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:
When the band started throwing up stock riffs behind him, Parker sidestepped the familiar shapes, issuing his responses from deep in left field.
… Each chorus was getting hotter; it was clear, from the position of his body and the sound of his horn, that Charlie Parker was not going to give in. All the nights he had worked on it, the flubs, the fumblings, the sore lips, mouth, and tongue, the cramped fingers — they all paid off that afternoon. Suddenly, the man with the headphones was signaling McShann, Don’t stop! Don’t stop! Keep on playing!
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.’ “