If you’re not yet a fan of jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, spend a few minutes with UNC Charlotte professor Will Campbell.
“His virtuosic approach to the saxophone was unmatched,” Campbell said. “The great jazz bassist Ray Brown once told me that there were people who played jazz really well, people who played blues really well, and people who sounded wonderful on their instrument. But Charlie Parker did it all – and he did it better than anyone.
Campbell wasn’t going to let Parker’s 100th birthday pass. COVID-19 postponed the party – but it didn’t cancel it.
“August 2020 would have been his 100th birthday,” Campbell said of the jazz legend, who died in 1955 at the age of 34. “But last fall there was not much anyone could do.
“I was supposed to be part of a gig with an ensemble I play with in the area (Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra) that had to be postponed indefinitely due to COVID,” he said. We were going to celebrate the lives of Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, who would both have turned 100 last year.
“I’m an alto saxophone player, which Charlie Parker used to play,” Campbell added. “And, he is very near and dear to me. After perhaps Louis Armstrong, he is the most influential jazz artist in the history of music.
Charlie Parker 101
Campbell came up with the idea for a tribute concert to his department chair, Joseph Skillen. Campbell wanted to recreate “Charlie Parker with Strings”, one of the most popular recordings of “Bird” and which was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“It’s not easy,” Campbell said. “Using string players in a jazz context is generally not done.”
But Skillen suggested more than a gig. He wanted a month-long, multifaceted celebration of Charlie Parker. “After missing the centennial, it occurred to me that we could title it Charlie Parker 101 and give it a college course flavor,” Campbell said.
The course kicked off Aug. 30 with Grammy-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis on the UNC Charlotte campus, teaching a masterclass on Parker and leading a public conversation that evening.
Campbell has known Marsalis – originally from New Orleans and now Durham – for three decades through his guitarist brother, Jeffrey (who, along with Marsalis, played in Sting’s band).
Even Parkerphiles like Campbell and Lonnie Davis, president, CEO and co-founder of Jazz Arts Charlotte and partner in bringing Charlie Parker 101 to life, have learned something from Marsalis.
“Branford highlighted Parker’s early career and the influence growing up in Kansas City had on his musicality,” Campbell said.
“Parker had the advantage of living in a city that at the time – in the 1930s and early 1940s, in particular – was fertile ground for great music, and a lot of that was due to the fact that Tom Pendergast, the mayor of Kansas City, ran a corrupt administration.Alcohol was readily available, as were many other vices.
“Where you have those kinds of opportunities for vice, there’s a need for music,” he said. “Kansas City had a neighborhood that was a huge center for jazz. Even musicians from New York moved to Kansas City, including Count Basie, who grew up in New Jersey.
“As a teenager, Charlie Parker would sneak out at night and go down to clubs and listen to these people play, and that had a huge effect on his musicality.”
The class is in session
Why are people still talking about – and celebrating – Parker, 101 years after his birth?
“He changed the language of jazz. He made it his vocabulary, and it’s a vocabulary we still use today,” Campbell said.
Parker was one of the founders of the Bebop style of jazz. Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell were other bebop musicians, but Parker is considered by many to be the first among equals.
Bebop introduced much more complex harmonies than had been heard before, Davis said, “It sounds very complex, and it actually is.” Fast tempos, musical virtuosity and improvisation, rather than fixed harmonic structures, are characteristic of the Bebop style.
Parker was also a prolific composer. “He was composing all the time when he was improvising,” Campbell said. “He was not primarily a composer of pen on paper, but his improvised solos are still worth analyzing and imitating by jazz musicians.”
The saxophonist basically wrote the book on jazz.
“No matter what instrument you play, every jazz musician at one time or another has chosen the Omnibook,” Davis said. “It’s literally a transcription of Charlie Parker’s recorded solos. And we, as jazz musicians and educators, think this book is so important because it contains so much language. If you can just grab a little of that vocabulary and incorporate it into your own sound, you can grow in leaps and bounds.
A life cut short
Parker received his nickname, “Yardbird” — which is usually shortened to “Bird” — while traveling with the Jay McShann Orchestra when their vehicle accidentally hit a chicken overnight in the country, Campbell said.
“At the time, black musicians couldn’t stay in all-white hotels,” he said. “They stayed with black families. The story goes that Charlie said to Jay McShann, “Stop and get that yard bird.” They brought the dead chicken to the family they were staying with. They cooked it for him and he ate it all himself.
The musician struggled with alcohol and drugs for much of his life. He started taking painkillers for a broken spine as a young man. “Eventually he abused his body so much that he just gave in,” Campbell said. “You could certainly say that a lack of decent health care at the time didn’t help, so he resorted to street drugs to manage the pain.”
“I worry that when we talk about Charlie Parker, we talk too quickly about his addiction to drugs and alcohol,” he added.
“There are a lot of musicians throughout history who have struggled with drug addiction, but we don’t always make that a primary point when we talk about them,” Campbell said. “We do this too often about Charlie Parker – and yes, he had a very serious problem – but his genius far, far outweighs his personal flaws.”
Charlie Parker 101 events
Check out all the Charlie Parker 101 events on the UNC Charlotte webpage. Programs include:
“Life of Bird” from Monday to October 18. The four-week interactive online course is offered by The Jazz Room and UNC Charlotte and is taught by UNC Charlotte musicologist Kelsey Klotz.
UNC Charlotte Jazz Ensemble and Combos, 7:30 p.m., Nov. 22. Belk Theater at UNC Charlotte.
“Charlie Parker: Reverberations,” Jan. 12, 2022. The event, presented in partnership with the Harvey B. Gantt Center of African-American Arts + Culture, will explore the intersections of jazz and art, architecture, urban design and literature and will include live music, spoken word performances and a panel discussion.
THE JAZZ ROOM: “Bird Lives! on January 14 and 15, 2022. The performance will feature Campbell.
“Charlie Parker with Strings,” March 3, 2022. The performance at Central Piedmont Community College’s Halton Theater will feature student ensembles from UNC Charlotte and CPCC.
Spoken word artist and storyteller Hannah Hasan has been commissioned to compose a piece for the project and will present it at several events in 2022.
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This story was originally published October 5, 2021 6:30 a.m.