original. To the informed listener, these chords are vaguely familiar yet feel new. Hearing these “borrowings” instills a faint recognition of the original source but the musical presence of “now” washes over you with insistent beauty.
They were creating a new sound with new structures, and they began to close ranks. The new rules were rough on the old-timers. Drummer Kenny Clarke recalls:
“To make things tough for outsiders we invented difficult riffs. Some of our tunes used the ‘A’ part of one tune, like ‘I Got Rhythm,’ but the channel [bridge] came from something else, say ‘Honeysuckle Rose.’ The swing guys would be completely hung up in the channel. They’d have to stop playing.”(3)
[Charlie Parker songs and Hot House (on film).]
3. Russell, Ross. Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, New York, 1973, 139.