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Bird Lives Retrospective

Updated: Oct 21, 2021

Photographs by Suzanne Frisse

One of the things about jazz that has always deeply moved me is the heritage; the cultural inheritance passed down through the voices of our musical ancestors. When we listen to Louis Armstrong, we hear the soul and freedom he felt pouring into his horn and voice. We can better understand human experience, the combination of tragedy, pain, joy and love, when we listen to Billie Holiday sing. The sense of searching and spirit in John Coltrane, and so on. Charlie Parker’s legacy is woven into that tapestry in a very significant sense, and to spend the past several weeks and months preparing for our recent concert, Bird Lives, has left me and the other KCJO musicians with a deeper sense of perspective and love for this music.

Guest artist Jaleel Shaw spoke to me regarding just how deep Parker was as a musician. He had such command of rhythm and phrasing and the bebop language, all at such a very young age. I listened as Jaleel and other guest artist Bobby Watson discussed Parker’s unparalleled ability to play utterly memorable and artistically significant solos in just four or eight measures, and how they studied Bird’s recordings to glean inroads into his explosive creativity. In this music, an art form created by Black Americans and gifted to the universe, the true masters of the craft offer an opportunity for the rest of us to experience and at least partially understand true virtuosity. All we have to do is listen and pay attention. And then, in listening to them–as with Jaleel and Bobby–we find out that they are listening and paying attention to those that came before us, such as Charlie Parker. It’s a deep connection that we’re all invited to partake in.

The music itself, Charlie Parker With Strings, is ultimately one of the most sublime examples of recorded music in history. In the early 1940s, Charlie Parker, along with compatriots Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Mary Lou Williams and others, created a new musical language that we now refer to as bebop. It was a way of playing melodic lines that weaved in and out of the chord progressions, altering the chords to make greater use of tension and release and voice-leading, cultivating a rhythm that was more accented and syncopated and flowing. It was, ultimately, a new way of improvising. When Parker infused this furiously burning approach with his bluesy, Kansas City sensibility, melody has never been the same since. However, Parker’s musical interests spanned many genres, including pop tunes and classical music. He was a lexicon of melodies and tunes, and loved Stravinsky. Although he was never a commercially successful artist, in 1949 (and again in 1950) producer Norman Granz and Parker recorded a series of standards with a string orchestra and jazz rhythm section. The recording, Charlie Parker With Strings, was on Mercury Records and was a success at the time continuing through today. Parker played popular love songs with the lush backgrounds in a way bebop had never been previously presented. He flew through the short arrangements just as he would a quartet, and the result is exhilarating.

So, to be able to bring that music to the Kauffman Center stage with a full complement of string musicians was a dream of mine long in the making, but, in typical KCJO fashion, we were capable of personalizing it just a little bit. I knew I wanted the big band to be involved, but not at the expense of corrupting the classic arrangements that were painstakingly transcribed by Jeffrey Sultanoff. So I pored over the scores and listened to the original recordings, studied period big band arrangements of standards and love songs, and tried carefully using the jazz orchestra as shading, with some melodic content here and there. With Bobby and Jaleel playing the solo parts and the phenomenal chamber musicians, I knew the night would be ridiculously awesome – and it was!

Bobby and Jaleel together exemplified what I was talking about in the first paragraph of this blog: participating in the heritage and lineage of jazz. Not only are they direct musical dependents of Parker’s creative and instrumental legacy, they have a relationship that is so intrinsic to the jazz world: that of the mentor and protégé. In Jaleel’s preteen years, Bobby became a trusted teacher, then friend, and now peer. The reverence Jaleel spoke of the inimitable Professor Watson accompanied his every word, and Shaw’s melodic lines and soulful expression show no shortage of Watson’s, and Parker’s, influences. As another student of Bobby, I was deeply moved by witnessing this special relationship, and that made the night even more emotionally powerful.

After nineteen months off the stage, it’s safe to say this particular concert was the one with which to re-arrive. It really had it all: historic significance, deep attenuation to what makes this music so wonderful, creativity, expansive use of the jazz orchestra, amazing soloists and guest artists, and connection: connection to our heritage, teachers, listeners, and our jazz family. I’m so thankful we were able to share this profound experience.

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