Charlie Parker never achieved stardom, at least not by the standards of the music business. He never had a gold record to hang on the wall or enjoyed a significant radio hit. He never had a contract with a major record label. His face didn’t appear, even in a bit role, in a Hollywood film. If you measure a musician’s worth at the cash register—the ultimate arbiter of talent nowadays, or so it seems—Parker can only be called a minor figure, operating at the fringes of the entertainment industry.
But within the subculture of modern jazz, Parker was more than a star. He was a legend. Even before his death at age 34, 60 years ago this month, Parker had assumed the status of a demigod among those who followed the most progressive currents in jazz—as well as among hipsters, beatniks, and various practitioners of what passed for “alternative lifestyles” during the Eisenhower era. And even now, with 60 years of perspective since his untimely passing, we still struggle to separate the man from the myth.
Charlie Parker came of age in Kansas City at a time when the city enjoyed a scandalous renown for jazz, uninhibited nightlife, and easy access to illegal intoxicants. The Parker mythos was built on the same ingredients: His nickname, Bird, perhaps referred to his free-flying alto saxophone lines, which darted and flowed with a mesmerizing unpredictability. But his life was similarly unconstrained, almost in free-fall.
The two sides of Parker, virtuoso musician and haunted victim of personal demons, often seemed to go hand in hand. I still encounter musicians who tell me that Bird’s visionary music was inspired, at least in part, by heroin. Back in the 1940s and ’50s, this view was even more prevalent, and Parker’s example had too many followers who could justify their self-destruction by pointing to his rare artistry.
They could call attention to the amazing 18-month run leading up to Parker’s July 1946 arrest and subsequent institutionalization at Camarillo State Hospital in California. Parker was clearly in a state of dissolution and chemical dependency during this period, yet it was when he made many of his most influential recordings—pathbreaking tracks such as “Ornithology,” “Night in Tunisia,” “Ko-Ko,” “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House,” “Yardbird Suite,” and “Billie’s Bounce.” These recordings invented the bebop vocabulary and defined the course of modern jazz for years to come.
When I was a teenager, I studied this music as if it were holy writ, a source of arcane wisdom for those desiring initiation into the inner sanctum of jazz improvisation. Parker had died before I was born, but he was ever-present in my own coming-of-age as a musician. I listened over and over again to everything Parker recorded during the mid-1940s—even the alternate takes and false starts. I studied transcriptions of Parker’s solos and made marks in the margins to call attention to especially striking licks and phrases. And around the time of my 20th birthday, I bought a turntable that allowed me to play records at half-speed. I delighted in my ability to hear in slow-motion Bird songs that previously had flown by at breakneck pace.
This is the side of Charlie Parker that I cherish, analytical and almost mathematical in its purity. It’s not as sensational as the tales of the desperate addict, pawning his sax to get a fix. It isn’t suitable for a made-for-TV biopic. It’s not tawdry or glamorous. But the secret to Bird’s ability to swoop and soar resides here, in his manifold ways of combining the 12 notes of our tempered scale.
So forgive me if I wax rhapsodic over Parker’s bold use of chromaticism—which went far beyond anything done previously in jazz. The same goes for his placement of rhythmic accents and subdivisions of the beat. I simply can’t talk about Charlie Parker without acknowledging these remarkable achievements. I learned as much about melody construction from Bird as I did from Bach and Beethoven, and I still apply his teachings every time I sit down at the piano and improvise. Parker never wrote a textbook, but he really didn’t need to—his records present the results of a long process of synthesis and codification, available to anyone with open ears and a willingness to put them to the test.