Charlie Parker’s influence lives on
Friday, Aug. 29, is Charlie Parker’s birthday. He would have been 94, but his life ended far short of that mark — even less than the biblically allotted three score and 10.
Parker was a legendary jazz musician. Even in his lifetime, he was looked at as the premier jazz performer on the saxophone.
He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he began playing professionally as a teenager.
Early in his career, he acquired a nickname. When the band bus in which he was traveling hit a chicken, Parker yelled at the driver, “Go back there and pick up that yardbird.” The name stuck. He became known as “Yardbird” or simply “Bird.”
Birdland, a jazz club that opened in New York in 1949, featured Parker as a headliner and took his nickname to capitalize on his fame.
Parker died short of his 35th birthday of causes stemming from addictions to alcohol and heroin.
More than half a century later, his artistry still influences musicians, including some performing in the Tri-County area.
Jesse Adams plays keyboard with Just Friends, a jazz sextet that performs locally and in the Triangle.
“We use head charts, which means we play the melody twice through, and then we improvise,” Adams said. “That was the scheme that Charlie Parker used. Sometimes we change the harmony to make the song more refreshing, or it may be an experiment.”
Just Friends recorded a CD called “27536: Alive & Well,” which features original compositions with locally familiar titles such as “Flint Hill,” “Dabney Drive” and “West End.”
“Every one of those songs uses a head arrangement like Charlie Parker used,” Adams said.
Adams grew up in Henderson. His father was a jukebox operator.
“I was exposed to records of all types of music,” he said.
After graduating from Henderson Institute in 1960, he went on to Howard University, where he received a degree in music. For 38 years, he was a band director in schools in Washington, D.C., and Maryland.
In 2008, he returned to Henderson, where he became active in the music scene.
Part of Parker’s contribution was to make a modern version of an older song, Adams said.
“Parker called it contrafact, the art of creating a new melody over an existing chordal foundation.”
As an example, he described how Parker took the ballad “How High the Moon” and improvised a new melody over the basic chord foundation to create a song he called “Ornithology,” an appropriate title for a song composed by Bird.
Wayne Kinton’s specialty is bluegrass music, but he acknowledged the influence of Parker and other jazz musicians on his own music.
“If you know the chords, you can play the melody,” he said. “Those guys, including Parker, they had an emphasis on improvisation. That’s the creative side of music. They’d play the same chord progression but with a melody they’re making up on the fly.”
Kinton’s musical origins were quite different from Parker’s.
“My great-grandfather was an old time banjo player,” he said. “My grandmother got me started on guitar. My mama made me take piano lessons, so when I continued on guitar, I had the musical knowledge and the theory.”
Kinton grew up in Henderson, graduated from what was then Aycock High School and went on to Atlantic Christian College — now Barton College — where he managed to work music courses into his schedule.
He uses his knowledge of chords and theory with Grass Street, a band he formed in 2003. Playing with him are his son, David, on the upright bass; dobro player Tab Kearns; and banjo player Ricky Hargis.
Although he works in a different musical genre from Parker, Kinton suggested a connection when he defined bluegrass music as “the jazz of country music.”
For Taz Baskerville, the influence was less direct.
“He was a saxophonist; I’m percussion,” Baskerville said. “For me, it’s less about chord structure and more about rhythm and time.”
Baskerville operates Top Hat Music Store at 122 Bank St., perhaps the shortest street in the Oxford business district.
For almost half a century, he has felt the influence of Parker on his own music and that of others.
“I’ve played with several bands with horn sections,” he said. “They were really into Charlie Parker.”
Baskerville grew up in Oxford, attended Orange Street Elementary School and graduated from Mary Potter School.
He continued his interest in music until “the draft got me.” He describes himself as a “Vietnam-era veteran.” He served in the army but never was sent to Vietnam.
“I came out and went right back into music,” Baskerville said.
The economy was stagnant, so in 1974 he re-enlisted. He took advantage of his musical background and joined the 197th Infantry choir.
“That’s when I got most of my formal training in music,” Baskerville said.
In 1980 he returned to Oxford and soon was back on the road playing mostly beach music, which he calls “an instant rehash of rhythm and blues. For the musician, it doesn’t give you room to expand.”
That contrasts with the approach taken by jazz musicians.
“They had a structure, but they had the ability to improvise,” Baskerville said. “That’s the exciting thing about jazz.”
Larry Webb has received recognition for his leadership as principal of Eaton-Johnson Middle School in Henderson.
In an earlier incarnation, the example of Parker and other jazz musicians helped him become a versatile musician, equally comfortable on 13 instruments.
Webb grew up in Roanoke Rapids. He attended East Carolina University, where he majored in trumpet and minored in voice and piano. He later received two masters’ degrees from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke and a doctorate in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Webb said jazz musicians like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis “defined the art form.”
He described Parker’s improvisational style.
“There’s a misconception that you just stand up there and play what you feel,” he said. “You’ve got to understand the underlying chord structure. Charlie Parker blew that out of the water. He made chord changes that no one up to then had ever done.”
Webb pointed out that Parker started playing on a rented saxophone.
“That’s the same way our band students start today,” he said.
Some people believe that Parker’s addiction to heroin contributed to his genius. Webb disagrees.
“He was great, not because of his addiction,” he said. “He played through his addiction.”
But Parker’s addiction shortened his life and curtailed his contribution to the art he loved.
“It’s sad that a great talent was dimmed because of substance abuse,” Webb said. “Any time there’s a light that’s dimmed too soon — like Robin Williams — you wonder what might have been.”
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