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Charles 'Yardbird' Parker At 100: Remembering The Legendary Jazz Musician

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Charlie Parker was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. In his brief life, Parker created a new sound on the alto saxophone and pioneered a new style that changed the direction of popular music. Parker was born 100 years ago tomorrow. Tom Vitale looks back at the life and work of the musician nicknamed Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "KOKO")

TOM VITALE, BYLINE: In the 1940s, Charlie Parker helped shift the focus of jazz from the big bands to small combos, from dance music to complex music for listening called bebop.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "KOKO")

VITALE: In a 1954 interview with Boston radio station WHDH, Parker was asked how his playing managed to break so violently with the saxophone styles of the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLIE PARKER: I had no idea that it was that much different. Ever since I've been learning music, I thought it should be very clean, very precise and more or less to the people, you know - something they could understand, something that was beautiful.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "OUT OF NOWHERE")

VITALE: In 1950, Parker played a series of concerts with strings at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The late saxophonist Gerry Mulligan wrote the arrangements, and 30 years later, he told me he never heard anything like the way Parker shifted keys in his solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GERRY MULLIGAN: I wrote an arrangement based on the progression of "Out Of Nowhere." Well, Bird would play this thing on every show. He went through a modulation that made my hair stand on end. It was so incredibly beautiful and incredibly complex.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "OUT OF NOWHERE")

MULLIGAN: The other thing was his sound. It was the first time I had the impression of sound that I could almost see the sound in the theater, and I could hear it bouncing off the back walls of the theater because it had such power, such force to it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JAY MCSHANN: One particular night, I happened to be coming through the streets, and I heard this sound coming out.

VITALE: And it grabbed Jay McShann the first time he heard it in Kansas City, as the late pianist and bandleader told me in 1980.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MCSHANN: And this was a different sound so I went inside to see who was blowing. So I walked up to Charlie after he finished playing. I says, where are you from? He says, well, he said, I'm from Kansas City. But he says, I've been gone for the last two or three months, he says, because I've been down the Ozarks woodshedding.

VITALE: All that woodshedding - practicing in isolation, running through every tune in every key - took Parker's playing to the next level, and McShann hired the 16-year-old for his big band.

(SOUNDBITE OF JAY MCSHANN AND HIS ORCHESTRA'S "SWEET GEORGIA BROWN")

VITALE: In that 1954 radio interview, Parker said his innovative style was the result of a lot of work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PARKER: I put quite a bit of study into the horn - that's true. In fact, the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once when we were living out West. They said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least 11, 15 hours a day. I did that for over a period of three or four years.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "TINY'S TEMPO")

VITALE: By the 1940s, Parker was living and playing in New York, and word of his genius spread. He became an idol to the hipsters of the Beat Generation, and fellow musicians worshipped him - at least most of them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ART PEPPER: I purposely didn't listen to Bird very much. You know, I didn't want to have happen to me what happened to so many other people. You know, they had all his solos written, and they passed them around. You know, everybody started sounding like Bird.

VITALE: The late saxophonist Art Pepper finished second to Charlie Parker's best alto player in the DownBeat Readers Poll of 1952. Three decades later, he told me Bird's influence was overwhelming.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

PEPPER: If you didn't sound like Bird and play the saxophone, it was - I had a fight with a guy one time because he said I was prejudiced because I didn't play like Bird. You know, I mean, he - I mean, it was incredible.

GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO: The irony about Charlie Parker is that so many musicians have been accused of emulating him and have been accused of being clones.

VITALE: Giovanni Russonello writes about jazz for The New York Times.

RUSSONELLO: When you hear Charlie Parker, you know it's him, and when you hear somebody else, you really know it's not him. The distinctiveness of that horn sound and the influential nature of that style actually go hand in hand. People wanted to be like Bird because Bird was like nobody else.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "CHASIN' THE BIRD")

VITALE: Charlie Parker influenced generations of saxophonists, from John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman to today's younger players like Logan Richardson. He's a Kansas City alto player who lives in the apartment that was once Parker's childhood home.

LOGAN RICHARDSON: For me, it was clear that if playing the way that this man plays the alto saxophone is the way that you're supposed to do it, then I want to be a part of anything that that involves. For me, I'm forever on a hunt chasing the Bird.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "CHASIN' THE BIRD")

VITALE: Charlie Parker was a brilliant musician, but his personal life was a mess. He dropped out of high school and picked up a heroin habit when he was 15. He was notorious for borrowing saxophones and then pawning them to get a fix. On March 12, 1955, ravaged by drugs and alcohol, Parker died in a New York apartment. He was only 34 years old. Soon after, graffiti cropped up on walls and sidewalks across the city with the message, Bird lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "STAR EYES")

VITALE: For NPR News, I'm Tom Vitale in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER'S "STAR EYES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.