Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, by Carl Woideck

October 1, 1998

Charlie ParkerCharlie Parker: His Music and Life, by Carl Woideck. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1996. xiv + 277 pp. ISBN 0-472-10370-9.


Carl Woideck's excellent volume on the music and life of Charlie Parker provides a welcome addition to existing works in the field. It offers the most comprehensive study to date of Parker's apprenticeship period, taking advantage of recently discovered recordings in an effort to explain how Parker emerged as a central figure of the bebop revolution, a phenomenon that changed the course of jazz history. From Parker's middle years Woideck discusses several of Parker's most famous solos in some detail, "much like a guided tour through a retrospective exhibition of a particular artist's work" (p. xi). Finally, Woideck examines Parker's own statements regarding his dissatisfaction with the "artistic plateau" he had reached in the 1950s and his unfulfilled plans to study Western classical music as a means for further stylistic growth.

Woideck has chosen to concentrate on Charlie Parker's music rather than his life. Nevertheless, the first part of the book, "A Biographical Sketch," contains much new information, most of it gleaned from recent and past interviews, in addition to the careful comparison of accounts from previous published and unpublished sources. New light is shed on several areas of Parker's life, especially regarding his Kansas City days and first trips to New York. Of particular interest is Woideck's discussion of Parker's early influences and listening habits. Enough information has been accumulated to engage in speculation on which phonograph records Parker was likely to have owned and which solos he apparently studied and memorized from them.

Part 2 contains the essence of the book, a period-by-period survey of Parker's major recordings. Here Woideck separates Parker's life into four style periods in a manner both logical and convincing. He labels the first Parker's "apprenticeship period," designating 1940 as the starting point "simply because that is the first year for which recordings of Parker exist" (p. 63). Parker's second period begins with the lifting of the recording ban in 1944 and ends with his physical and emotional breakdown in 1946, which resulted in a half-year hiatus in his recordings. Parker's third and most productive period is dated from his release from Camarillo State Hospital in early 1947 to the end of the decade. This is the period of the classic quintet with Miles Davis and includes a series of famous recordings. The final stage in Parker's life encompasses his last five years, when his recordings saw their widest distribution and his reputation within the jazz community was at its peak.

Perhaps the most valuable portion of Woideck's study is his thorough examination of Parker's apprenticeship period (1940-1943). For many years Parker's early years were represented by only a handful of recordings which did little to explain how he developed his revolutionary approach to improvisation. When Parker burst upon the scene in late 1944, he had already worked out the essential features of his style. How he did this remained a mystery. Over the past couple of decades, however, several previously unknown recordings have been uncovered which shed light on Parker's development between 1940 and 1943. Woideck carefully examines the circumstances surrounding these recordings, and, more importantly, searches the music for clues to Parker's musical evolution. What becomes apparent when studying these solos is that many elements of Parker's mature style are evident from his earliest known recordings. Already, in 1940, Parker had a secure technique and command of his instrument that easily matched or surpassed that of his fellow musicians. Many of the trademarks of his mature style are already in place—his predilection for arpeggiated minor seventh chords, fondness for tune quotations, and his penchant for leaping to the flatted ninth of a dominant chord. At the same time, vestiges of the swing era remain—gestures from an earlier period that Parker would eventually eradicate from his style.

Woideck has also performed some careful detective work, using Parker's quotations to establish feasible dates of origin for his recordings. For example, to refute previous claims that Parker's "Honey and Body" solo was recorded as early as 1937, Woideck identifies material that Parker evidently borrowed from a Roy Eldridge solo that was not recorded until late 1938. Offering additional evidence for the later (1940) date, Woideck states:

The phrase immediately following the Eldridge quotation in "Body" is evidently a quotation of the Jimmy Van Heusen popular song "I Thought About You. . . ." "I Thought About You" was copyrighted in 1939 . . . and the first jazz recordings of it . . . were made in October, 1939. The earliest Parker could have heard the pop song on record was probably November, 1939.

In a similar manner, Woideck has thoroughly investigated and identified previous occurrences of many of Parker's figures. Sources include popular songs, classical literature, etude books, and jazz recordings. At times, however, Woideck appears too eager to conclude that Parker has borrowed directly from these sources. Jazz thrives on a commonwealth of shared conventions, emblematic gestures, and recognizable patterns. Identifying an earlier printed or recorded instance of a passage that Parker played fails to consider what must have been Parker's primary source of melodic ideas—the live music he encountered on a daily basis.

Woideck estimates that approximately thirty recordings from Parker's apprenticeship period have been released on which Parker can be identified as a soloist. In having made the most thorough examination of this period to date, Woideck has significantly added to our understanding of Parker's early years. It must be concluded that Parker was an innovator from his earliest years—that he never fully absorbed the swing era style without making modifications to it. As Woideck points out, had Parker not lived beyond 1943 he would nevertheless be assured a place in jazz history as a transitional figure between the swing era and bebop (much like guitarist Charlie Christian and bassist Jimmy Blanton, both of whom died in 1942).

While Parker's apprenticeship recordings stand on their own as unique and inventive representations from an exciting period of experimentation and growth, Parker's first expressions of "maturity and mastery" belong to his 1944-1946 period. "By late 1944," Woideck writes, "Charlie Parker had largely finished transcending his swing era influences to present a coherent approach to melody, harmony, and rhythm" (p. 104). That approach came to be called bebop, and its leading exponents were Charlie Parker and Dizzie Gillespie. As Woideck points out, the historic partnership lasted only fourteen months—from January, 1945, to February, 1946, after which the two crossed paths infrequently. But during their brief tenure together, the duo made a series of revolutionary recordings that were destined to change the jazz world forever.

As he discusses Parker's landmark solos from this period, it becomes evident that Woideck harbors a strong suspicion of preset material in improvisation. For example, he writes, "many of Parker's pet 'licks' are in place by the end of this period, signaling a slight shift away from his earlier spontaneity in weaving fresh melody" (p. 104). Regarding a particular stratagem that Parker employs to maneuver through a IIm7-V7 progression, Woideck states, "thousands of saxophonists over the years considered memorization of this lick to be a must. In later years, Parker himself tended to use this lick unconsciously, and it turned into one of his clichés" (p. 114). Indeed, several times in the course of his discussion, Woideck praises particular solos for their "lack of cliché" and avoidance of "stock phrases." Some readers may not agree with Woideck that the extensive network of conventions and formulae that provided the building blocks for Parker's solos consisted of clichés. Indeed, it can be argued that the combining of recognizable and stylistically sanctioned musical fragments in fresh and unique ways is the very essence of bebop improvisation.

Parker's second period ends with his physical and emotional breakdown in July, 1946, which resulted in his hospitalization through January, 1947. Reentering the studio in February, 1947, his health and spirits restored, Parker embarked on one of the most musically productive periods of his life. Woideck estimates that Parker was recorded on "nearly eight times the number of dates from 1947 through 1949 than he had been recorded from 1944 through 1946" (p. 131). Most of these historic recordings were associated with the "Classic Quintet" that Parker led during this period, whose original members included Parker, Miles Davis, Max Roach, Duke Jordan, and Tommy Potter. Woideck presents an informative overview of Parker's work during the classic quintet period, discussing his choice of material, compositional activities, and approach to the improvised melodic line. Parker's recorded work indicates that he preferred blues and pop song forms that adhered to conventional structures and chord progressions and essentially "broke no new ground." Although Parker contributed a respectable number of compositions to the bebop repertory, he seems not to have approached composition in a planned or organized way. He seldom wrote things down, and gave little thought to expanding his repertory until he needed new material for recording: "Indeed, live recordings of the quintet show that (with one possible exception) Parker's new compositions only showed up in his nightclub repertoire after being recorded. A surprisingly large number of the Parker 'compositions' by his quintet (twenty-one) are documented only in the studio versions, underscoring the notion that the demand of the studio was the chief raison d'etre for many of the pieces" (p. 140).

Woideck describes the last five years of Parker's creative life as an "artistic plateau." No significant style changes are evident, although Woideck has ferreted out several passages in Parker's solos from this period that certainly point in new directions. For the most part, Parker's desires to find new modes of expression remained frustrated ambitions. The core figures and gestures of Parker's style were established early on and he added little to this vocabulary in his later years. But the potential for fresh creation using this vocabulary had by no means been exhausted. Hard-core bebop musicians like Sonny Stitt and Dexter Gordon continued to create expressive and original solos out of the basic gestures of bebop for some thirty years after Parker's death. I do not agree with Woideck's assessment that Parker's solos "were becoming routine and in danger of being reduced to a string of stylized signature gestures," or that "becoming lost was Parker's spontaneous approach to spinning forth fresh melody" (p. 175). What Parker had lost was the ability to alter his style any further. It is not apparent that Parker's later work demonstrates any appreciable decline in his ability to create unique and original solos out of conventional bebop gestures.

Woideck's chapter on Parker's final period includes a rich discussion of Parker's statements regarding new artistic goals. Passages from interviews with Parker are discussed, as well as statements of other musicians to whom Parker had revealed his ambitions. Clearly, Parker was fascinated with modern classical music, and believed that the future of jazz lay in that direction. As a jazz celebrity, Parker had the opportunity to travel widely and meet many of the musicians he admired. After meeting classical saxophonist Marcel Mule, Parker expressed a desire to return to Paris and study with him. He once "reportedly formulated a plan to study musical composition with Nadia Boulanger in France" (p. 172). And Edgard Varèse reported that Parker had made arrangements to study informally with him in the spring of 1955, an encounter that never occurred because of Parker's death in March of that year. Parker held a life-long respect for and interest in classical music, and is known to have studied scores and recordings on his own. Nevertheless, I am in agreement with Woideck that "Parker's goals of formal classical study and a subsequent emphasis on composition may not have been realistic for him. It's unlikely (though not impossible, given his brilliance) that Parker, who only wrote out music when absolutely necessary, could be transformed into a composer of larger forms merely through study of European-derived classical music" (pp. 207-08). Perhaps Parker's limitations in this regard were also a source of his strength as a jazz musician. Parker explored his craft on the bandstand, where he spent a good portion of his life, and was not one to seclude himself and work things out on theoretical grounds.

Despite his desire to move on to new musical spheres, Parker's musical ambitions were not realized. Occasionally, new elements or approaches appear in his solos, but his basic style remained unchanged. Certainly, by the time of his death in 1955 Parker was in a musical backwater—the wealth of activity in modern jazz that he had been instrumental in initiating had left him far behind. This points up the amazing speed at which jazz styles have evolved in this century. A moment's reflection reveals the absurdity of the situation—that a style which was considered radical and incomprehensible in 1945 could be perceived as effete and outdated in 1955. But listeners did not consider Parker's style effete and outdated. It was Parker himself who was dissatisfied with his music, and we as historians who feel that he should have been among those striking out in new directions. As Woideck observes, "Career-long aesthetic evolution . . . is the exception, not the rule in art" (p. 217). Yet it is hard to deny that "Charlie Parker's best soloistic work of the 1950s suggests that he had much more to say to us" (p. 218). The bebop revolution, in which Parker played the key role, was arguably the most significant and far-reaching development in the history of jazz. Perhaps that is enough to accomplish in one lifetime.

3156 Last modified on October 18, 2018