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Charlie Parker: Why Bird Lives 100 Years On

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Charlie Parker: Why Bird Lives 100 Years On
Graphic used by the Berklee Performance Center, Boston to promote Fly Higher: Charlie Parker @ 100

Miles Davis summed up the history of Jazz in four words: “Louis Armstrong Charlie Parker”. It’s easy to understand why “Louis Armstrong”: no one helped make a fledgling idiom the household word in The USA and the world more than Louis Armstrong. When it comes to Charlie “Bird” Parker things get a little more complicated – or clearer, depending on which end of the telescope you look. Charlie Parker’s stature in Jazz came with a new – and many will say unnecessary – word and that word was “Bebop”. “New” because it came to stand for an interpretation of music that no one had ever heard – or expected to hear – before. Even Louis Armstrong, in his inimitable manner, labeled it “Chinese Music” and he was by no means being generous in a left-handed sort of way. Mr Armstrong’s attempts to obfuscate [his and] the world’s reaction to this revolutionary approach to a music whose tenets he had helped define and propagate is hardly surprising.

By inventing – for this is the correct word – a wholly new harmonic and rhythmic conception to music itself Mr Parker had turned convention completely on its head in the same manner that music was [first] shaken up and Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern and Alban Berg in the Second Viennese School, [followed by others such as Ernst Křenek, the noted German sociologist Theodor W. Adorno and Luigi Dallapiccola – and eventually laid the ground for composers such as Pierre Boulez, Milton Babbitt and Igor Stravinsky]. The word rhythmic homophone, “Bebop” came to the singular name for the music that so enthralled and even mesmerized listeners; a word that seemed to mimic Kenny “Klook” Clarke’s manipulations of his drumming accompaniment to Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie’s epic melodic and harmonic peregrinations more than anything else. It was, of course, Charlie Parker’s invention; everyone knew that.

Charlie Parker will be honoured throughout 2020 with a worldwide celebration commemorating the 100th anniversary of his birth [August 29, 1920].

Meanwhile Mr Parker was too busy inventing to pay much attention to what the music was called. However, his music became a radical response to a Jazz music which had become lulled to sleep by swing, or Jazz – the Negro music that had been usurped by white Americans to lull its listeners to sleep, or at least a sense that everything that was good about it had been accomplished and that there was no need to go any further than where Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and others had taken them. However, Mr Parker was restoring the music of Negro America to the [musical] throne in its where it belonged – that is in Black America – much like how the musicians of the Second Viennese School had refreshed the music that was mottling inside Western European conservatories.

As the great poet and critic Amiri Baraka once said of the music of Black America: “The notes mean something; and the something is, regardless of its stylistic considerations, part of the black psyche as it dictates the various forms of Negro culture.” [“Jazz and the White Critic”, Blues People, p15, 1963] The very fact that we have what Mr Baraka calls a “Negro culture” means that we have an “otherness” that is not being recognized – or that is no longer being recognized – by mainstream culture. Charlie Parker was drawing our attention to this music by drawing deeply on its Afro-American – the Negro – Blues Tradition. Socially and more importantly culturally non-conformist, Charlie Parker heralded a move to remove Jazz from the “danger of mainstream dilution or even understanding”. [Amiri Baraka in “The Modern Scene” p 188, Blues People, 1963]

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