I’m not here today to talk about Charlie “Bird” Parker as a musical revolutionary. I’m not interested in discussing his troubled life and early death. I don’t want to debate whether he’s the man who destroyed jazz or the man who saved it. Instead I want to talk about his alto saxophone tone, because it is in listening to that tone that you hear the poetic soul at the center of Charlie Parker’s music.
Charlie Parker, and the music called Bebop that he helped to invent, has a reputation for angular, difficult melodies played at extremely fast tempos. Experimental, serious music that’s hard to sing along or dance to. Lighting-fast solos that are difficult to follow. But the sweet sound of Bird’s horn subverts this narrative, revealing bebop to be the romantic, passionate, risky, beautiful music that it is. This isn’t music meant to frighten people. This is music played for love.
Bird’s tone, so round, so warm and full of joy, is what drew me to his playing before I ever began to understand what he was doing harmonically or melodically. Together with his unerring sense of phrasing, his tone is the reason his version of a jazz melody is always my favorite version. Listen to the way he plays “Star Eyes”, “Lover Man”, “The Song is You”. He sings the melody with his horn like a great vocalist would.
Discussing Bebop, Bird once said: “It’s just music, It’s trying to play clean and looking for the pretty notes”. At first I thought he was being disingenuous here. But once I began to learn Bebop, and the way it uses the upper intervals of chords to form new melodies, I began to see the truth in what Bird said. He found pretty notes nobody had ever found before, and brought them to life with the sound of his horn.
As far as playing fast, it was once said of banjo great Earl Scruggs that no matter how fast he played, each note was always distinct, like pearls on a string. So it is with Charlie Parker. No matter how fast he played, if you listen carefully you can hear almost every note. Again it’s the ability to produce a consistently beautiful sound at any tempo that makes this possible, that makes it sound like music instead of just notes.
Listen to the Charlie Parker with Strings sessions, admittedly a fairly commercial venture, and you hear Bird’s tone used to maximum effect on a series of gorgeous jazz melodies and expressive solos. These sessions, coinciding with a brief period of commercial success and relative sobriety, reveal Bird’s poetic heart. Without Bird, this would be elevator music, cheesy and forgettable. With Bird, it is transformed into the epitome of romantic splendor.