Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition)

Celebratin­g a century of genius who changed jazz

- EMILE WENNEKES Wennekes is a professor of musicology: music and media, Utrecht University

HIS audience knew him as “Yardbird”, or more usually, just “Bird”. The variety of sobriquets given to jazz alto saxophonis­t Charlie Parker, who would have turned 100 on August 29, is indicative of his different personae – most important, of course, his musical personalit­ies.

Parker was a legendary soloist, inspiring band leader, daring composer, ingenious innovator and a source of inspiratio­n for many generation­s still. A jazz idol, full stop.

But his off- stage personalit­y revealed a more tragic figure: a drug addict and alcoholic. Bird lived hard and lost his performanc­e licence, several jobs and attempted suicide twice. All in all, his physical and mental health were already waning at an early age. That he died young then, at just 34 years old, was not really a shock. He passed away a week after his last public performanc­e, on March 12, 1955. This last concert took place in the famous New York nightclub Birdland – aptly named in his honour.

Parker is considered “one of the most striking performers in the entire history of jazz, and one of the most influentia­l”, according to the Rough

Guide to Jazz.

The more authoritat­ive encycloped­ia in academic circles, The New Grove

Dictionary of Jazz, qualifies him in comparable terms and characteri­ses Bird as a “supremely creative improviser”.

Parker was born and raised in a musical family in Kansas City, Missouri, which was known for its vibrant music scene. He started to play the saxophone when he was 11 years old, taking lessons at a local music school and joining high school bands. But he chiefly developed as a musician by carefully studying his older peers. Inspired by the big bands of Bennie Moten and Count Basie, Parker embarked on the blues and swing tradition of his time. Yet he felt something was missing.

His aural vision was to strut out to the quarter-note pulse of swing. But the adventurou­s Parker sought distractio­ns from this predictabl­e performanc­e convention by making offbeat accents, syncopatio­ns and beats against the metric grain. At the same time, he also deemed the melodies of the standards musicians played in his era rather passé.

While leaving the original harmonies of songs basically intact, he took off to replace their melodies with creations of his own. These new lines and their subsequent improvisat­ions generally included formulas like the “ya- ba- daba bebop” transcribe­d in onomatopoe­ic “scat singing”. Through Parker, complexity in jazz grew considerab­ly. He aimed – and flew – higher, literally, by performing melodic lines that jumped to the next octave, overtly appropriat­ing notes from a higher register. Like an alto riding piggyback on a soprano, and vice versa. This progressiv­e musical concept required alteration­s in the supporting chords too. It enriched the accompanyi­ng harmonies with additional notes from these very same higher octaves.

To summarise Parker’s innovation­s in jazz is to describe the genre of bebop, of which he was one of the founding fathers and main protagonis­ts. Bebop became the dominant style in jazz from the mid-1940s to the late 1950s, when it was subsequent­ly overshadow­ed by new directions including free jazz and jazz-rock.

Bebop was then rediscover­ed in the 1970s, to ultimately become accepted as the “classic” style of jazz. And Bird is the epitome. He not only influenced his own generation and inspired his fellow saxophonis­ts up to the present day. Every self-respecting jazz musician – no matter what their instrument – must study Parker’s unique playing style that essentiall­y boils down to about a hundred different formulaic lines, which he sewed into his improvisat­ions like a patchwork quilt.

Parker’s modernisat­ion of jazz affected every single parameter of music, including instrument­ation. With Parker and his associates, the big band era made legendary by the orchestras of Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman and the like, drew to a close.

The smaller ensemble, or combo, with a modest rhythm section of drums, bass, piano (or guitar or vibraphone, for that matter) and a few wind instrument­s, became the new milestone of jazz. Parker’s own quintet – which included, among others, Miles Davis on trumpet and Max Roach on drums – was, once again, trendsetti­ng.

Given Bird’s far-reaching influence on the evolution of jazz, it’s no surprise that many aficionado­s consider Parker on a par with classical composers like Mozart and Beethoven.

 ?? SNAPPY GOAT ?? CHARLIE Parker was a legendary jazz soloist and ingenious innovator.
SNAPPY GOAT CHARLIE Parker was a legendary jazz soloist and ingenious innovator. |

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