Thursday, February 6, 2020

Quick History Lesson: Charlie Parker and Jazz 101

A few pieces of Charlie Parker and jazz history that you might want to acquaint yourself with before attending Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.

Charlie Parker as a teenager. Photographer unknown. Frank Driggs Collection, Jazz at Lincoln Center.

It takes a lot of work to make it sound effortless. After facing rejection for the first time as a teenager, Charlie Parker resolved to practice incessantly until he could play any other musician under the table. Parker would later reminisce: “I put quite a bit of study into the horn. …In fact, the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once when I was living out west. They said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least from eleven to fifteen hours a day. I did that over a period of three to four years.”

The Savoy Marquee in Harlem, 1933. Photographer unknown.

Battle of the Bands
Parker’s rise to fame was launched at a “cutting contest”—a “battle of the bands” style concert, popular in New York City’s jazz scene, where two bands would perform on the same stage, one “cutting in” on the other’s performances to try to outperform them. At Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in 1941, Parker played with Jay McShann’s band against hometown heroes Lucky Millinder and his Orchestra. The underdogs thrilled the audience and quickly established themselves as the newest hotshots on the Harlem jazz scene. Moreover, these contests were vital to the evolution of jazz; the competitive nature of the events led to the faster tempos and complex solos that typified bebop.

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, New York City 1949. Photographer Herman Leonard.

Yardbird & Dizzy
Trumpeter John “Dizzy” Gillespie first encountered Charlie Parker on a trip to Kansas City in 1940, but the pair wouldn’t work together until Parker relocated to New York in 1941. Dizzy became a frequent guest of the Jay McShann band at the Savoy in Harlem—before long, Gillespie and Parker struck a chord and the two played together regularly.

What is Bebop?
As a younger generation of jazz musicians experimented with tempo, complex chord progressions, and improvisation, bebop emerged. While not as danceable as swing, bebop became a “musician’s jazz,” a style of music better suited to listening than dancing.

“I was astounded by what the guy could do. These other guys that I had been playing with weren’t my colleagues, really. But the moment I heard Charlie Parker, I said, ‘There is my colleague…’ I had never heard anything like that before. …Charlie Parker and I were moving in practically the same direction, too, but neither of us knew it.”
—Dizzy Gillespie

Photo: Dizzy Gillespie leads his orchestra at the Savoy. Gottlieb, William P. Portrait of Dizzy Gillespie, New York, N.Y., Between 1946 and 1948. William P. Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress.

The formula of a bebop piece
Since bebop is such a nimble and challenging jazz style, the classic bebop instrumentation is smaller than its big-band swing predecessor: sax, trumpet, piano, guitar, upright bass, and drums. Bebop compositions are generally written in an A-B-A format: an ensemble “head” piece is played to open the piece, followed by a long section of improvised solos and finally a restatement of the opening theme.

Birdland, the Jazz Corner of the World
The original Birdland was a real club in Manhattan from 1949 to 1964, named for Charlie Parker. The venue seated 500 people, had space for a full orchestra, and featured caged finches throughout—though, thanks to the smoke and loud music, the birds didn’t last long.

“There are two forms of jazz: before Charlie Parker and after Charlie Parker.”
—Unknown, frequently attrib. Orrin Keepnews, jazz writer and producer

Jazz’s Black History
The origins of jazz can be traced to Black communities in the American South, particularly New Orleans, with two main precursors: blues and ragtime. Blues evolved from spirituals and “field hollers,” songs sung by enslaved Africans and African Americans. Ragtime, meanwhile, originated in Black communities as they incorporated Western classical music and American march styles into their own music. Another vital ingredient in the recipe for jazz was rhythm from African drumming traditions, which were banned in much of the South but survived in New Orleans.

The Original Dixieland Jazz Band, 1917. Duncan Scheidt Jazz Collection, 1900–2012, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.

Cultural appropriation in Jazz
The first-ever jazz record was commercially produced in 1917 by Nick LaRocca and his Original Dixieland Jazz Band. While this helped spur the popularity of jazz, it was problematic that an all-White band was performing Black American music. The recording industry at the time was run almost entirely by White producers, who felt that blues and jazz should only be performed by White musicians, and thus limited the distribution of recordings by African American musicians.

Seattle Opera’s Charlie Parker's Yardbird plays February 22–March 7 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets and info: