If you’re not yet a fan of jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, spend a few minutes with Will Campbell, professor at UNC Charlotte.
âHis virtuoso approach to the saxophone was unmatched,â said Campbell. âThe 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 was not going to let the 100th anniversary of Parker’s birth go by. COVID-19 postponed the party – but it didn’t cancel it.
âAugust 2020 would have been his 100th birthday,â Campbell said of the jazz legend, who died in 1955 at the age of 34. âBut last fall, there was not much nobody could do. I had to be part of a concert with an ensemble I play with in the area (Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra) that had to be postponed indefinitely due to COVID We were going to celebrate the lives of Charlie Parker and Dave Brubeck, who would both have turned 100 last year.
âI’m an alto saxophone player, that’s what Charlie Parker played,â Campbell continued. âAnd, 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 took the idea of ââa tribute concert to his department director, Joseph Skillen. Campbell wanted to recreate “Charlie Parker with Strings”, one of the most popular recordings of “Bird” and the one that was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
âIt’s not easy,â said Campbell. âUsing string musicians in a jazz context is usually not done. “
But Skillen suggested more than a gig. He wanted a multi-month celebration of Charlie Parker. âAfter missing the centennial, it occurred to me that we could call it Charlie Parker 101 and give it a college class flavor,â Campbell said.
The class kicked off on August 30 with Grammy-winning saxophonist Branford Marsalis on the UNC Charlotte campus, giving a master class on Parker and leading a public conversation that evening. Campbell has known Marsalis – originally from New Orleans and now Durham – for three decades thanks to 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.
âBranford highlighted the early part of Parker’s career and the influence that growing up in Kansas City had on his musicianship,â said Campbell. âParker had the advantage of living in a city which at the time – in the 1930s and early 1940s in particular – was a breeding ground for good music, and that was in large part 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.
âWhere you have these kinds of vice opportunities, there is a need for music,â he continued. âKansas City had a neighborhood that was a huge center for jazz. Even musicians from New York moved to Kansas City, most notably Count Basie, who grew up in New Jersey. As a teenager Charlie Parker would sneak out at night and go 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 he was born?
âHe changed the language of jazz. He made a lot of it into his vocabulary, and it’s a vocabulary we still use today, âCampbell 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 his peers.
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 defined harmonic structures, are characteristic of the Bebop style.
Parker was also a prolific composer. âHe was composing all the time when he was improvising,â Campbell said. âHe was not primarily a composer on paper, but his improvised solos are still worthy of being analyzed and emulated by jazz musicians.
The saxophonist basically wrote the book about jazz. âNo matter what instrument you play, every jazz musician, at one time or another, has bought the Omnibook,â Davis said. âIt’s literally a transcription of Charlie Parker’s recorded solos. And we, as jazz musicians and educators, think this book is so important because there is so much language in it. If you can just grab a bit of this vocabulary and incorporate it into your own sound, you can grow in leaps and bounds.
A life cut short
Parker got his nickname, âYardbirdâ – which is commonly abbreviated as âBirdâ – while traveling with the Jay McShann Orchestra when their vehicle accidentally struck a chicken overnight in the country, Campbell said.
âBack then, black musicians couldn’t stay in all-white hotels,â he said. âThey stayed with black families. The story goes that Charlie said to Jay McShann, “Stop and take this hunting bird.” They brought the dead chicken to the family they were living 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 pain relievers for a broken spine when he was young. âEventually, he abused his body so much that he collapsed,â Campbell said. “You can definitely say that the lack of decent health care at that time didn’t help, so he resorted to street drugs for pain management.”
“I am afraid that when we talk about Charlie Parker we are talking too quickly about his drug and alcohol addiction,” he added. âThere are a lot of musicians throughout history who have struggled with drug addiction, but we don’t always make it a central point when we talk about them. We do this too often about Charlie Parker – and it is true that he had a very serious problem – but his genius far, far outweighs his personal flaws.
Charlie Parker 101 events
Find out all the Charlie Parker 101 events on the UNC Charlotte webpage. The 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 Kelsey Klotz, musicologist at UNC Charlotte.
UNC Charlotte Jazz Ensemble and Combos, 7:30 p.m., November 22. Belk Theater at UNC Charlotte.
“Charlie Parker: Reverberations”, January 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, oral performances and group conversation.
THE JAZZ ROOM: âBird Lives! , January 14 and 15, 2022. The performance will feature Campbell.
âCharlie Parker with Strings,â March 3, 2022. The show at the Halton Theater at Central Piedmont Community College will feature student ensembles from UNC Charlotte and CPCC.
Spoken word artist / storyteller Hannah Hasan was commissioned to compose a piece for the project and will perform it at several events in 2022.
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