Talking of Bird


As a boy, Charlie Parker was my idol. When I first heard his music, I didn’t like it at all. We were listening to funk, and we thought it was rubbish. But my father [Fela Kuti] kept telling me, if I wanted to be a musician and a composer, I’d better start to appreciate jazz. When I went back to Charlie Parker, I said, “Wow!” After that, I started looking for my own voice as a saxophonist. I got to a point where I was like, “Well, I can never be Charlie Parker, I know I can never be my father, so I better start being Femi Kuti.”

There are many stories about Charlie Parker’s life that I find moving: how people used to make fun of him before he could play, how he got great and teamed up with [trumpeter] Dizzy Gillespie, how he got the nickname Bird because he sounded like a bird. Of course, the drug abuse was heartbreaking. He died so young. He had problems with his recording company, so he changed to the tenor sax so he could disguise himself, do some recordings and make some money. Life is full of turbulence. I’ve had terrible recording contracts, too, but I think once you are true to the spiritual aspect of music, it will always work out at the end.

I remember listening to [Parker’s 1946 composition with Benny Harris on trumpet] Ornithology and thinking, “Whoa, are these people humans?” I couldn’t believe humans could play the musical instrument that well.

[From The Guardian - by Kate Hutchinson - Wed 18 Nov 2020]


Charlie Parker was a hero of my childhood. While my school friends arranged little quasi-altars for athletes like goalkeeping legend Gordon Banks in their rooms, I had a Plasticine figure of Charlie Parker that I made myself.

Charlie Parker’s music is like my mother tongue, my Dad played his records all the time at home. I remember me and a friend transcribing the solos from a bunch of 78s. We would pick up the needle, put it down, pick it up, put it down. We did damage to the records, and I’m sure we did damage to our brains too.


Drummer Ronnie Gardiner of Westerly, for example, tells of a 1953 train ride to New York where he encountered Charlie Parker in the dining car. Gardiner ended up accompanying Parker for several songs, using brushes on a serving tray. "I have a memory for life: I played with Charlie Parker on a train," he said.


“Bird—what can I tell you about him? He was a genius,” Bank, who died in 2010, told me in 2006. “And we were very friendly. . . . We used to live in the same hotel . . . on 54th Street [in New York], the musicians’ hangout . . . the Alvin Hotel. He had a room on the same floor that I had.

“One night I was practicing something by Hindemith—the woodwind quintet: boomp, baba-bada-bada-boomp. . . . You know that? It’s a very famous clarinet passage. Then later that night, at about 2 in the morning, I figured I’d go down to Birdland, on Broadway there, where Bird was playing; you know, once you play in Birdland, you get a free [admission] for life. So as I walked in, Bird stopped—and started to play just what I played in the hotel room: duck! daga-diga-diga-duck, diga-da, da. Perfect!

“He had a perfect ear, you know; he could play anything, in any key. I tell my students: There’ll never be another somebody like him, for a hundred years. Nobody can get even close.”


"I didn’t see Charlie Parker until Jazz at the Philharmonic came through Oakland in 1946. I was interested in Lester Young. I thought he was the cat’s rear end. So I went down there to listen to him with Coleman Hawkins and Flip Phillips, and this cat Charlie Parker came out. I thought, well, this is really something. I don’t fully understand what he’s doing, but I’m interested in finding out. I started buying records."


The first record Ferry ever bought was an EP by the Charlie Parker quintet, featuring Miles Davis. “I learnt every note in my head. It’s great when they start with the melody and turn the song on its end and go somewhere completely different and then come back to it. With Parker the angularity of his soloing was very pure, kind of graphic. There were no grey areas, he always seemed to know where he was going on this weird journey.”


At his first gig, Belafonte was backed up by some friends who happened to be great jazz players. And then "Bird" — saxophonist Charlie Parker himself — took the stage and Belafonte hung on for the ride.

"What I heard was [Bird's solo] and Bird's virtuosity in those first few bars of music threw me completely. I just sat there looking for the rescue team."


His music career continued at Morehouse College in Atlanta where he learned the bass. After college, in the early 1950s, he moved to Chicago, attracted by the city’s world-class jazz scene. Charlie Parker was an early inspiration.

“He came to one of the hotels there,” recalls Mr. Lee. “There are a lot of great musicians, and I’ve had the good fortune to meet some of them. Charlie Parker’s my favourite.”


Hearing bebop sax colossus Charlie "Bird" Parker at such a young age had a profound impact that still resonates today for Charles, along with several generations of other musicians and listeners alike.

"I'd never heard anything like that before!" he said, recalling his high-flying Parker epiphany.

"It's amazing how something like that can resonate with a little kid who doesn't know anything. When I first heard Parker, I realised this guy was different than anybody I'd ever heard. He played notes very cleanly and every note makes some kind of linear sense. I didn't hear that with other people, especially if they played a lot of notes.

"I'd never heard classical musicians before who played with such virtuosity and clean articulation. Ten I heard Bird and I realised: This is it! This is the way you are supposed do to do it. You're supposed to have your own notes. That confluence of musical ideas coming out with a flow and these long beautiful lines connected in a seamless fashion, this is what you're supposed to do.'


When he finally got to New York, his eyes were opened wider than they had ever been before. When he was introduced to Charlie "Bird" Parker, "the four of us took a cab to 139th Street. Bird was sweating a lot. He had a white shirt on and a big belly. One button was off his shirt and I could see some of his meat. We got out of the cab in front of a beat-up tenement and I felt like a million dollars. I was hangin' with Bird. I couldn't believe it. Bird and me." And then Parker conned some dollars out of him to score some heroin, and promptly disappeared.


There is a story about composer Igor Stravinsky and saxophonist Charlie Parker that has become part of jazz lore (Alex Ross mentions it in his superb book The Rest is Noise).

Parker had heard Stravinsky’s astonishing The Rite of Spring and, in 1951, while playing a concert in New York’s Birdland, he spotted Stravinsky in the crowd. He immediately worked some motifs from the composer’s Firebird into the tune he was playing, Koko. Stravinsky was so delighted that, in the words of Ross, he “spilled his scotch in ecstasy”.


With jazz, the ones who could have been good become very conventional. I heard the man who was playing—what was his name? He died. He was a god of music in that field. He played a kind of saxophone—Charlie Parker. At that time he lived in New York. He followed me on the street, and he said he wanted to be with us. The day I left I said, "We'll get together. I'll take you for my pupil." Then I had to catch my boat. It's when I went to Europe for Déserts. And Charlie Parker died in '55, in March. Oh, he was so nice, and so modest, and he had such a tone. You could not know if it was an angelic double bass, a saxophone, or a bass clarinet. Then one day I was in that big hall there on 14th Street, the Cooper Union. Somebody said, "I want to meet you."

She was the widow of Charlie Parker. She said, "He was always talking about you, so I know all about you." And that man was a great star. He wanted to study music and thought I had something for him. - (From Perlis and Cleve's Composers' Voices from Ives to Ellington.

“He stopped by my place a number of times. He was like a child, with the shrewdness of a child. He possessed a tremendous enthusiasm. He’d come in and exclaim, ‘take me in as you would a baby and teach me music. I only write one voice. I want to have structure. I want to write orchestral scores.’ I promised myself I would try to find some time to show him some of the things he wanted to know.”


During Neese’s 25-year NYC career, he tooted his trumpet with the likes of Charlie Parker, Freddie Redd, Jackie McLean and Kenny Dorham. He witnessed the charisma and talent of Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, and fellow North Carolinian Thelonious Monk. When Neese returned to Greensboro in 1975, he brought with him tales of the club life and an authority on the hard-bop era.

“Charlie Parker used to come down [to the Open Door jazz club],” Neese, now 81 years old, recalls. “He was quite a character. I heard him play one time and it was like standing on the edge of the world."


“I learned to play saxophone with my Dad, and he and all the players around him were Parker freaks. When I started to play professionally it was Parker’s tunes I began with. Some of the younger cats like to say, 'I just want to play my music’, but I say you can do that better if you know what all the previous generations did. And some people want to live in that library and try to tell someone else’s story, but you have to tell your own story. With the players I love there’s that special deep sound, which isn’t just a tone on the instrument, it’s a whole approach which comes out of deep study joined with a desire to be creative and free.”


“I used to listen to all the usual stuff, when I was a teenager – Pink Floyd, Saturday Night Fever. We had a jazz programme late at night, I used to listen to it, because it was boring enough to let me fall asleep.” Then one day along came a number from Bird with Strings. “Well, that just knocked me down. I got completely fascinated with his music, and I decided to transcribe some pieces. I remember Night in Tunisia was the first. I had been given a cassette-recorder for my bar mitzvah, and I played the cassette of the piece over and over. It took me about eight hours, and at the end there was this funny smell. I realised the cassette had melted.”


“The first Charlie Parker number I heard was called Blue Bird. I was blown away by the propulsion, the charisma, and the joyful spirit of it. Also the stellar saxophone playing, which technically is on the highest level. There was a completeness to it, which I’ve spent my whole life trying to emulate – which is nothing to do with imitation, because my style is very different. It has the balanced quality of all the great art that I really love. It’s as much intellectual as it is soulful, it speaks to sorrow and it speaks to joy, with a undertone of compassionate humour. There’s something so human about what Charlie Parker does.”


When I heard Charlie Parker With Strings, that's when I decided I had to play jazz. It was improvisation; it was everything. Before that it was just gospel, blues and doo-wop. My two younger brothers sang in all kinds of doo-wop groups growing up, but when I heard Charlie Parker it was mind-blowing. He could play all that music, but he improvised and created spontaneously. Even when a musician is real good, when they improvise and make it sound beautiful, as if it were planned. That's real talent.