Today is Charlie Parker's 100th birthday. So much music will be played today (unfortunately not as much as should have been played thanks to the pandemic), much will be written about him, and spoken about him. But no matter how much discussion of him there is around this centenary, it can never be enough. Parker was a towering genius - he changed not just jazz, but music forever. He created a personal musical language that spread out into the world and influenced not just saxophonists and other front line instruments, but all the rhythm section players too. After Bird, everyone had to rethink they way the played, and music was never the same.
His personal travails are unfortunately hugely focussed on, to the detriment of where the focus should be - on his music. But today at least, his music will get the attention it always deserves. I dedicated an album to Bird just over 20 years ago , and we celebrated his music again recently when we, (myself, Chris Guilfoyle, Conor Guilfoyle, and Chris Engel), recorded a video of the music from 'Bird' which will be broadcast online tonight - you can see it here
Ethan Iverson also has a major tribute over on his DTM website, I would urge you to check that out.
There are some great books on Bird too, and it's hard to know where to start - I would recommend Gary Giddins 'Celebrating Bird', and for a different approach Stanley Crouch's 'Kansas City Lightning'
So much has been said about him and will be said about him, so all I'll say is, don't fall into the trap of taking him for granted, it cannot be overstated what a genius he was and how important he was. He rethought how melody, harmony and rhythm could be used in improvisation, and his brilliance is still unsurpassed in jazz. And to illustrate this I would point you to an amazing recording that's not widely enough known - 'One Night In Washington'.
The story behind this live recording is that Bird had been previously invited to play with the Joe Timer Orchestra as a guest soloist, but hadn't turned up. They tried again, and this time he did appear, but had left his music behind and had a borrowed plastic saxophone. Now playing as a featured soloist when you have no music and don't know the arrangements, is incredibly difficult. When you have the kind of arrangements this band had (Al Cohn was among the arrangers), it gets into the realms of the impossible. But Parker's incredible musicianship comes to the fore here, unbelievably so.
Here's one of my favourite tracks from this album, 'These Foolish Things' where at first, after an obvious dominant chord, you can hear Bird think that it's time to play the melody, stop when he hears the intro is still going on, then is late when the entrance does arrive since he's now unsure of when to come in. Yet, late as he is, he telescopes the first phrase of the melody into the fewer bars he has and lands perfectly on the beat. In addition the arrangement features a 5/4 bar in the bridge which naturally catches him out, but he absorbs that immediately and flies through it the second time, flawlessly. Unbelievable...
Everything great about his playing is here - the sound the melodicism, the power, the harmonic and melodic sense, the blues-iness, and above all the rhythmic swing and complexity. It's almost impossible to represent on paper what he does with rhythm here - the staggering variety and precision of it. And all of this on a borrowed plastic horn and no music....
Bird Lives - and always will