I had been dragged to concerts long before I had learned to read. Starting in third grade, I had been, shall we say, “strongly encouraged” to play piano. Then, starting in fifth grade, I started saxophone lessons through school. All those years I heard my father’s music blasting on the speakers while my mother yelled at him to turn it down. All those elementary school years, and I hadn’t found a love for music. That is, of course, until I came across The Bird.
It was my saxophone teacher who truly introduced me to Bird. I was bored with the regular material I had been learning, bored with drills of chromatic phrases and even with the jazz material I was given. I could play it, but I didn’t feel like I was making music; they were just exercises. Finally, my teacher asked me to buy the Charlie Parker Omnibook and to look through it.
I flipped through the book looking for something I recognized, and came across “Now’s The Time.” I had heard that one once before; I didn’t really think much of it. I played through easily until the refrain opened up to the Parker solo, and that’s where I started to stumble. I tried to play the licks over and over again to smooth out the kinks. It wasn’t working out; the notes sounded random when I played them. I decided to find a recording of Parker playing it, to hear how it was done, but the first one that I found didn’t have what was transcribed in the book.
For the first time, it occurred to me that the transcriptions in the book were a collection of unedited improvisations, unique musical thoughts that were formed instantaneously, very unlike the rest of the music I had played. Yet, listening to him play the solo in that particular recording, the phrases sounded perfectly in place, like they really had been scripted. Maybe the omnibook just had a “bad” version? So I found another recording, and another, each one different, equally perfect, but not what I had on paper.
Finally, I found the recording that had been transcribed in the omnibook. Hearing the notes come to life made all of the difference. The way he plays, all the notes make sense, and as had been the case in the other recordings, they all sound perfect. Charlie Parker was a genius. I wanted to hear more, to play more. I was hooked. I had found my love for music.
I don’t know why I went so long before giving Charlie Parker the article he was due. He is possibly the greatest alto saxophone player to walk this earth.
(Photo by William Gottlieb: Library of Congress)