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Charlie Parker, Born 100 Years Ago, Made Jazz Complexities Sound Deceptively Easy


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Alto saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker, one of the great American musical geniuses of the 20th century, was an originator of what came to be known as bebop. Tomorrow, August 29, marks the hundredth anniversary of Parker's birth. To celebrate, we've pulled interviews from our archive with two musicians who played with him - Max Roach, who invented a new style of drumming for the bebop era, and Red Rodney, a young trumpeter who Parker hired to replace Miles Davis. We'll also hear from alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who idolized Parker and would even loan his horn to Parker when Parker's saxophone was in hock. We'll hear their stories later in the show.

But let's kick things off with a tribute from our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead, who calls Parker one of the most brilliant and influential jazz musicians ever and one of the most notorious for his use of heroin and alcohol, leading to his death in 1955 at the age of 34. Kevin says at the heart of Parker's art was his virtuosity on the alto saxophone.


KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Like trumpeter Louis Armstrong and saxophonist John Coltrane, Charlie Parker was so influential, even players of other instruments wanted that sound. Trombonists, pianists, guitarists, drummers and more copped his style or phrasing. His sensibility pervades jazz on multiple levels. But when Charlie Parker first came up, some luminaries, like Armstrong, didn't get it at all. For one thing, there was Parker's unvarnished sound. Before him, even alto players who got around on the horn and were free with the beat, like Benny Carter, got a thicker, sweeter tone.


WHITEHEAD: Benny Carter. Charlie Parker's tone, by contrast, is thin and coarse, more blues singer than Broadway. His Kansas City elder Lester Young was a role model there. That lighter sound let Parker be light on his feet and quick. He redefined jazz velocity. Up tempo, when you needed a moment to think, he'd insert some pet lick, a place holder that also served as an identifier, signing his name to a solo. No mystery why his nickname stuck - Bird. His scrappy sound and pithy little melodic figures had the rough beauty of bird calls plus the cartoon cry of Woody Woodpecker. Here's Bird serenading the crowd at a Harlem Ballroom in 1952.


WHITEHEAD: Charlie Parker mostly developed his voice on his own. But in New York in the early 1940s he fell in with like-minded players who also took possibilities to extremes like his sometime partner trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Max Roach. Their new style was dubbed bebop - radical then, jazz's wellspring now. The boppers added colorful extra notes to enrich a tune's chords and effect-piling an unrelated chord on top of the first one. Then the boppers leaned on those dissonant added notes in their solos. To some old-timers, it sounded like they were in the wrong key and lost in time, starting and ending their phrases in cracks between beats.

To make the composed and improvised parts fit together, boppers wrote fractious tunes that mirrored their solo language. But those abstract lines had their melodic charms just as the solos did. This is Bird's calypso "Barbados" from 1948.


WHITEHEAD: Bird came up in Kansas City, where jazz was soaked in the blues. And the blues, with its vocalized instrumental flights, rueful ironies and comic interpellations, stayed close to Parker's heart. He was a master of sly quotations from diverse sources, studying a solo with fragments of radio pop, the New Orleans standard high society or the English pastoral country gardens, a range that spoke to his broad, unsnobby listening. He liked the doo-wop group The Clovers and Stravinsky, with his wrong notes.

Bird's quotations, like his blues, confirm his populist side. The 1948 classic "Parker's Mood" is a modified blues that distorts blues form but still comes out 12 bars long. He launches a solo with a basic blues lick, then quickly complicates things, making use of a pet repeated note stutter we've heard him use already.


WHITEHEAD: Charlie Parker made all these complexities sound deceptively easy, almost like he followed a formula, one plenty of musicians tried to replicate. Umpteen alto saxophonists echoed his tone and inflections, and the best of them, like Jackie McLean or Charles McPherson, put their own spin on his style, attracting their own disciples. And yet, as at least one early fan would insist decades later, nobody was able to do what Parker was doing - though generations of players tried. As Charles Mingus put it in a song title, "If Charlie Parker Were A Gunslinger, There'd Be A Whole Lot Of Dead Copycats."


GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of the new book "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." Coming up, we go into the archives to listen back to my interview with Max Roach, the drummer on some of Parker's greatest recordings. That's after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "PERHAPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kevin Whitehead
Kevin Whitehead is the jazz critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. Currently he reviews for The Audio Beat and Point of Departure.