Alto saxophone players mark the centenary of the birth of Charlie Parker

Sebastian writes: The centenary of Charlie Parker’s birth falls today, 29 August 2020.

We asked alto saxophonists two questions: first to describe thoughts and feelings which the centenary evokes. The second, optional, question was to “point our readers in the direction of a track of yours (or a tune of his) which particularly gives you a sense either of being under his vast shadow or needing to escape from it.”

He is an inspiration as an artist. How to take something and make it your own. To strive to do something unique and forward thinking. To break “rules”. There was that period [when I listened often to his music]. It informed me and launched me into other things. I think that’s what a great artist can represent for someone moving forward. Some of the feelings that it evokes are of NYC and how that was my life for 36 years. And how his presence, decades before before I got there, was still felt at every turn.

Track: A track that shows that, and clearly acknowledges his presence would be a tune that he played and I recorded in homage to that presence. Sippin’ at Bells 

When I first heard Charlie Parker – the record was Bird on 52nd Street – that record frightened me. It frightened me, and it was the most exciting music I’d ever heard, and it was also talking of partials that I could not, as a young man, understand exactly… Charlie Parker solidified all of the language dynamics that took place in his time period and, like Louis Armstrong before him, his language would express the -– what’s the word? -– brilliance of the era and all the people who had worked to solidify bebop… His work made it possible for the intellectual and vibrational dynamics of African-American creativity to be carried further. It’s because of Charlie Parker that we have the lineage moving into John Coltrane, to Albert Ayler, later to Roscoe Mitchell and Joseph Jarman.

A hundred years and still he sounds like no one I’ve ever heard. Ahead of his own time and ours. I often wonder what he would sound like playing with a modern day rhythm section – how would he have sounded in his later years? A natural transformation of his sound and ideas would have been inevitable, or would his vices have compromised his playing ability altogether. That being said, what he has left us is the crystal clear sound of innovation that makes me feel as if 100 years may have come a little too soon.

Track: Embraceable You (Take 2) – by the Quintet from 1947 – is everything I need as a reminder of the wealth of Parker’s playing. I’ve never felt the need to escape it, only to improve my approach to it.

Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and John Coltrane are thought of as the essential jazz improvisers who historically advanced the art form. Charlie Parker, in his brief 34 years, set a standard for spontaneity, originality and the extraordinary use of sophisticated harmony for artists who followed, as diverse as Lee Konitz, Warne Marsh, Bud Powell, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson… and an endless list of creative improvisers.

Charlie Parker is one of the most influential musicians for me in terms of my musical education. His centenary makes me feel very emotional mainly because of his relevance and influence even today in 2020 but also because of his revolutionism – he was a musical pioneer. It also makes me feel proud that during some of the bleakest times politically in the States for black people, he was somebody who never let that dim his light or musical prowess. His genius is timeless and this is something which I feel only a true artist can attain.

Charlie Parker was not only a musician of the highest order; in beauty, sophistication of melody and rhythm, phrasing, and compositional improvisation, but a man of outstanding intelligence and consummate representation of the equality of African Americans. His contributions at a time of hope and change remind us of the continuing struggle and constant battle to overcome the stain of racial oppression throughout humanity.

Track: All of us whose music follows the guidance of Charlie Parker are under his vast shadow and must escape from it. This is not a burden but an ideal. In this tiresome revisiting of humanity’s struggle for fairness, equal treatment and opportunity, I point you to my composition Justice from my latest recording Hypocrisy Democracy. The journey continues.

His impact on the evolution of jazz cannot be overstated – he changed everything. He was my first big influence as a player, but I do not feel the need to escape from under his shadow. Rather, I revel in the continuous inspiration that his playing provides – the indefatigable energy and endless stream of ideas. Inevitably there is a certain amount of sadness attached to the anniversary; he died so tragically young. What might he have gone on to achieve? How would his playing and composing have evolved? We’ll never really know – all we can do is celebrate his incredible legacy, and hope that it will continue to inspire successive generations of players and listeners.

We mortals have been grappling with the innovation and genius of Charlie Parker for the part best of a century. In his playing I hear the elision of past, present and future. He distilled the Kansas Blues, the most avant-garde Bartok and 20th classical music, and breath-taking virtuosity, swing, and everything in between. Although called a ‘boy’ throughout most of his life, his innovations and skill (despite such a short life) stands him a towering colossus of 20th century music.

Track: I’ve never felt ‘under his vast shadow’, but a bootleg recording of Star Eyes made me feel like I was soaring above the alto-cirrus. I felt set free by his sound and playing as a teenager, and haven’t put the alto down since.

To me, Charlie Parker means the point at which I really started to learn and deal with the saxophone on an emotional and technical level. His music opened my ears, mind and heart, his language evoked a feeling that allowed me not to be afraid of expressing myself on and off the stage. Charlie Parker’s music set the benchmark for the next hundred years, and for generations to come.

Track:: Charlie Parker with Strings: Just Friends

When I heard Charlie Parker the first time I was really amazed, but I wasn’t pulled in yet. It took a little while. And then as I studied his playing I couldn’t avoid being fascinated by this master musician playing my instrument. One night, at Birdland, he was having a problem with his alto, and asked to borrow mine. I listened with amazement at what came out of that instrument! When he gave it back, I said I would appreciate it if he left some of that great stuff in the horn for me!

Charlie Parker’s innovation and genius are still very much alive. It’s easy to think that his work is obsolete just because it was created over 70 years ago. The reality is that no one on the planet plays better than Charlie Parker and no one is doing more to propel this music forward than he did. Charlie Parker is not obsolete. His gifts are timeless and boundless. While we bask in the brilliance of Bird and his forward-thinking and groundbreaking concepts and ideas, let’s not forget that one of Parker’s greatest assets was his dedication to perfecting his craft. His drive, determination, persistence, perseverance, and hard work should be considered an exemplary path forward for anyone wishing to be the best they can be regardless of field or discipline.

The reason Bird is still talked about and relevant now is because of his level of excellency. He was so developed as an artist at such an early age. He was this almost perfect, complete musician and jazz musician and improviser – he did so many things well. It is a level of excellence not mundane or trapped by time. You can equate Bird with Bach. His improvisation was so clean and perfect it sounds like it was written. He could snatch something out of the air and it was letter-perfect. Maybe people have got close, but that level has not been surpassed. Not just alto players but everyone who plays or sings, whether they are aware or not, has learned from Charlie Parker.

Bird, without question, shaped the art form of jazz as we know it today with his genius. His music touched all musicians who heard him and gave us all the standard by which we measure ourselves as artists, whether we choose to follow him or seek to find a different voice. The art of bebop that he gave us stands strong as a powerful art form in itself and is an incredible legacy that has been created, as significant today as when it was first heard over seventy years ago, yet, he was an individualist who most admired other individualists! I think it is this that makes the life of Charlie Parker so uniquely important in the history of our music.

Parker’s music is more or less the blueprint for anyone who plays the saxophone. Professionals, semi-pros, amateurs, everyone inevitably hits the point where they become involved with Parker’s music. It doesn’t actually matter how deeply people are able to pursue their involvement, because his music is so essential, it will offer up all kinds of discoveries at any level. So for professional musicians, Parker has an automatic influence on the music we make, no matter the style we play in. For me, going back to his tunes and his solos and playing them is a source of joy every time. And of course some of his records are among my all-time favourites.

I owe my life in music to Charlie Parker. I remember at the age of 16, searching record stores for his classic recordings and playing basketball in my driveway during summer break while Bird blasted through an upstairs window. After school and on weekends I would try to play along with his records but failed miserably. At the very least, I was determined to fit my sound inside his, stealing his magic for my own. Although his music was a mystery to me, it inspired a feeling that excellence, beauty, and individuality were essentials of life that one had to seek. My life has been spent in pursuit of these ideals. His music to me exemplifies the highest expression of human achievement, filled equally with dignity, courage, humour, tenderness, and frailty.

It feels normal and right to be celebrating the centenary of a complete genius. Parker is one of the top team who deserve nothing less: Bach, Mozart… Like them, he changed the course of music from where it had been going before him. My first encounter was when I was about 7 or 8. My mother bought me an Italian disc in a supermarket, “I Grandi del Jazz”. I listened to “Koko”. I must be honest: I couldn’t stand it, I simply didn’t have the first clue what it was all about. Quite a few years later, though, “With Strings” changed my world. It was everything I loved, it made my heart sing. Parker’s massive strength is his fragility. He’s always on a knife-edge. You’re constantly thinking: is this going to work? It always does.

This centenary is a great time to go back to one of the major voices in the history of music, the one who opened the doors for modern jazz, who gave the big step to melodic and harmonic complexity in improvisation, always being a lyrical and singing voice

Track:: Compersion, from my record with Joe Magnarelli, trying to keep the essence of jazz and bop but also trying to give it a touch of modernity

Anniversaries like these make me wonder what the artists might have created had they survived even a few years longer. How would Charlie Parker have sounded with Herbie Hancock in the 1960s? Parker was the first of the great alto saxophonists I remember hearing. Those extended choruses at blistering tempos were revelatory. I also loved his sound on ballads and, especially, the blues. For my 40th Birthday I re-created and re-imagined some of his With Strings repertoire. Placing my ears inside those famous arrangements in a live setting was a profound experience.

Track:: Lester Leaps In from Live at Rockland Palace, a great example of Parker in full flight.

Charlie Parker is an example for a lot of alto saxophonists worldwide and always will be. He was one of the saxophonists who had a big influence on me when I studied alto saxophone as a young musician, so I have always been inspired by him but also many other great saxophonists were very important for me as well. Tracks such as Lover Man and many more are unforgettable. I always tried to compose, play and work in other ways myself, and play with different musical disciplines. In my opinion it is important as a musician not to copy others but to create and find your own musical language to communicate but he was definitely a big inspiration.

Charlie Parker was both the inventor and the greatest practitioner of the artform that the rest of us are still trying to learn, 65 years after his death. The instrument he played is almost irrelevant, since the beauty and majesty of everything he played transcends such trivialities. That said, his shadow looms particularly large for alto players such as myself. Despite being so familiar with his sound, his dexterity, and the language he left us with, I’m still often brought close to tears when I listen to him, and am blown away more than anything else by the humanity of the man, as expressed through his horn. Whether you’re inclined to imitate him or not, you can’t (nor should you wish to) escape the weight of his influence.

Track:: Milestones from my last record, Four Forty One


On the 100th anniversary of his birth we’re just beginning to scratch the surface of what he brought to the world: his style of playing, his phrasing, his spontaneity, his spirit… it is just mind-blowing. For the next 100 years we’ll be still trying to learn. A lot of it is beyond analysing and theory. It is about his spirit and the way he thought about music, about his instrument, what it meant to him – and his gargantuan imagination.

(We spoke to Bobby Watson after the date of the centenary, and his full thoughts are in THIS FEATURE

Charlie Parker’s musical language is the basic DNA on which the vast majority of us learn to improvise. His compositions and improvisations gave us new complexities in harmony and rhythm, and new melodic shapes that were simultaneously elegant and uncanny – all while being steeped in the blues. He is as influential as any artist that came before or after him.

Track:: Ha! That’s a constant, though one that comes to mind is a Greg Gisbert recording on Criss Cross, On Second Thought on which we played Bird’s tune Segment.

Listening to the recordings again I am struck by the freedom and joy in his playing. Something about the passion in his sound, the vitality of his rhythmic conception – it was all so fresh and new and his love of life just shines through in every note. They were having fun, taking risks, playing and living on the edge. Maybe there’s a danger we’ve lost some of that sometimes.

Having a truly towering figure in jazz, life and more specifically adventures in alto saxophone is above all things a great comfort and a definitive source to constantly refer to. In his relatively short time on earth he set out some extraordinary extremes, some off stage I would always seek to avoid and some on stage that I can only dream of.

Track: He was (and remains) at the centre of so much great music but I’d have to mention Yardbird Suite as before I even knew so much about its composer many would make the association for me which all helped my discovery of jazz and beyond. Bird reminds me you can ultimately only travel your own path.

Bird is my greatest inspiration as a musician… I truly believe he’s the most influential instrumentalist in the history of jazz and that his contributions are imposible to measure…With his centennial coming up, I can’t help but think about how ahead of his time he was; this is music made about 70 years ago and still today I hear it and have to shake my head in amazement…

Track: I had to think pretty hard about this, but I guess there could be some similarities between Bird’s Scrapple From The Apple and a tune I recorded recently called Colobo…totally different tunes (of course), but the harmonic progression is similar and the material we’re using to improvise is definitely “Bird-inspired”.


(*)  Quoted in Graham Lock (1988) Forces in Motion: Anthony Braxton and the Meta-reality of Creative Music (London, Quartet Books)
(**) The posthumous quote from Lee Konitz is courtesy of Andy Hamilton and is from his book Lee Konitz: Conversations on the Improviser’s Art (U.o.Michigan 2018)
(***) This piece originally appeared in German HERE

The grave of Charlie Parker alongside his mother Addie at Lincoln Cemetery, 809 E Truman Rd, Kansas City. Photo credit: KCJazzLark blog

A huge thank you to all the contributors who took the time and the trouble to answer our questions, and also to Rob Adams, Ann Braithwaite, Christophe Deghelt, Tony Dudley-Evans, Andy Hamilton, Alex Hawkins, Stephen Keogh, Larry Kopitnik, Nadja von Massow and Roland Spiegel for their invaluable assistance.

And, above all, to one very great musician. If only he could have stayed among us much, much longer.

7 replies »

  1. We are all in Parker’s debt. Taken far too soon. I’m still finding new things in his music; hearing a piece after a while still causes a frisson.

    Just a thought; one interviewee (Will) believes it is 75 years since Bird’s passing. A minor typo, but it is 65 years- you got in early!

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