Why It's So Hard for WRTI's Bob Perkins To Pick Just One Favorite Charlie Parker Tune

Aug 21, 2020

The great alto saxophonist and jazz icon Charlie "Yardbird" Parker was only 34 years old when he died in 1955. During his short life, he became one of the most influential improvising soloists in jazz. As we celebrate Bird's 100th birthday week on WRTI starting on August 24th, Jazz Host Bob Perkins talks with Susan Lewis about why he's always been in sync with the music of Charlie Parker.

A jazz aficionado and a radio mainstay for decades with a deep, warm voice that pulls listeners into his musical orbit, "BP with the GM" shares his love of the "good music" from WRTI's studios, even during the COVID crisis. In the days leading up to our interview I asked BP what Charlie Parker albums or tunes he'd point me to before we talked. His response?

Parker with Strings. Here's "Laura" from one of the two albums released in 1949 and 1950:

Parker with Miles Davis. Here's the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1946 playing "Billie's Bounce" and more:

And Parker playing standards.  Here's "I've Got Rhythm:"

I thought these might be his favorite tunes, albums or sessions; turns out, they're just the beginning of the journey that leads to fully appreciating the legendary saxophonist. Once you're immersed, it's difficult to pick favorites. 

"I just like Charlie Parker," he says. "I don't think I've ever heard too much stuff that Parker played that I didn't like. I lean toward melody and that's what I try to play for some of the people who might want to listen to me; something that you might be able to tap your foot to, and hum to."

"I think Count Basie said, 'If you're playing a tune, and no one's shaking their head, tapping their foot,' he said, in that vernacular, 'don’t play that no more.' If you couldn't get a reaction ... find something else to do."

On August 14th, BP and I met on Zoom, and plunged right into the world of Charlie Parker. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation. 

When did you first discover Charlie Parker?

I don't remember the year. I was rooted in R&B, then I heard about this new music, started listening to it, and his name popped up. We had a couple of good disc jockeys in Philadelphia, and I listened to them and I got some Charlie Parker by listening.  I learned most of my stuff from the great broadcasters of Philadelphia.

Do you have any favorite Charlie Parker tunes?

He put his name on a lot of great tunes. Not only was he great at playing the alto saxophone, he was like a god. And he had all these people following him. Everyone wanted to play alto saxophone, because Charlie played alto saxophone. But none did it quite like Charlie Parker.

What was it about the way he played that made him stand out from the crowd? 

To me, he was melodic, which is what I try to play in my program. Melody. I never heard him play anything that was what you might call 'way out,' that you couldn't understand.

And he was only out there for about 10 years. He died at 34, in 1955, but he kicked up a lot of dust before the dawn. He made a tremendous mark in 10 years, even with the problems he had; he did drugs and so forth.

He was just  gifted. He picked up the horn and then played the heck out of it. You don't know where the horn ended and where the man began or vice versa; it seemed to be a part of him. 

You suggested Charlie Parker with Strings as one great introduction.  

Yeah, that's a great album. He got a lot of criticism because of the strings; everybody wanted him to be very, very inventive. They thought the strings were kind of holding him back. But I like the CD; it's beautiful. He played mostly standards and it just came out very well. It had its core people who liked it or people who didn't like it, but it's still there. Parker with Strings.  People who like really hard straight ahead stuff -- it didn't go down too well with them.

And I gathered he wanted strings because he was a fan of [Igor] Stravinsky.

Yes. He had a very broad  range. I knew someone who went to his apartment in Philadelphia. [Parker] was supposed to get a contract at a club. Somewhere in the contract, it said he had to meet with these young musicians in Philadelphia. 'That is part of your contract, Charlie. If you can't do that, then you can't have the contract to appear in the club.' And he was late for that [meeting], cause he was always late. He apologized to the kids when he got there, because he was so late and they were about to leave.

He said, "I'll tell you what, I'm taking you up to my apartment and we can talk there." He was supposed to counsel the kids on how he became Charlie Parker, and this kind of thing. And [in the apartment], they looked through some of his albums .. classical music, jazz, a little bit of everything. His range was very broad as a musician. 

He was also very well spoken at the age of 34, not just about music, but about world affairs and so forth.  He could talk very pointedly about certain things, politics, whatever the case may be, but he was pretty well grounded.

You mentioned this range, and you have on the one hand Charlie Parker with Strings, which shows one kind of playing. And then you also suggested to me the music that he played with Miles Davis. 

Yeah, Miles loved Charlie Parker and somehow the two did get together, and they made an album together. I guess that really started Miles off. Miles became great in his own way. And he was one of those who loved Charlie Parker. They didn't [play together] long, but they made quite an impact when they got together.

And the name 'Yardbird'? 

As the story goes -- you know how stories go? [He laughs. ] They get like Pinochio's nose; they get longer and longer. But the story goes that he was in a car. The car hit a chicken that was strolling across the road and it killed the small bird. Charlie got out of the car, got the chicken, took it home, de-feathered it, and ate it for dinner. So everyone called him 'Yardbird.' 

Then, later on, it just became 'Bird.' So that's how that came about.  And of course, [saxophonist] Jimmy Heath, who was a neighbor of the Perkins family in South Philadelphia -- Jimmy Heath was called 'Little Bird,' because he was one of those who loved the sound of Parker, and his sound was somewhat like Parker's.

You must have been pretty young  when Charlie Parker died.  

I remember Ma Perkins was reading a local paper and she said, "Bob, do you know anybody named Charlie Parker?"

I said, "Yeah, he's a musician. What about him?"

She said, "Well, he passed away."

And I said, "Oh, well, you must be reading it wrong, Ma. Let me see. Can I see that paper, please? "

I looked in the paper and there it was: Charlie Parker passed away. Not much attribute; maybe about a paragraph and a half;  not the details of his death, but just that Charlie Parker had died.

I said, what an important person! Of course, a lot of people didn't quite get Charlie Parker. They thought he was very mysterious, they didn't get the music, they didn't get Charlie Parker. They didn't really like jazz. So I guess that's what all the editors thought he should have -- a paragraph and a half in the paper -- but later on, [his recognition] became larger.

He's credited with being one of the founders of bebop.

I really have a little trouble with that. A lot of people kind of diminished the idiom a little bit.  I just called it modern jazz, but it was termed 'bebop.'  I guess everything has to have a name for identification ... So a lot of people just called it 'bebop.'

Like I said, I always called him very melodic. I never heard him go into inventive stuff over my head. He always seemed to be 'on the ball' with me, and I guess with a lot of people, he was.  And I think with a lot of people who didn't like jazz;  [when] they listened to Parker, they got it.

I've heard that modern jazz described as almost analogous to Baroque or Bach, because it has so many notes and this amazing structure; it's very virtuosic. 

Yeah.  It just had that magic touch. A lot of people who didn't like him at first, if they listened quite enough, it kind of came to them. He seemed to get more popular,  as it is with a lot of people who start something, and a little bit later on, they become more popular than they were when they started. If you listen to them enough, it becomes clear what they were trying to do.

What's the power of music? Why is it so important to us?

Oh, that's a tough one. I guess it's so many things that get to so many people. When you can take a particular instrument -- I'm thinking about jazz, now particularly -- it's mostly improvised music and you can say, play me "Stella by Starlight," and they can play it for you without looking at the sheet of paper, and extemporaneously, give you a five minute solo. It's fantastic.

There's nothing there but the head, the eyes, and the heart. And with jazz musicians, where the music is mostly extemporaneous, someone is playing their life in miniature -- where they have been, who they love, what they like, what  kind of food they like on their plate, all that is encapsulated.

It's magic. That's what Charlie Parker and other people do; and  I play [their music] and try to get other people into the mix, to know what jazz is, you know?

And I guess if you listen maybe long enough and your mind is open, you might try to hear all of the things that they are trying to convey when they're playing their music: "Which is a piece of my life, that I'm giving  to you."

And I find that in jazz music, I try to think along with the entertainer, with the artist and try to figure out what he or she is singing about, or playing on the instrument; how to get inside of the music. I picture the personality and who they are.

That's how I see the music. And that's what I try to deliver to my listeners. I'm BP behind the mic and doing whatever it is I do, trying to bring everybody together, and what better time to do it than right  now - the time in which we live.