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The Birth Of Bird: Young Charlie Parker Found Focus, Faith In Music

Charlie Parker started playing as a boy, when his mother gave him a saxophone to cheer him up after his father left. He went on to spearhead a musical revolution.
Michael Ochs Archives
Getty Images
Charlie Parker started playing as a boy, when his mother gave him a saxophone to cheer him up after his father left. He went on to spearhead a musical revolution.

Charlie "Bird" Parker was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. In his brief life, Parker created a new sound on the alto saxophone and spearheaded a revolution in harmony and improvisation that pushed popular music from the swing era to bebop and modern jazz.

In Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, scholar and author Stanley Crouch tells the story of Parker's early years and his rise to prominence. But Crouch says he didn't want to tell the same old story of young black musicians overcoming obstacles.

"These guys, they thought about life," he says. "Oh yes, they thought about being colored, but they also thought about life. And people came to hear you because you played life. It wasn't because you played, 'Oh, I'm just a poor colored man over here, just doing some poor colored things. I'm thinking about my poor colored girl and how the white man is not going to let us blah blah.' That wasn't what they were playing."

'I Put Quite A Bit Of Study Into The Horn'

Crouch's book opens with a triumphant moment in Parker's career. It's February 1942 and the 21-year-old alto player is on the bandstand at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, performing with the Jay McShann Orchestra for a live radio broadcast. He steps up to solo and Crouch explains what happens next:

In 1980, the late pianist and bandleader Jay McShann described how Parker's sound grabbed him the first time he heard it.

"One particular night, I happened to be coming through the streets and I heard the sound coming out. And this was a different sound, so I went inside to see who was blowing," he said. "So I walked up to Charlie after he finished playing and I asked him, I said, 'Say man,' I said, 'where are you from?' I said, 'I thought I met most of the musicians around here.' Well, he says, 'I'm from Kansas City.' But he says, 'I've been gone for the last two or three months. Been down to the Ozarks woodshedding.' "

All that woodshedding — practicing in isolation, running through every tune in every key — took Parker's playing to the next level. In a 1954 radio interview, Parker told fellow alto player Paul Desmond that that was his goal from the beginning.

"I put quite a bit of study into the horn, that's true," he said. "In fact, the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once when we were living out West. She said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day. ... I did that for over a period of three or four years."

Crouch says Parker was intense about everything. When he was researching Kansas City Lightning, Parker's friend Bob Redcross told him that Parker had a deep intellectual curiosity.

"They read history books. They went to museums," Crouch says. "Redcross told me, once he said, 'Yes, Charles and I, we would sit and we would discuss Sherlock Holmes, or we would talk about history. We were always reading magazines. We were always doing stuff that people don't think that we did.'"

Stanley Crouch's previous works include <em>The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity </em>and <em>Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz.</em>
Zack Zook / Courtesy of Harper
Courtesy of Harper
Stanley Crouch's previous works include The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity and Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz.

Finding Redemption In 'Beautiful Notes'

Then there are the more well-known stories about Parker: He dropped out of high school and picked up a heroin habit; he married his teenaged sweetheart, then abandoned her and his child; he missed rehearsals and didn't show up for gigs. In 1942, McShann fired him.

"We told Bird to take a little vacation because we were in Detroit, and he got feeling pretty good there, you know," McShann remembered. "And so we says, 'Why don't you take a little vacation, Bird, and just cool it. And so he did."

Parker may have neglected his personal and professional relationships, but Crouch says he was never unfaithful to his music.

"The thing to me that's most inspirational about Charlie Parker is that he felt that you could only redeem yourself for bad things by doing something that was beautiful," he says. "He felt that he could give the world beautiful notes."

Crouch is currently writing the second volume of his Parker biography, which will cover the saxophonist's New York career, the 1940s bebop revolution and Parker's death in 1955 at the age of 34.

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Tom Vitale