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      Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, August 29, 1920. As far back as he can remember, he was surrounded by great music in a city that has given jazz so many of its leading stars. A colorful picture of Kansas City night life in the Pendergast era of the 1920's and the early 30's can be found in Dave Dexter's book Jazz Cavalcade (Chapter 6, "Jazz in the West").

      Charlie says that he "spent three years in high school and wound up a freshman." He played baritone horn in the school band and started seriously on alto sax at the age of fifteen, when his mother bought him a horn.

      Charlie first went to work for Jay McShann when the band came to Kansas City in 1937, later leaving and rejoining a couple of times. He gained some of his other early experience locally with the bands of Lawrence Keyes and Harland Leonard.

      As early as 1938 Budd Johnson remembers seeing him wander into a Chicago dance hall one night, "looking beat," and without a horn. He wanted to sit in with King Kolax's band. The alto man loaned him one, and when he heard the amazing results, told Charlie that since he happened to have an extra horn and Charlie had none, it would be all right for him to keep this one.

      Charlie was without a horn again, though, the following year when he visited New York. Although he stayed around town for several months, he did not work as a musician, and it was not until he made another trip East with McShann that Manhattan musicians had their first chance to hear him.

      During McShann's first visit to New York, Charlie met Dizzy Gillespie when Diz sat in with the band one night at the Savoy Ballroom. The Savoy, once regarded as a jazz mecca and nicknamed "the home of happy feet," was the New York pied-a-terre of such bands as Teddy Hill's, Benny Carter's and the late Chick Webb's great swing group in the late 1930's. Savoy audiences consisted of local jitterbugs, who wanted music that jumped, and jazz hunters from downtown, who were concerned more with the esthetic qualities of the performances.

      McShann's music, though it had some of the intangible qualities described in "the midwestern beat," conformed pretty closely with the requirements of the Savoy audiences. It was primarily a blues band, featuring one of the better blues shouters of the day, Walter Brown. The arrangements and the solos were generally based on the traditional blues pattern and other simple forms. Charlie Parker wrote a few numbers in this style and played solos on some of the band's first recordings, made in 1941 and '42. His work at that time, as typified by the recordings of Hootie Blues and Sepian Stomp, had certain qualities that lifted it above the level of its surroundings. The phrasing was more involved, the tone a little more strident, and the pulse of each performance had a manner of swing tht seemed to owe nothing to any source. His use of grace notes and certain dynamic inflections were different from anything that had been heard on the alto, or on any other instrument.

      "Charlie Parker offers inspired alto solos," wrote Bob Locke in the July 1, 1942 Down Beat, "using a minimum of notes in a fluid style with a somewhat thin tone but a wealth of pleasing ideas." Barry Ulanov, giving the McShann band a rave review in Metronome, concurred on Charlie's tone, but instead of "a minimum of notes" he found that the otherwise "superb" "Bird" had a tendency to play too many! In view of the wide variations in his solos at that time it's quite possible that both reviewers were right.

      The foundations of Bird's ultimate style were clearly defined before he left Kansas City, but it was in New York that he began experimenting with new harmonic ideas. "I used to hang around with a guitarist named Biddy Fleet," Charlie recalls. "We used to sit in the back room at Dan Wall's chili joint and other spots uptown, and Biddy would run new chords. For instance, we'd find that you could play a relative major, using the right inversions, against a seventh chord, and we played around with flatted fifths. After I left McShann in Detroit and came back to New York, I used to sit in at Minton's with men like Scott [Kermit Scott, tenor sax], John Simmons on bass, Kenny Clarke or Kansas Fields on drums, and Monk. Those were the guys who'd play everything on the right chords -- the new chords that we believed were right; and instead of the old tunes we'd play Cherokee and All the Things You Are and Nice Work if You Can Get it"...

      Charlie's evolution as a modern jazzman cannot be ascribed to any one influence. During his first years around jazz, he listened to Herschel Evans and Lester Young, both with Basie; to the late Chu Berry, and to Andy Kirk's tenor man, the late Dick Wilson. He admired Johnny Hodges, Willie Smith and Benny Carter, and especially an alto player named Buster Smith, who did most of the arranging for Count Basie's original band in Kansas City. "I used to quit every job to go with Buster," says Charlie. "But when I came to New York and went to Monroe's, I began to listen to that real advanced New York style. I think the music of today is a sort of combination of the midwestern beat and the fast New York tempos. At Monroe's I heard sessions with a pianist named Allen Tinney; I'd listen to trumpet men like Lips Page, Roy, Dizzy and Charlie Shavers outblowing each other all night long. And Don Byas was there, playing everything there was to be played. I heard a trumpet man named Vic Coulsen playing things I'd never heard. Vic had the regular band at Monroe's, with George Treadwell also on trumpet, and a tenor man named Pritchett. That was the kind of music that caused me to quit McShann and stay in New York."

      Like so many modern jazz musicians, Charlie has listened intently to music outside the world of jazz; he has studied Schoenberg, admired Debussy's Children's Corner, Stravinsky and Shostakovitch. He credits Thelonious Monk with many of the harmonic ideas that were incorporated into bebop. But he dislikes having any branch of music branded with a name like "bebop." "Let's call it music. People got so used to hearing jazz for so many years; finally somebody said 'Let's have something different' and some new ideas began to evolve. Then people brand it 'bebop' and try to crush it. If it should ever become completely accepted, people should remember it's in just the same position jazz was. It's just another style. I don't think any one person invented it. I was playing the same style years before I came to New York. I never consciously changed my style."

      To this it should be added, of course, that Charlie's style did change and mature, though unconsciously, after he came to New York. Like any great jazz musician, he strives constantly for freshness and originality. Moreover it was not until he started recording with small bands in 1944 that he began to write original compositions in the new style. Even while he was with Hines, he did no writing. According to his recollection, the first arrangers to contribute to the Hines library in the modern style were Dizzy, trombonist Jerry Valentine, and a young trumpeter named Neal Hefti, from Charlie Barnet's band.

      Charlie Parker has brought the art of jazz improvisation to a new peak of maturity. A full appreciation of his genius can only be gained by lengthy study of his work both in person and on records. Because of his personal problems, there have been times when he played without continuity, without inspiration, and even out of tune. Like any other saxophone player, he can be a servant of his horn, and if he has a bad reed, he will squeak like anyone else. These qualifications are not made in an attempt to apologize for Parker's occasional imperfections; they are simply an explanation to the newcomer, who may be confused into interpreting his mistakes as strokes of genius, as do some of the naive young alto sax tyros who copy every note on his record of Lover Man, which he wishes had never been released.

      Bird's mind and fingers work with incredible speed. He can imply four chord changes in a melodic pattern where another musician would have trouble inserting two. His conception and execution bring to mind Tadd Dameron's comparison of the new jazz with the old: "It's as if you had two roads, both going in the same direction, but one of them was straight with no scenery around it, and the other twisted and turned and had a lot of beautiful trees on all sides."

Charlie Parker takes you along that second road...

(from Inside Jazz - previously titled Inside Bebop - Da Capo Press)