He was the greatest jazz virtuoso to pick up a saxophone and a primary architect of the musical language we call bebop.
The short and turbulent life of Charlie Parker ended on March 12, 1955, when he was 34 years old, a musical genius felled by drugs and other excesses. But Parker’s innovations opened the way to harmonic and rhythmic breakthroughs that jazz musicians developed for decades after – and in many instances still do.
The man’s life, music and legacy deserve continual study and re-examination, which is what they’ll receive this weekend, with a major event presented by the Music Institute of Chicago. During the course of two days, several leading figures will converge on the Music Institute’s Nichols Concert Hall, in Evanston, for a Charlie Parker Jazz Festival that will explore his art and personal narrative.
“You know the famous Miles Davis quote: You can tell the history of jazz in four words – Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker,” says Music Institute president and CEO Mark George, in explaining why the organization’s jazz fest this year is focusing on Bird.
“When you’re thinking about towering figures to feature, he of course comes to the front of the line. … He’s such a giant that, actually, I don’t think he gets his due.”
Maybe not in the wider culture, but surely within jazz Parker stands justly revered for his prowess as instrumentalist, thinker and innovator. Like Art Tatum at the piano or Ella Fitzgerald as vocalist, Parker attained new and still unmatched levels of technical brilliance. The volatility and vice of his personal life may have prevented him from enjoying the wider popular spotlight accorded Armstrong, but that does nothing to diminish his importance and value to world musical culture. His recordings document for all time the ferocity and pioneering spirit of his work, which has launched millions of words of commentary.
Some of the most eloquent emerge in a critically applauded book, “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker,” by Stanley Crouch, who will be participating in the event. Listen to Crouch’s characteristically lyrical evocation of Parker’s music.
“Charlie Parker wanted to be more than good; he wanted to different,” wrote Crouch. “Part of your statement was your sound, and the one he was developing struck some more conventional musicians as brittle or harsh. Parker didn’t care. He didn’t want the kind of rich vibrato that characterized the sound of older players – Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges – that would almost force each note in his compulsively swift phrases to seep into the next. He needed pitches that came out of the horn quicker, that were as blunt as snapping fingers when the inspiration demanded. His tone was absolutely unorthodox, as much like a snare drum or a bongo as a voice. It was assertive, at times comic or cavalier, and though often sweet, it could also sound almost devoid of pity. One trumpeter thought it sounded like knives being thrown into the audience.”
The festival will feature Charles McPherson, an alto saxophonist who comes closer to capturing the fever of Parker’s work than most, performing music from the landmark “Charlie Parker With Strings” album. The formidable Chicago singer Tammy McCann, artist in residence at the Music Institute, will sing the standards “Easy Living” and “I Thought About You” in string arrangements penned by Chicagoans Miguel and Sylvia de la Cerna.
And saxophonist Victor Goines, director of jazz studies at Northwestern University’s Bienen School of Music, will play the world premiere of a piece commissioned for the occasion featuring jazz quartet and strings. The work will unfold in three movements, the instrumentation essentially the same as “Charlie Parker With Strings.”
How closely will Goines’ work reflect that album?
“It’s not necessarily related,” says Goines. “That’s a tall order, to be on the same program with ‘Charlie Parker With Strings.’ While I composed for the saxophone and string ensemble, I tried to stay as far away from that as possible.”
Then again, adds Goines, “That music is so powerful, how can you not be influenced by it?”
In preparation for writing the new piece, Goines immersed himself in comparable recordings, such as “Oscar Peterson & Nelson Riddle,” “Clifford Brown With Strings” and Wynton Marsalis’ “Hot House Flowers.” Because this is the first time Goines has written a free-standing work for himself and strings, he calls this “a learning time, and an opportunity.”
As for the “Charlie Parker With Strings” album, he believes “the music back then was phenomenal, and it’s phenomenal now. Great arrangements, with Charlie Parker interacting with the writing. It almost seemed like his part was written out, but we all know he was improvising.”
As no one else could, then or now.
Following is the complete schedule for the Charlie Parker Festival at the Music Institute of Chicago’s Nichols Concert Hall, 1490 Chicago Ave., Evanston. For more information, visit musicinst.org or phone 847-905-1500, ext. 108.
“Bird With Strings”: Charles McPherson plays music from the “Charlie Parker With Strings” album; Victor Goines presents a world premiere composition; Tammy McCann sings standards. 7:30 p.m.; $30 general; $20 seniors; $10 students
Jazz Invitational: Student bands perform, all proceeds going to the Billy Strayhorn Scholarship in Jazz Studies. 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; $5.
Charles McPherson Jazz Clinic. McPherson coaches students, all proceeds going to the Billy Strayhorn Scholarship in Jazz Studies. 3 p.m.; $5.
Lecture and Book Signing: Stanley Crouch discusses his book “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker,” moderated by Richard Steele. 4 p.m.; $10
Bebop Extravaganza: McPherson shares the stage with Music Institute of Chicago jazz faculty: trumpeter Victor Garcia, pianist Jeremy Kahn, bassist Stewart Miller, drummer Ernie Adams and trombonist Audrey Morrison. 7:30 p.m. $30 general; $20 seniors; $10 students