Blue Notes

Bird Flies Again...But Hopes to Land in Some New Nests

Charlie Parker: One of the architects of bebop jazz.
Charlie Parker: One of the architects of bebop jazz. William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S . Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress

Today, their names are among the highest of jazz titans, familiar even generations after they laid down their most famous work: Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Charlie Parker.

But it’s easy to forget that when these jazz men first started playing the new strain of bebop in the late ’40s and early ‘50s, it was considered by many a radical music. By audiences—and fellow players—more used to the swinging sounds of big bands they danced to led by men like Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Chick Webb, or Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey.

Craft Recordings cover
“Bebop was revolutionary, but not completely out of left field. More precisely, it was evolutionary,” says Grammy-winning jazz writer and broadcaster Neil Tesser. “These guys were listening to all the swing giants, that’s where they learned their craft. And what they did is sort of an extension, but they pushed it pretty far.”

Tesser’s latest project was writing the liner notes to the new Charlie Parker compilation The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection (Craft Recordings). Available on both vinyl and CD, it collects Savoy's four volumes of the New Sounds in Modern Music series, cut between 1944-48. This year also marks Parker's 100th birthday.

The record industry’s original 33 1/3 rpm LPs were released in the 10-inch format, which allowed 12-15 minutes of music per side. It was a vast improvement over the 3-5 minutes for a 78 rpm, but still less than the 20-23 minutes for the 12-inch LP that was favored for classical and Broadway music (though it would later become the standard for all musical genres).

Fun fact! Tesser writes that the term record “album” originated when music aficionados would buy large, scrapbook-like albums to hold their easily-breakable 78s, often six pages, with an empty sleeve on each side. Thus, 12 songs would be collected into an “album” – which could be all of one artist or mixed.

Bebop music is was such a radical departure from jazz to that point because it favored improvisation, lengthy solos, frequent key/chord changes, varied progressions, and speed – much, much more speed. It was music to be mostly listened to and not danced to, usually in intimate night clubs and not huge ballrooms.

Everything was faster. It was reflecting the faster pace of American life after World War II. Speed was a very important component of musicians expressing their virtuosity on the bandstand or in cutting contests,” Tesser notes. And indeed, these many a man’s musical rep was made or broken in these after-hours, informal “contests.”

“It brought new colors to the music and gave a springboard for improvisations,” he continues. “Basic chords have three notes, and that’s limiting. But a chord with nine notes gives you far more possibilities.”

Aiding the development of bebop were the numerous jazz clubs clustered together within walking distance of each other in cities like New York, Chicago, and Kansas City, where musicians could experiment. A strike by members of the American Federation of Musicians against record companies over royalties put the kibosh on recording any new music between 1942 and 1944 (but not radio or live performances), so it made the transition seem even more seismic.

Of the 28 tracks on The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection, there are many “canon” tunes of both Parker (whose nickname was “Bird”) and bebop: “Now’s the Time,” “Chasin’ the Bird,” “Ko-Ko,” “Billie’s Bounce,” “Parker’s Mood,” and “Confirmation” in addition to deeper cuts. Still, Tesser says in writing the liner notes, he had to ask himself an important question: Who is this latest compilation really for?

Charlie "Bird" Parker
William P. Gottlieb/Ira and Leonore S . Gershwin Fund Collection, Music Division, Library of Congress
“I myself have these same tunes on probably six different Charlie Parker reissues. And everyone who is a jazz fan or Charlie Parker fan has these tunes,” he says. “I figure it had to be people in their 20’s and 30’s who have gotten back into vinyl and aren’t really familiar with Charlie Parker. And we didn’t need another essay explaining who he was or what he did.”

But in his essay, rather than rehash stories of the session or Parker’s life, Tesser attempts to draw a parallel between bebop and hip-hop, and how Parker’s legacy affects modern jazz players.

“You hear it a lot from the hip hop artists. They were saying how bebop and hip hop were both outsider music that became mainstream,” he offers in conversation.

“But the rhythms in bebop are organic. In hip hop, they’re usually machines. And they can’t really breathe and grow with what else is happening on stage. I’ve always found the comparison a little problematic, but there is a real parallel there.”

Finally, some people who don’t even know the music of Charlie Parker are at least somewhat familiar with his tragic fate. Long addicted to heroin, he died in 1955 of a combination of health problems both related to and exacerbated by his hard living at the age of 34. But Tesser hopes that the brilliance of the music speaks for itself, regardless of the life story of Charlie Parker.

“First, I think you always have to separate the art from the artist. I mean, the movie Amadeus showed that Mozart was kind of a putz. But it didn’t change his music,” he offers. “But with Charlie Parker, there’s mitigating factors. Any addict will tell you when things are difficult, people take drastic measures to escape. And being a black musician in the 1940’s playing a radical music was a great [pressure]. There were many people who thought if you wanted to play like Bird, you had to shoot up like Bird. Now, he never put that out there, but he had this mystique and charisma, so people would make that leap.”

He adds that the low pay, lack of respect, and a lifestyle of playing until 3 or 4 in the morning made the allure of drugs even more powerful. As well as the pressure that Parker – who never wanted to play the same thing the same way twice – put on himself to be an “instant composer” on stage…for 4 or 5 sets an evening.

“It was tragic, and he tried to get off [heroin] a few times,” Tesser sums up. “He was hardly the only musician in that situation. But he was a shining, meteoric star who influenced a lot of people.” And, Tesser hopes, The Savoy 10-Inch LP Collection will influence a whole new audience for Charlie Parker and his magical saxophone.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero