It’s a late night in 1939 in Harlem. A rag tag nineteen year old sax player walks into a local joint where up and coming musicians come to hang out and jam. As the crowd watches him strap on his horn, it’s doubtful anyone is aware of who he will become. Regardless, history is about to be made right in front of them.
The fast playing, spirited young Charlie Parker had recently moved from his childhood home in the Missouri Ozarks to the thriving musical hub of New York City. He’d found a job as a dishwasher at Jimmie’s chicken shack, where the revered Art Tatum entertained regularly. Mostly self taught, he hadn’t even picked up the sax till age eleven. At sixteen he’d suffered public embarrassment when he’d had a cymbal thrown at him by Jo Jones, drummer of the renown Count Basie Orchestra - supposedly because Parker had gotten lost in the changes when attempting to improvise in a new way. That hadn’t stopped him, though, and he’d been practicing as much as fifteen hours a day since, determined to forge his own distinct style. He found the more traditional and tonal melodies jazz players typically improvised restrictive, and could hear faster, more chromatic riffs with frequent key changes in his mind before he could even figure out how to play them. He ignored the fact that many of the established jazz musicians thought his new approach “garbage.” Parker realized early on that if he wanted to invent something new and unearth the sound that came straight from his own soul, he’d have to be willing to break some boundaries. As he later said:
“Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art.”
On that night in 1939, “Bird” (as he would later be nicknamed by his bandmates) had a breakthrough that forever changed the face of jazz. Realizing that the melodies he’d been hearing were built on the extensions of the chords he was soloing over, he started playing with those extended harmonies mind. Because he practiced in every key (unlike a lot of players at the time) he had the virtuosity and understanding of chromatic movement to traverse through these key shifts faster and with more fluidity than had ever been done before. A new style, known simply as “bebop”, was born. Parker become a cultural icon and went on to play with and inspire an entire new generation of jazz players including Dizzy Gillispie, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the style even went on to inspire the beatnik generation’s poets and writers.
Charlie Parker had the courage and foresight to practice in a way that allowed him to expand the musical language. It’s easy for us as singers to constantly rely on what we’ve been told. It’s comfortable to fall back on the idea that “this is how things are done” and to try and exert a kind of control over the learning and performing process. This, though, is an insecurity that stems from our inability to trust ourselves, our passion, and our own impulses. The voice and body have an indescribable ability to recover, adapt, and grow from failure and experimentation - but they only do that if given the opportunity.
Often, when we’re stuck, we resort to all the things we’ve tried in the past. We forget that we, like the world around us, continue to change. I’m not saying history isn’t helpful - it’s immensely important! We can establish helpful principals from examining our past mistakes and successes. But every time we sing, we have a slightly different voice than the day before. We have a slightly more advanced understanding of musicality and interpretation. Every moment is a new moment. An improvisation. What worked before won’t necessarily work again. We have to let go of knowing the exact outcome. Instead, we have to listen and respond to the ever shifting circumstances in front of us, and see where our intuition leads. Only by letting go of our control mechanisms can we begin to find true freedom.
Or, as “Bird” put it so eloquently.
“You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.”