This world is crazy, but I’m not sure it can be deemed beyond redemption if Charlie Parker walked it for a few decades. Happy 100th born day Bird!
I am not going to go too deep here about how “important” Bird was (in music or in my own conception) as it’s so self-evident that I might as well say “y’know, water is pretty important.” I will say that when I first dug into Bird’s music in high school I loved it but it didn’t “blow my mind” for reasons I often talk about when teaching jazz history. Namely, I’d already heard enough jazz that by the time I immersed in Bird I thought “this is great, but it kinda just sounds like really good jazz saxophone,” which in hindsight I’ve unpacked to mean that all his vocabulary was so ubiquitous in the music of subsequent artists (saxophonists and otherwise) and I didn’t yet have the sense of perspective to identify Bird as the source. Fortunately I loved it anyway, given the centrality of his music to the any serious jazz musician’s basic infrastructure.
I say this every time I do a list, but let me emphasize that these are not meant to be the “best” in any objective way, they’re just some of those that have impacted me the most (though a full list of those would be much longer). The goal is to give my jazz friends a moment to geek out about Bird and to give my “jazz-adjacent” friends something of a jumping off point if they haven’t explored Bird’s music. I’ll put them in chronological order and because so much of his recorded output comes from prior to the LP era, I will in most cases just list the record label and not arbitrarily choose among the various compilation albums of his Savoy and Dial recordings.
1 ) “Hootie Blues” by Jay McShann (1941 )
This medium-slow blues tune prominently features bandleader (and important early Parker employer) McShann’s voice and piano, but the chorus of solo that Bird presents prior to the vocals is elegant, soulful, and in a couple moments one might say prophetic.
2 ) “Tiny’s Tempo” by Tiny Grimes (1944, Savoy)
This session is perhaps the first example of Bird’s bebop vocabulary manifesting in a studio recording, and while technically this is still a blues composition, Bird’s signature playing here is unlike any prior blues. I could have easily picked “Now’s the Time” or “Billie’s Bounce” from the following year, but today I’m semi-arbitrarily feeling this one.
3 ) “Ko-ko” (1945, Savoy)
Quintessentially burnin’ Bird. Full stop. This isn’t the only example of him shredding the chords to the standard “Cherokee,” but it’s the most iconic and every phrase in here is stunning.
4 ) “Relaxin’ At Camarillo” (1947, Dial)
I could do 10 tracks just from the West Coast sessions for Dial records, and it pains me to omit “A Night in Tunisia” from 1946, the solo break for which I must have listened to easily a thousand times. But I landed on this important song, cheekily referencing his time in a mental institution. The group name, “Charlie Parker’s New All-Stars,” is apt on this track that also features solos by Wardell Gray, Barney Kessel, Howard McGee, Dodo Marmarosa, and Red Callender. “Donna Lee” (1947, Savoy)
5 ) “Parker’s Mood” (1948, Savoy)
I almost picked the burning “Constellation” from this important day of recordings, but hearing Bird play the slow blues like this (as opposed to shredding a bright tempo, which his mythology tends to emphasize) is as illuminating as it is soulful and beautiful. There is also a nice solo from pianist and future Modern Jazz Quartet co-founder John Lewis. Do yourself a favor and listen to the alternate takes.
6 ) “Okiedokie” by Machito (1949)
Latin jazz was really coming into its own during the bebop era, and this high-energy saxophone feature for Bird in Machito’s orchestra is an underrated classic of those early days and a stellar example of how Bird’s language translated to this setting.
7 ) “Everything Happens to Me” from Charlie Parker With Strings (1949)
Some people love Bird with strings, some hate it, but Bird loved it, so that’s good enough for me. The arrangements are admittedly a bit syrupy, but any excuse to hear Bird play a whole bunch of ballads is something special. When I was preparing to record my Patch Kit album in 2002, this is one of the versions of this pathos-laden songs (alongside Chet Baker’s vocal version) in which I immersed myself, and hearing Bird play a ballad melody never gets old.
8 ) “Little Willie Leaps” live recording from Birdland, NYC (1950) (I’ve seen it most recently on the Fragments compilation)
I was first exposed to this live recording, featuring Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Curly Russell, and Art Blakey, in college in Phil Schaap’s Jazz History course (for those who don’t know Phil’s work, he is a scholar, historian, and DJ who began hosting WKCR’s “Bird Flight” program in 1981). I was already familiar, thanks to Ted Dunbar’s regimen of bebop songs, with the 1947 studio version under Miles Davis’ name (with Bird on tenor under the name “Charlie Chan” for contractual reasons), but I was stunned when I heard the ferocity of his playing here, well worth tolerating the less-than-stellar audio fidelity.
9 ) “Kim” (1952, Verve)
This “rhythm changes” tune (i.e. song using the chord progression from Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm”) is an excellent (though far from isolated) example of how well Bird’s dexterity endured through the sadly premature latter portion of his life/career. One nice thing about the Verve small group recordings, as well, is the dramatic improvement in recording fidelity, which serves him and his band (a burnin’ trio of Hank Jones, Teddy Kotick, and Max Roach) very well.
10 ) “The Serpent’s Tooth” from Collector’s Items by Miles Davis (1953)
This recording of Jimmy Heath’s tune (credited to Miles) is noteworthy for a couple reasons. In addition to featuring some stellar Bird-on-tenor, it also represents something of a torch-passing as Bird’s solo follows that of his brilliant acolyte Sonny Rollins (himself on the cusp of a milestone birthday).