JAZZ APPRECIATION : CHARLIE PARKER - The Art of Improvisation

Friday, June 23, 2017

The evolution of the music called Jazz came in progression. It all started with the slave songs which developed into the Blues and then came into confluence with the sound of the Marching Bands to create new music that is all encompassing, diverse and full of quality.

The progression of the music from the swing era with ragtime, to modern jazz, announced the arrival of jazz musicians who were modernist in their approach to music and served as daring exponents of the new and bold.

Jazz music is all about creativity, innovation and talent. Very often, connections are drawn between Jazz and African music, but it is important to note that the griots of West Africa aimed to preserve their musical tradition as it is handed down to them.

This is not a mere aesthetic choice, but a cultural imperative. The griots are the historians of society and must maintain the integrity of their precious musical heritage. Such an attitude defies casual experimentation and any modification in the music is viewed as a risky act, never encouraged and at best tolerated with anxiety and distrust. The concept of progress plays a very modest role in most ethnic music, but in the world of Jazz progress is always being sought and innovation is the order of the day.

Almost from the very beginning, jazz players embraced a different mandate, accepting their role as entertainers while pursuing experimentation with an ardent zeal. This created a paradoxical foundation for Jazz which is still as relevant today; for the jazz musician proved to be a restless soul, at one moment fostering the tradition just like the West African griot, at another shattering it, mindless of the pieces. It is interesting to note that this progressive attitude among early jazz players came from America’s most disempowered underclass. We would like to recall that this music was not accepted by the ruling class and was often belittled and derided even within the ranks of the black community.

 In light of this hostility, the task of preserving the African American vernacular music heritage would seem difficult to achieve, but to have advanced the jazz idiom to produce an Ellington or an Armstrong was truly a major accomplishment, taking into account that all this happened in the span of one generation bringing about a rapid and dramatic transformation from folk music to art music.

This was simply an extension of jazz’s inherent tendency to mutate, to change and grow. As early as 1931, journalist were comparing Ellington to Stravinsky and a few years later, Benny Goodman was making a more overt attempt to affiliate himself with contemporary classical music. Other modernist leanings surfaced with the likes of Art Tatum and Coleman Hawkins.

The irony of modern jazz is that it did not spring from none of these roots. Although it drew bits and pieces of inspiration from all these developments, the leading jazz modernist of the 40’s developed their own unique style, brash and unapologetic, in backrooms, after hour clubs and jam sessions. Modern jazz or bebop as it soon came to be called, rebelled against the popular trappings of swing music and brought about a radical change of how traditional jazz instruments were played. The boppers were not formalist; they were preoccupied with content and not form with instrumental solos being at the heart of each performance. The individualism of beboppers was fired further by the fact that those who were involved in this progression were African Americans who were marginalized at a critical juncture in U. S history.

The first generation of jazz players had succeeded as entertainers, and white America was content with that, and celebrated them on that level. However, the black jazz players of the 40’s wanted more. They demanded acceptance as artists and esteemed practitioners of a serious musical form. The birth of modern jazz emerged at a strange crossroads: drawing on one side from the roots and rhythms of Kansas City jazz and while delving into the atmosphere of high art. One of the leading exponents of modern jazz was a guy called Charlie Parker.

He was born in Kansas City, Kansas, but raised in Kansas City Missouri. He attended Lincoln High School where at the age of fourteen, he joined the school band, using a rented instrument to practice. He is a saxophonist and composer. In the 1930’s, Parker began to practice diligently and mastered the art of improvisation which lead to the development of some of the ideas that led to bebop.

He once told an interviewer that he spent about 3 to 4 years practicing up to 15 hours a day. Bands led by Count Bassie and Bennie Moten greatly influenced his musical direction, and he would play with local bands in jazz clubs around Kansas City, Missouri, taking time to perfect his technique with the assistance of a musician called Buster Smith. In 1938, Parker joined pianist Jay McShann’s Terriitory Band and toured nightclubs and other venues of the southwest, as well as Chicago and New York City. His professional recording debut began with McShann’s band.

As a teenager, Parker developed an addiction to morphine while in hospital after an automobile accident. He acquired the nickname “Yardbird” early in his carrier which inspired the titles of a number of his compositions, such as “Yardbird Suite”. He was an icon for the subculture generation and was seen as an uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than just an entertainer. In 1939 Parker moved to New York City to pursue a carrier in music where he met the likes of Art Tatum, Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie joining them at jam sessions whenever possible. He joined a group of young musicians and played in after hour clubs in Harlem with an attitude that demonstrated their interest to “play music that white bandleaders could not play”.

Early in its development, this new type of music was rejected by many of the established traditional jazz musicians who disdained their younger counterparts. During the mid-forties, much of bebop’s early development was not captured for posterity. It was not until 1945 that Parker’s collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach began to hit the airwaves and made an impact on the jazz world. On November 1945, Parker led a record date for the Savoy label, recording as Charlie Parker’s Reboppers, the record was marketed as the “greatest jazz session ever.” In November 1949, Norman Granz arranged for Parker to record an album of ballads with a mixed group of jazz and chamber orchestra musicians. The releases from these sessions included “Charlie Parker with Strings”, “Just Friends” and “Everything Happens to Me”.

Parker’s associated acts are with Miles Davis and Max Roach. His musical carrier was short-lived because of his addiction to heroin which also caused him to miss many gigs and lose work.

He finally succumbed to this condition and died in March 1955. He leaves a legacy rich with quality and a whole generation of musicians still trying to emulate his style.

The life of Charlie Parker cannot be captured in full here, but we featured him only to show his pivotal role in the development of Modern Jazz.

This article is dedicated to Antouman Gaye esq, a man of the word and a true jazz enthusiast.

Thank you for continuing to read this column. 

Author: Mahtarr E. Njai
Source: Picture: CHARLIE PARKER