Live Bird is the Best Bird (by Mark Stryker)


1) Charles McPherson and Steve Coleman

2) Tom Harrell and Mark Turner

3) John Scofield

4) Bertha Hope

>>> 5) Live Bird is the Best Bird (by Mark Stryker)

6) Bird is the Word (five famous solos and commentary)

7) Words about Bird (reception history, featuring Hampton Hawes)

If I had access to a time machine, the first place I would travel would be back to New York circa 1950 to hear Charlie Parker at a club like Birdland or the Royal Roost. Before Trane at the Half Note in ‘65, Sonny at the Vanguard in ’66, Ellington in Fargo in ’40, or Armstrong and Hines in the studio in Chicago in ’28, I’d want to hear Bird. Hell, I’d go catch him playing a dance at a roller rink if that was my only option. I just want to know what it was like to experience the intensity of that sound and creativity in person, to feel the air move in the room when he played the alto saxophone.

As great as the studio recordings are, Bird’s genius for me best reveals itself on the countless hours of live tapes where he’s unconstrained by the shackles of the three-minute record. In clubs and concerts, he could stretch out for chorus after chorus, often reaching peaks of demonic inspiration rarely matched in the studio. His freely conceived approach to rhythm and phrasing is especially amplified on live recordings. Bird’s ability to start and stop his ideas in any corner of the beat, and the way he tosses syncopated accents around like a juggler keeping a dozen balls in the air at once, creates an unmatched feeling of elation, suspense, and surprise.   

The live recordings also open a window on the life of a working jazz musician at midcentury. Bird was a once-in-a-century artist, but he was also a tradesman, craftsman, and entertainer. It’s instructive to hear how he navigated the liminal territory between spontaneous improvisation and a vast storehouse of fundamentally preset melodic and harmonic patterns and favored routines on certain material. Even “routine” Bird is great. But when he’s truly inspired, creating new ideas within his language in real time, the omniscient authority of the music and its emotional breadth can make you stop breathing.

Ultimately, that is what it is all about: Charlie Parker’s music is so powerful because it is so sweeping in what it expresses and how it expresses it. Each of Bird’s improvisations not only tell you more about his artistry and how he perceives the world, they tell you more about yourself and those around you. Bird opens your heart and mind to your own emotions, your own understanding of creativity, your own place within the cosmos. Nothing brings this point home as powerfully as his transcendent live performances.

Here is an annotated selection of 21 of my favorite live recordings of Charlie Parker, along with accompanying links to YouTube. (Why 21? Because I couldn’t stop at 20.) I have arranged them in chronological order, and taken together they offer a career overview, from about 1940 to 1953. (Bird died on March 12, 1955, at age 34.) It’s especially intriguing to chart the development of his art during his apprenticeship period in the early ‘40s. 

A few caveats: Not all of my favorite tracks were available on YouTube, and not all those I could find are pitch-corrected. Anyone who has explored bootleg Bird also knows that the fidelity of the recordings can range from nearly unlistenable to surprisingly good. Parker scholarship is still evolving, so discographical details like dates, personnel, and location are still a matter of conjecture in some instances. I have gone with the best information of which I am aware but forgive me for not researching every ambiguity. I am not in the mood for footnotes. Love, perhaps; but not footnotes.  

1. “Honey & Body,” Kansas City, probably May 1940. Whoa! Bird’s first recording, homemade, a cappella improvising over “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Body and Soul.” Lester Young’s rhythm and Buster Smith’s tone echo but asymmetric phrases, chromaticism, tritone substitutions, swing, and Bird’s flawless time all leap ahead. Stanley Crouch: “The sound of the moment before ignition.”

2. “Moten Swing,” KFBI radio, Wichita, 11/30/40. Jay McShann Orchestra. Imagine hearing McShann’s band in 1940 and Bird stands up to play these 32 bars. You recognize the Lesterian fluidity of his first eight bars and the presence of his vibrant tone grabs your ear; but the startling trail of triplets in measures 9 and 10 causes your eyes to widen, and then Bird threads the changes on the bridge like no one you’ve ever heard. Who the hell was THAT? 

3. “Cherokee,” Kansas City, c. late 1943 or early ’44. Efferge Ware, guitar; Edward (Little Phil) Phillips, drums. Bird’s mature style and expressive sound is now fundamentally in place, save a final measure of dazzling syncopation and accent. The “Tea for Two”-derived arpeggios in the second bridge remained part of Bird’s routine on “Cherokee” for the rest of his life. The descending pattern sequence in the third bridge hung around through the ’40s but disappears from recordings of Bird playing these changes in the ’50s.

4. “Oh, Lady Be Good,” Philharmonic Auditorium, Los Angeles, 1/28/46. Jazz at the Philharmonic. The highest level of sophisticated and soulful storytelling by the defining improviser in jazz AND its greatest blues musician. More than a masterpiece of bebop, it is the essence of the art form. John Lewis: “Bird made a blues out of Lady Be Good. That solo made old men out of everyone on stage that night.”

5. “Confirmation,” Carnegie Hall, NY, 9/29/47. Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, Al McKibbon, Joe Harris. Dizzy’s presence always inspired Bird, whose three choruses overflow with endless melody (no cliches), animated rhythm and phrasing (triplets, double-time, in-the-cracks subtleties), crystal-clear articulation (dig the second bridge!), and a plush tone as luxurious as 24-karat gold. 

6. “Hot House,” Royal Roost, NY, 1/15/49. Kenny Dorham, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, Joe Harris. Bird blows beyond his typical melodic patterns on these changes (“What Is This Thing Called Love”). The second chorus is especially fine. He soars up to a startling altissimo A (rare in Bird’s oeuvre) in bar 11 and then double-times his ass off through the bridge.

7. “Groovin’ High,” Royal Roost, NY, 2/19/49. Kenny Dorham, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, Max Roach. The juggle of accents in Bird’s stop-and-go phrasing knocks me out. Bars 9-16 of his solo create whiplash, and the snake that carries over into bars 17-18 is capped by a surprising Major 7th that vibrates like a motherfucker. Woo!

8. “Ornithology,” Birdland, NY, c. fall 1949 to June 1950. Fats Navarro, Bud Powell, Curley Russell, Art Blakey. A celebrated version of one of the era’s most popular anthems (“How High the Moon” changes). Bird plays four blazing choruses—Go Baby!—dramatically reinventing some of his familiar vocabulary in the heat of battle. He and Fats raise the ante in an exciting chase sequence. Still, Bud’s insanely creative three choruses cut everyone.

9. “Confirmation,” St. Nicholas Arena (St. Nick’s), NY, 2/18/50. Red Rodney, Al Haig, Tommy Potter, Roy Haynes. Bird spins a bewildering web of rhythm and phrasing on this “Confirmation,” which is faster and wilder than the 1947 version above. It’s not the speed of the cascades that mesmerizes as much as the shifting accents, the lightning triplets within the flurries, the rhythmic and melodic feints and parries, the serpentine contours of the lines. Bird’s basic orientation is behind the beat, but he’s constantly moving his 8th, 16th, and 32nd notes all across the beat — while projecting inviolable momentum and swing. He never misses, never gets turned around. And note how connected he is to Roy’s drums and vice versa.

10. “Easy to Love,” Apollo Theater, NY, August 1950. Strings plus Billy Taylor, Tommy Potter, Roy Haynes. Jimmy Mundy’s chart, with its dramatic intro and “running” pizzicato interlude, is among the finest of the Bird with Strings arrangements. Bird doesn’t improvise much: 16 bars, plus a few pirouettes during the melody, but it’s all choice. Dig the suavely swinging 8th-note line that puts a period on his solo and ends with an elegant twirl around the major 7th.

11. “Repetition,” Carnegie Hall, NY, 9/16/50. Strings plus Al Haig, Tommy Potter, Roy Haynes. Commercially recorded in excellent fidelity, Neal Hefti’s Cuban-flavored song showcases how Bird’s vocal tone flowered even more gorgeously with strings. His solo, full of organic melody and graceful rhythm, is as beautifully proportioned as a Michelangelo sculpture but also glides across the dance floor as effortlessly as Astaire.   

12. “Anthropology,” Birdland, NY, 3/31/51. Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Tommy Potter, Roy Haynes. Look out! Rhythm changes WAY upstairs by a dream band of the era. The clarity of Bird’s articulation at this speed is incredible. The tempo doesn’t bother his rhythmic flexibility or wit either. He toys with the time, quotes pop tunes like “Tenderly” and “Temptation,” and generally destroys for 3 choruses. 

13. “Out of Nowhere,” Howard Theatre, Washington D.C., 10/18/52. Bird addresses one of his favorite standards with a pick-up band. The first four bars of his solo at 1:02 are a time warp to the future — stunningly abstract, cubist rhythm, anticipating Sonny Rollins in the ’60s. Holy Cow! Compare to Sonny’s opening salvo on “Love Letters”  on The Standard Sonny Rollins (1964).

14. “How High the Moon,” Birdland, NY, 11/1/52. Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Percy Heath, Kenny Clarke. Fascinating document. Bird sitting in with the first iteration of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Lewis’ comping feels a bit crowded, but Bird and Klook together was something special. The relaxed tempo lets them settle into a deeply swinging, simmering groove. 

15. “Stardust,” Rockland Palace, NY, 9/26/52. Strings plus Mundell Lowe, Walter Bishop Jr., Teddy Kotick, Roy Haynes. Bird playing pretty for the people at a dance. He redeems the weak-kneed string arrangement by singing the hell out of the tune. Among all of his other gifts, Bird plays melodies of pop tunes with soul, taste, and respect. He improvises passionately, but his lavish curtains of invention never crowd out the song.

16. “Cool Blues,” Rockland Palace, NY, 9/26/52. As above but no strings. Bird roars through his favorite set of altered blues changes in C with wildfire intensity, astonishing spontaneity, jaw-dropping authority, and delirious ecstasy. Note how Bird always carries his ideas to a definitive conclusion. Nothing ever peters out. The lines end with a brilliant pop of conviction. When he plays like this, no one can touch him.  

Coda: Bird sounds tremendous on everything taped at the Rockland Palace, where his group performed with and without strings for an evening-length dance and benefit for Harlem’s Benjamin Davis, a city councilman (and communist). Unfortunately, the music has been treated poorly by bootleggers. “Cool Blues” here runs nearly a full step sharp. The only completely pitched corrected Rockland issue I know is The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert 1952 (Jazz Classics).

17. “Just Friends,” Carnegie Hall, 11/14/52. Strings plus Walter Bishop Jr., Walter Yost, Roy Haynes. The 1949 studio recording of “Just Friends” is among Bird’s greatest achievements. Here he begins and ends his supple solo with the same motivic scaffolding as on the earlier version, but in between he builds a completely different and satisfying improvisation that radiates love and joy. 

18. “Embraceable You,” Chez Parée, Montreal, 2/7/53. Bird hardly glances at Gershwin’s melody in his timeless 1947 reading of “Embraceable You” (Take 1). Here, working with a local rhythm section, he addresses the tune directly, casually, fulfilling an audience request. The quadruple-time run at 2:43 sounds beamed in from another planet. Bird’s speaking voice before and after is an added treat.

19. “Willis,” Club Kavakos, Washington D.C., 2/22/53. Joe Timer and The Orchestra; Bill Potts, composer-arranger. Bird flying over “Pennies from Heaven” changes with a D.C. big band without benefit of a rehearsal or even a chart. He copes on the fly with unexpected modulations and breaks. Loose, free, funny, breathtaking in its spontaneous creativity and euphoric in expression. Plus, the most astounding double-time phrasing that I know. This might be my all-time favorite Charlie Parker solo. 

20. “These Foolish Things,” Club Kavakos, Washington, D.C., 2/22/53. As above except arrangement by Joe Timer. Bird’s chorus-and-a-half ranks with his finest ballad performances. He plays with almost super-human focus and intent. Every phrase, from the simplest embellishment to the most complex elaboration lands as pure melody that contributes to a larger tapestry of beauty.

21. “All the Things You Are,” Open Door, NY, 7/29/53.  Al Haig, Charles Mingus, Art Taylor. The best of the Open Door material, recorded 20 months before Bird’s death, fascinates because you can almost sense him trying to break free of the language he created, and yet you also know – and perhaps he did too — that time was short. The density of his first solo chorus here anticipates Trane’s sheets-of-sound, while his vocalized tone predicts Ornette Coleman.

Mark Stryker is the author of Jazz from Detroit (University of Michigan Press).

Also on DTM:

One That Got Away: Steve Grossman, 1951-2020 (by Mark Stryker)

Interview with Mark Stryker — Part one about a career in journalism and Jazz in Detroitpart two is about saxophonists.

The Bard of Bebop: Ira Gitler (by Mark Stryker)

George Walker: Dispatches from Detroit (by Mark Stryker)

Traps, the Drum Wonder: on Buddy Rich (by Mark Stryker)

(go on to part six, “Bird is the Word”)