Sound Field


How Charlie Parker Changed Jazz Forever

LA Buckner spotlights the innovative style of Kansas City's own Charlie “Bird” Parker — a legendary jazz musician who has influenced many of today's genres and helped develop the genre bebop. LA interviews jazz saxophonist Bobby Watson and sound archive director Chuck Haddix while tracking down Parker’s influence on bebop, jazz and the rest of the musical world.

AIRED: August 28, 2020 | 0:11:46

- [L.A Buckner] Cootie Williams,

Duke Ellington's trumpet soloist,

called Charlie Bird Parker,

"the greatest individual musician that ever lived,"

and in the history of jazz there had never been one man

who influenced all instruments.

So what exactly did Bird do to have such influence,

and how did he do it all before dying at only 34 years old?

In this episode of Sound Field,

we'll take a brief look at how Parker's

relentless practicing helped inspire

an evolution in bebop with another

Kansas city jazz musician.

(saxophone music)

There are many sub-genres of jazz,

including Parker's bebop,

but there's one really easy way to differentiate

bebop from all other types.

All you gotta do is try to dance to it when you hear it.

Go ahead and try.

(Chicago plays)

(Bebop plays)

(Cheek to cheek plays)

(Fine and dandy plays)

Here's the thing,

Charlie Parker didn't care if you danced to his music.

He said himself he's not an entertainer, but an artist.

His desire to be an artist, and to improvise,

began at an early age in his home town of Kansas City.

To understand Charlie Parker's influence,

you first have to understand how bebop came about,

and how it differs from other jazz styles.

Now, jazz is intricate to say the least,

and historically, there's a lot of moving parts.

So here's a brief summary.

Musically, jazz owes its roots to three genres.

The rhythm of ragtime,

the orchestral instruments of concert music,

most notably from Sicilian traditions,

and the feeling of the blues.

Geographically, there are four cradles of jazz.

New York, Chicago, Kansas City,

and the birthplace of the genre, New Orleans.

Born during the start of the 20th century,

jazz grew out of African-American communities

and bands often consisted of the cornet or trumpet,

tuba, banjo and trombone.

Chicago replaced the tuba and banjo

with upright bass and guitar,

and added a drum kit.

Greater solo space, fixed ensembles

and a more prominent role for the rhythm section

are key.

You can really hear that in Benny Goodman's

"Sing, Sing, Sing."

(Sing, sing, Sing plays)

At the same time, Kansas City emphasized larger ensembles,

saxophone sections, the blues, riff melodies

and strong walking bass.

(Moten's Swing plays)

During the late 1920's, New York City began to experience

a thriving nightlife scene,

with an over-abundance of venues available.

Over the next decade, jazz orchestras from both

Chicago and Kansas City packed up

and headed to Manhattan.

This surge of talent allowed New York City

to adapt and develop different types of jazz,

most notably, big band swing music.

For example, listen to Duke Ellington's

"It don't mean a thing".

(It don't mean a thing plays)

During world war two, however,

with musicians joining the military and heading overseas,

these large orchestras began to shrink.

For this reason, the 1940's saw a surge

in smaller ensembles,

such as quartets, and quintets.

Groups often consisted of one or two horns,

usually saxophone and or trumpet,

bass, drums and piano.

By nature of being a smaller ensemble,

improvisation and interaction flourished.

Enter Charlie Parker and the clubs he visited

on 12th and Vine in Kansas City,

where all night jam sessions acted as the heartbeat

of the local jazz scene.

One night, at just 16 years old, Bird tried jamming

but fumbled several times.

The session ended abruptly when Jo Jones, Basie's drummer,

dropped his cymbal on the floor.

Young Parker was not talented enough

to keep up with the musical veterans.

Humiliated, Charlie sulked back home,

and began practicing diligently,

vowing to return to 12th street, and quote

"Show those cats."

To tell us more about the next steps of Charlie's journey,

I reached out to Chuck Haddix,

a Charlie Parker biographer and the director

of the Marr Sound Archives, a collection of

380,000 historic sound recordings,

at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

- Next summer, he went back to Mussers,

and Mussers is in the Ozarks area of Missouri,

it's known as Little Dixie.

It's racially hostile territory,

so they stayed on-site at the resort.

Since he couldn't go out to the clubs

or do anything like that,

he took that time to practice his horn,

and he went to what is often referred to as woodshedding.

And he mastered his horn, and according to all accounts

when he returned to Kansas City in the fall of 1937,

he was musically transformed, a transformed musician.

- You said the woodshed, and historically

that's the place that you go where

nobody can hear you, and you can just

express yourself to the fullest, you know,

get all your chops out,

but that's a word that has been adopted

by the drum community.

We're literally shedding the wood on our sticks

and we're like, its the mentality, they're like

"We're in the woodshed", so we gotta like give our best,

we gotta go there, we gotta try do things,

we gotta take what we can take from each other,

we're gonna share what we can share.

It's those long hours in the shed

that change your playing experience,

that change what your able to output.

One night, in 1939, after returning

to the jazz scene in New York,

Charlie Parker was playing 'Cherokee' in a jam session

with guitarist William 'Biddy' Fleet,

when he hit upon a method for developing his solos

that enabled one of his main musical innovations.

He realized that the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale

can lead melodically to any key,

breaking some of the confines of simpler jazz soloing.

To tell us more about Charlie's innovation,

we talked to renowned Kansas City jazz musician

Bobby Watson.

Well I know that I'm talking to a legend right now,

to jazz royalty.

I know that that's true.

- Yeah, I'm a legend in my own mind.

- Can you talk about a little bit of

his discovery of the semitone changes?

- All Charlie Parker did was take Lester Young, Prez,

and he took it and he extended it.

Prez was a very lyrical player.

He composed on top of the changes.

And semitone, in my world, is a half step,

which is going from this,

(plays saxophone)

as opposed to a whole step.

(plays saxophone)

Now, if you go a bunch of these,

(plays saxophone)

you know, and on up, if you do it one after the other,

it's a chromatic scale.

(plays saxophone)

- The sauciest stuff, the most killingest stuff,

is little chunks of chromatic movement.

- Here's the thing, it depends on the rhythm,

of how you play the chromatic.

Say if I outline a dominant chord.

(plays saxophone)

Now if I wanna outline those chords using a chromatic scale,

I would emphasize.

(plays saxophone)

So I go,

(plays saxophone)

So it sounds like it fits that.

It's the same notes, but it's where I put the accents

that make it usable.

- It takes the listener on a rollercoaster ride,

'cause he's starting in a place and you're not sure,

his accents seem like it's gonna throw you off

but it always ends up making sense.

That's so similar to, like, drummers,

that I end up listening to, that I like.

Some cats would be like, "Oh what's happening,

oh, is he gonna keep the beat, oh it stayed right on beat."

Or even some, some, some rappers.

- That's it, we're talking about Bird,

and we're talking about rhythm.

A strong rhythm is better than a good note.

It's 'Cherokee' for your listeners, you know,

and it kinda goes like this.

(plays Cherokee)

Then it repeats again.

- Right.

- Prez would probably do something like this.

One, two, a one two three four.

(plays saxophone)

And then Bird, he would take it and go...

(plays saxophone)

He was still melodic.

- But it was extended in depth.

- [Bobby] Yeah.

At lightning speed he could change directions, adapt.

It didn't matter where he started an idea

or where he ended an idea,

and all these things shaped my image

of what I think Bird was and what qualities he possessed.

(jazz music plays)

- Bird's technique of blistering rhythm

and spontaneous extended chromatic chord structure

that he honed through his time in the woodshed,

bought him a newfound legitimacy in the national jazz scene.

This eventually lead to him headlining

the opening night of the New York jazz club, Birdlane,

that would become his namesake.

Not only did his style shape what came to be known as bebop,

but it also influenced the styles of legends

that he played alongside,

from Dizzy Gillespie to Thelonius Monk

to Miles Davis to John Coltrane.

Elements of the resulting bebop style

have gone on to influence legendary MC's like Rakim,

(I ain't no joke plays)

to the syncopated rhythms of Tool drummer Danny Carey,

(Pneuma plays)

to contemporary jazz composers like Kamasi Washington.

(Truth plays)

Tracking the influence of Parker's bebop

is like trying to follow all the ripples

across the face of a massive lake.

The effect stretches so far,

that it simply informs the subconscious

of nearly every aspect of music made in the present day.

Bebop was about freedom of expression,

and escaping the harmonic and melodic restraints

imposed by the old musical order.

So above all the technical innovations

Parker brought to the world of music,

it's the spirit of imagination, and emphasis

on imparting your own style,

that stands as his lasting legacy.

That's all we have on Charlie Parker's bebop,

but if you wanna see more,

check out (indistinct) video journey

in understanding the style from the lens

of a classically trained musician.

In the meantime, I'm gonna be in the woodshed.

(drums and jazz playing)

- Now if I was gonna do it, I would do it like this.

(plays saxophone)

That's me.


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