When I was in 10th grade I met an amazing man who changed my life. He wasn’t alive then, but I spent a year reading about him, listening to his music, and trying to learn to play it. That man, Charlie Parker, turns 101 this week.
In junior high my family moved to the Kansas City area. After starting at my new school I switched from playing the violin in the school orchestra to playing the double bass. I was the only boy in the class, no one else played the bass and we needed one, and most of the girls in the class played the violin far better than I could ever hope to. It was an easy choice. When I started high school the next year, the jazz band teacher asked me if I would be interested in joining. It turned out I was the only bass player in the high school, and every jazz band needs a bass player!
Jazz changed my life. It became part of my identity, the music I practiced, listened to, and thought about. While my classmates were listening to grunge and alternative, singing Green Day and Nirvana, I was listening to Joe Henderson and Ahmad Jamal. Ray Brown and Ron Carter were my bass heroes. My closest friends were the drummer, pianist, and tenor sax player in the jazz band.
In 10th grade I took a year-long class focused on research and art. The teacher said that since I liked jazz I should learn about a jazz musician from Kansas City. She suggested Charlie Parker. I spent the school year reading biographies and listening to as many CDs and records as I could get my hands on. (Thinking back on how hard I had to work to get that music makes me feel kind of old! Today you can listen to way more Charlie Parker than I ever had access to on whatever streaming service you like. Kids these days have it so easy.)
The day that made the most difference, the moment when Charlie Parker came alive and charged my life, was when I spent time with the curator of the UMKC sound archives, Chuck Haddix. Chuck is one of the world’s experts on Bird. We spent a whole day in the archives listening to record after record as he told me stories, explained the nuance and beauty of bebop, and helped critique my research paper. I don’t know why Chuck was willing to spend so much time with me. I do know that I’ve never been the same since. Hardly a day goes by when I don’t listen to Bird’s music and think of the things Chuck taught me.
Tonight I had the chance to play some Charlie Parker music with my son and daughter. We were rehearsing as part of a student group that’s going to play in Kansas City’s 18th and Vine district to celebrate Charlie Parker’s 101st birthday on Sunday. (I know I’m way too old to play as part of a student group, but every jazz group needs a bass player! Still true, even after all these years.) Practicing and playing the music of my hero together with my children was amazing. Hearing my daughter sing Yardbird Suite, the one piece Parker wrote words to; seeing my son improvise on Now’s the Time, the Parker tune I first learned how to improvise on; these were experiences I’ll never forget. On Sunday we open up for two amazing jazz groups, including one led by Bobby Watson. It’s got to be the closest thing to jazz heaven.
Sometimes I think about all the things that needed to go right for me to even hear about Charlie Parker. He died in 1955. I was born in 1981. He was from Kansas City. I was born halfway across the country to a family that didn’t even listen to jazz. What are the chances that a violin playing white kid from Utah would ever hear and fall in love with the music of Charlie Parker? I think it’s a miracle.
Happy Birthday Bird. Your life was far too short, but your music and your art are still with us, still changing lives and teaching us to swing and be good to each other. Bird Lives on in my heart, and now a bit of him lives in my children’s hearts too.