Parker’s Playing Epitomizes Bebop Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Charlie Parker’s first 1946 recording session for Dial Records produced some of the finest jazz recordings of the bebop era and helped to define a style that would prove influential in jazz history.

Summary of Event

There was nothing in the early life of Charlie Parker to indicate the remarkable achievements he was to make. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, he began his musical career by playing the baritone horn in high school. He gained some musical knowledge playing the horn, but he had another instrument in mind. When he was fifteen years old, he persuaded his mother to buy him an alto saxophone. From then on, Parker neglected school to concentrate on playing music. Initially, however, his efforts bore little fruit. [kw]Parker’s Playing Epitomizes Bebop (Mar. 28, 1946)[Parkers Playing Epitomizes Bebop] [kw]Bebop, Parker’s Playing Epitomizes (Mar. 28, 1946) Jazz;bebop Bebop Music;jazz "Moose the Mooche" (Parker)[Moose the Mooche (Parker)] "Yardbird Suite" (Parker)[Yardbird Suite (Parker)] "Night in Tunisia, A" (Gillespie)[Night in Tunisia, A (Gillespie)] "Ornithology" (Harris)[Ornithology (Harris)] Jazz;bebop Bebop Music;jazz "Moose the Mooche" (Parker)[Moose the Mooche (Parker)] "Yardbird Suite" (Parker)[Yardbird Suite (Parker)] "Night in Tunisia, A" (Gillespie)[Night in Tunisia, A (Gillespie)] "Ornithology" (Harris)[Ornithology (Harris)] [g]North America;Mar. 28, 1946: Parker’s Playing Epitomizes Bebop[01720] [g]United States;Mar. 28, 1946: Parker’s Playing Epitomizes Bebop[01720] [c]Music;Mar. 28, 1946: Parker’s Playing Epitomizes Bebop[01720] Parker, Charlie Gillespie, Dizzy Davis, Miles Eckstine, Billy

Parker was fortunate in being able to play professionally early on, and he gained valuable experience both on the bandstand and by asking questions of the more experienced musicians with whom he worked. After having played for only one year, he joined the band of Lawrence Keyes (bassist Gene Ramey later recalled that Parker was the worst player in the band), and later he played frequently with alto saxophonist Buster Smith Smith, Buster , who became his mentor.

In 1937, Parker spent the summer playing with a band in the Ozarks. He spent all of his free time that summer practicing the saxophone and studying the records of the Count Basie band Count Basie band , a Kansas City mainstay. Lester Young (known as Prez, or the President), the featured tenor saxophonist in the Basie band, was one of Parker’s favorite musicians, and he memorized all of Young’s recorded solos. When Parker came back to Kansas City, he was a changed musician. He played with a new confidence, an improved technique, and a greater understanding of music than he had had only a few months earlier.

From that point on, Parker’s musical ability increased rapidly and dramatically. He played in various bands, including that of Jay McShann, and traveled to Chicago and New York. All the while, he worked to increase his knowledge and understanding of music. His relentless desire to become a better musician stood him in good stead; he demonstrated in his playing a discipline that was lacking in his personal life. Like many musicians of his era, he fell victim at an early age to drug and alcohol abuse. This proclivity to indulge himself to excess ultimately contributed to his early death, but his fierce determination enabled him to achieve musical greatness despite it.

In 1943, in New York, Parker joined the band of pianist Earl Hines Hines, Earl . He met a number of other fine young musicians who were, like him, open to experimentation. These musicians, who included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, trombonist Benny Harris, and singer and bandleader Billy Eckstine, were tired of playing the same old music and wanted to find a new way to play. They, and other musicians, were experimenting with new harmonies, new rhythmic patterns, and new approaches of all kinds. Parker became particularly close to Gillespie, who was as restless an innovator as himself. In 1944, Gillespie, Parker, and a host of superb young musicians joined the newly formed Billy Eckstine band Billy Eckstine band , which became a kind of incubator for the music that came to be called bebop (the word is derived from a rhythmic pattern that occurred frequently in the music).

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, along with such musicians as pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, pianist and arranger Tadd Dameron, and drummer Kenny Clarke, revolutionized the world of jazz. The style that they developed featured harmonies more complex than those that had previously been heard in popular music, a tendency to rework standard songs to create entirely new musical entities, and a new approach to drumming that rejected the usual straightforward four-to-the-bar approach in favor of less regular accents. In addition, they often played this complex music at fast tempi that intimidated all but the very best players. Within a relatively short period, these players were lionized by many young musicians. They were also reviled by many others, particularly those who could neither understand nor play their music. Both attitudes served to increase the notoriety of the music.

After he left the Eckstine band, Parker played and recorded in New York in a small band with Dizzy Gillespie, after which he organized a band of his own that included the young trumpeter Miles Davis, who received the schooling of his life trying to keep up with Parker’s blazing tempi. It was partly the experience of trying (and being unable) to play as cleanly and rapidly as the virtuosic Parker and Gillespie that led Davis to develop the style that made him famous, which involved playing only what he considered the essential notes—the fewer the better.

Parker was involved in a number of recording sessions in 1946 that yielded classic jazz recordings, but one of the finest took place in Los Angeles, where Parker had traveled with Gillespie’s band. Although their music, which was quite popular in New York, was not well received in Los Angeles, and although Parker struggled financially there and had difficulty procuring the heroin and other drugs he required, he remained in Los Angeles when the rest of the Gillespie band returned to New York.

Parker’s recording date for Dial Records Dial Records Record labels;Dial , a company that had just been founded by Ross Russell Russell, Ross , previously a record-shop owner, began inauspiciously. Pianist Joe Albany and bassist Red Callender left Parker’s band just before the session. Replacements were found at the last minute, however, and the session, which took place on March 28, 1946, included Miles Davis on trumpet, Lucky Thompson Thompson, Lucky on tenor sax, Dodo Marmarosa Marmarosa, Dodo on piano, Arv Garrison Garrison, Arv on guitar, Vic McMillan McMillan, Vic on bass, and Roy Porter Porter, Roy on drums.

The four pieces recorded for Dial on March 28 included two tunes by Parker, “Moose the Mooche” (named for Parker’s local drug dealer) and “Yardbird Suite”; one by Dizzy Gillespie, “A Night in Tunisia”; and a piece by Benny Harris, “Ornithology,” which was derived from a solo Parker had played with Jay McShann. Parker’s playing throughout the session was superb, and all the recordings made that day are still studied and appreciated by jazz musicians and aficionados. A few of the recordings were truly remarkable.

Parker’s four-bar solo on the first take of “A Night in Tunisia” was an astounding example of bebop playing that jazz critic Gary Giddins has called a “break of baroque complexity and numbing speed” and Ira Gitler has described as “a miniature history of modern jazz.” Unfortunately, the rest of the band had difficulty with the piece, and the take was unsuccessful and incomplete. The solo was so remarkable, however, that Dial released it in incomplete form as “Famous Alto Break.” The three recorded versions (four were made, but the second was lost) of “Ornithology” were also excellent, and the final (and fastest) version contained a solo by Parker that would stand as one of the finest of his career. The two versions of “Yardbird Suite” were notable for the “cool” style of Parker’s playing (as opposed to his frequent “fiery” style), and the three takes of “Moose the Mooche” contained some fine playing by Miles Davis on trumpet, as well as excellent playing by Parker.

Parker signed over half of his proceeds from the session to Moose the Mooche to cover his drug debts. Not long after, as a result of drug abuse, lack of money and acceptance, and stress, Parker wound up in a mental institution in Camarillo, California. After six months in the hospital, however, he emerged healthy and ready to play, and he went on to make many more classic recordings before his premature death in 1955.


Parker’s March 28, 1946, recording session for Dial Records was significant because it produced recordings that would come to be considered essential by musicians, critics, and fans. The body of Parker’s best work was important, because his music, more than that of any other artist, defined bebop. The influence of bebop changed popular music in general, and jazz in particular, forever. One indication of the influence of bebop is the fact that certain aspects of the music that shocked at least some listeners in the 1940’s sound perfectly normal to modern ears. The innovations of Parker, Gillespie, Monk, and many others are now heard commonly not only in jazz but also in rock and pop music, film and television scores, and even in Muzak.

One of the most important influences of bebop had to do with its use of harmonic structures that were more complex than those that had been used in earlier jazz. It was common practice in jazz playing to use the harmonic structure of a recognizable song as a jumping-off point for improvisation, but a bebop player would play, when a particular chord was called for, notes that were different from those that a swing player would use. For example, when a swing player was improvising over a piece of music that called for a C dominant seventh (C7) chord, he or she would be likely to play the notes that are part of that chord: C, E, G, and B-flat. A bebop player, however, would be likely to play the notes D, F-sharp, and A over the same chord, actually playing a thirteenth chord instead of a seventh chord. This practice is known as playing the extensions of the chords that are specified. One does not need to have musical training to understand that playing completely different notes over a particular chord gives the music an entirely different sound. It was this sound that beboppers enjoyed and certain other players and listeners despised.

Another area in which bebop differed from earlier forms of jazz was that of drumming. During the swing era, it was common for drummers to play the bass drum on every beat, or every other beat, of the bar, which tended to give the music a predictable sound. Bebop drummers such as Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, however, began to keep time on the cymbals, reserving the bass drum for punctuation at irregular intervals. Using the bass drum in this way was called “dropping bombs.” In addition, bebop drummers tended to play in a somewhat softer, more legato style that made it possible to use a wider range of sounds and play more flexibly. In contrast, swing drummers were required to adhere more rigidly to the specific role of keeping the beat. Although bebop drummers also kept the beat, they tended to imply it rather than to mark it explicitly.

It was not only bebop drummers who took a new approach to rhythm. Saxophonists, trumpeters, trombonists, pianists, and bassists also experimented with new ways of accenting notes and phrases, and they sought to use in their solos and compositions rhythmic patterns that had not been commonly used up to that time. Parker was a master of rhythmic phrasing, as even the most cursory exposure to his music will demonstrate. Many well-known swing musicians had difficulty learning to “feel” this new rhythmic approach. One common practice in bebop (it had also been used by earlier musicians) was that of soloists playing in such a way that they seemed to be slightly behind (slower than) the rhythm section. This practice gave the music a particular kind of swing feeling that is difficult to define but easy to hear.

Another important contribution of beboppers was that they raised the standards of musicianship. Musicians such as Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were so technically skilled that they could play music that many established musicians simply could not play. One feature of bebop was that it was frequently played at extremely fast tempi, which meant that in order to play the music effectively, a musician had to have a high level of technical ability. It often happened that when musicians who were not completely grounded in bebop attempted to play with beboppers, they found that they simply could not keep up. The high level of musicianship exhibited by the beboppers performed a tremendous service to jazz, because it provided young musicians with an extremely high level of skill to which to aspire.

Parker’s Dial Records recording session of March 28, 1946, provides a superb example of the features of bebop playing. In addition, it should be noted that Parker’s playing here, as elsewhere, demonstrates an extremely unusual combination of tremendous creativity, passionate emotional intensity, and remarkable technical skill. Many musicians exhibit one or two of these qualities, but only the greatest possess all three. Charlie Parker was certainly one of the finest musicians in the history of jazz, and his music continues to inspire players and listeners. Jazz;bebop Bebop Music;jazz "Moose the Mooche" (Parker)[Moose the Mooche (Parker)] "Yardbird Suite" (Parker)[Yardbird Suite (Parker)] "Night in Tunisia, A" (Gillespie)[Night in Tunisia, A (Gillespie)] "Ornithology" (Harris)[Ornithology (Harris)]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feather, Leonard. Inside Jazz. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977. Originally published in 1949 as Inside Bebop, when bebop was at its peak, this is perhaps the finest book available on the subject. An extremely important and influential book.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Giddins, Gary. Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. An excellent study of Parker’s life and music by a fine contemporary jazz critic. Particularly interesting for its examination of Parker’s early years, based on the reminiscences of his first wife. Includes a selected bibliography and many fine black-and-white photographs.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gitler, Ira. “Charlie Parker and the Alto and Baritone Saxophonists.” In Jazz Masters of the Forties. New York: Collier, 1974. This chapter provides a relatively brief but surprisingly comprehensive study of Parker’s life, music, and influence. An excellent place to begin a study of Parker.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Haydon, Geoffrey. Quintet of the Year. Toronto, Ont.: MacFarlane, Walter & Ross, 2002. The story of a performance often regarded as the greatest jazz concert in history, featuring Parker, Gillespie, Powell, Roach, and Charles Mingus. Bibliographic references, discography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Koch, Lawrence O. Yardbird Suite: A Compendium of the Music and Life of Charlie Parker. Rev. ed. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1999. Focuses on Parker’s music, analyzing his recordings session by session. Musically knowledgeable individuals will find it particularly useful, but it can be read profitably by those who do not have a strong background in music. Includes an “analysis section” that is particularly useful. Also includes numerical and alphabetical listings of Parker’s recordings. Highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Komara, Edward M., comp. The Dial Recordings of Charlie Parker: A Discography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. Complete discography of the ten Parker Dial recording sessions, including commentary and analysis. Bibliographic references and indexes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Reisner, Robert George. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker. Reprint. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977. A sourcebook made up of reminiscences about Parker by those who knew him: musicians, friends, and relatives. Includes a chronological chart of Parker’s life and a useful discography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Russell, Ross. Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker. New York: Charterhouse, 1973. This fascinating and informative book was written by the owner of Dial Records, who knew Parker well. This is a useful source, although it should not be viewed as accurate in every detail. Best used in combination with other sources. Includes an index and a discography.

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Categories: History