Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

September/October 2012: The Bad Plus

Charlie Parker: Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker

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Charlie “Yardbird” Parker’s contribution to the invention of the style of jazz called bebop makes him one of the most important jazz musicians of all time. To many he’s also considered the greatest saxophonist in jazz. As a composer, he was responsible for several songs that have become standards, such as “Ornithology,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Ko-Ko,” and “Anthology.”

While he was one of the most innovative and creative musicians, at the same time he was one of the most unstable artists jazz has known. In 1946, after an evening of heavy drug and alcohol use, Parker returned to his Los Angeles hotel room. A lit cigarette started a fire in his mattress, and Parker caused a disturbance when he ran out into the lobby wearing only his socks. This incident led to Parker being committed to Camarillo State Hospital, a California institution for the mentally ill, for six months. In 1954, back in New York, he attempted suicide twice before being admitted to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital.

Growing up in Kansas City, Parker was so taken by the music scene there that he dropped out of school when he was fourteen to play full time. The following year, he married his first wife and started using heroin. In 1937, he joined Jay McShann’s band. Along the way he acquired the nickname Yardbird, later shortened to Bird. The nickname either came from Parker’s fondness for chicken (yardbird is a southern word for chicken) or from the way he played, flying quickly over the keys on his alto sax.

In 1939, Parker pawned a friend’s clarinet to buy a bus ticket to New York City, and in time he became involved in jam sessions at a club in Harlem called Minton’s Playhouse. It was there Parker and trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, among others, took the big band music of the swing era and refashioned it, paring away pop melodies and adding back extended chord-based improvisations as a key feature. This was bebop. It caught on right away among jazz musicians eager for new horizons.

Even to the seasoned jazz fan, the number of CDs in the Charlie Parker catalogue can be overwhelming. A great place to start is with the mind-blowing The Yardbird Suite: The Ultimate Charlie Parker [Rhino #72260], which consists of thirty-eight songs recorded on a double CD.

The set starts in 1945 with one of the greatest musical collaborations in jazz, Parker’s recordings with Dizzy Gillespie. The classics “Salt Peanuts,” “Hot House,” and “Groovin’ High” are here. The spontaneous interaction of Parker and Gillespie sounds as if they shared the same heartbeat.

There are other songs jazz fans will recognize. The ironically titled “Relaxin’ at the Camarillo” was recorded in Los Angeles after Parker’s stay at the institution. Parker’s frantic “Moose the Mooche” was named for one of his drug connections; “Yardbird Suite” is a melodic, mid-tempo version of a song Parker wrote as a teenager called “What Price Love”; “Ornithology” was based on “How High the Moon.” All three tunes feature a very young Miles Davis on the frontline, playing trumpet.

The genuine longevity of these recordings is a testament to their importance to jazz. Many of them define this innovative era in jazz and show bebop at its pinnacle. There are quite simply some of the best jazz recordings ever made. Miraculously, even strung out on drugs and alcohol, Parker was able to perform at the highest creative level.

Besides the musical brilliance, what makes this package essential to own is that it is the first multi-label “best of “ compilation to be released. The “best of” packages that came before it had been put out by one label to promote one artist’s essential tracks. For Rhino to prepare this retrospective, six labels participated: Guild, Savoy, Columbia, Musicraft, Dial, and Clef (Verve).

On March 12, 1955, Charlie Parker died while watching jugglers on Tommy Dorsey’s TV variety show at New York’s Stanhope Hotel in the apartment of his friend and patron, Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter. The coroner identified his body as being that of a male close to sixty. Parker was thirty-four. He was broke.

In February 2005, in a stroke of irony, Parker’s alto sax, which he often pawned when he needed fast cash, was sold for more than a quarter of a million dollars.

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