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Charlie Parker

His Music and Life
Carl Woideck
A fresh contribution to the literature on jazz


Music is your own experience, your 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.
I lit my fire, I greased my skillet, and I cooked.
—Charlie Parker

From the Preface...

Charlie Parker (1920-55) was one of the most innovative and influential of all jazz musicians, regardless of era. His position in jazz is analogous to Louis Armstrong's in that both musicians advanced the music that they had inherited with regard to melody, rhythm, and harmony, inviting all jazz instrumentalists and composers of any era to reevaluate every aspect of their arts....

As one of the architects of modern jazz (often called "bebop"), Charlie Parker has had a profound effect on American music. His music reached such a high level of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic sophistication that saxophonists and other instrumentalists continue to study it as both a technical challenge and an aesthetic inspiration. The music of Parker and his peers, once considered to be merely the artistic expression of a revolutionary minority within an African-American musical minority, continues to influence American music more than fifty years after bebop's inception. Not strictly the iconoclastic movement that some critics, listeners and musicians believed it to be, modern jazz was based in earlier jazz styles and actually codified the "common practice" techniques of jazz, going on to become the lingua franca of jazz....

The path of artistic discovery is always a highly personal one. During Parker's years of development, formal college-based study of jazz was not readily available. Despite Parker's limited opportunities for formal instruction, we should in no way minimize the depth of musical knowledge that he attained. He was in many ways a product of a jazz culture that no longer exists, one rich with both older master musicians to serve as role models and a network of countless jam sessions and jobs for experience. In a miraculous and undefinable process, Charlie Parker's brilliant talent, insightful study and many hours of playing music came together to form the artist whose work this book celebrates.

This book begins with a chapter of biography that endeavors to sketch the main events and currents of Charlie Parker's life. There are many unclear, vague, and contradictory aspects to his life story, and I have made every effort to present the clearest and most accurate picture when possible and to note uncertainties and contradictions when necessary. A chapter of introduction to his music then sets out some of the facets upon which discussion of Parker's music is to be based.

A guided tour of the music of Charlie Parker focusing on his improvisational art follows. It it not the purpose of this book to examine every recording that Charlie Parker ever made; rather, a selective approach has been taken with the goal of introducing the reader to a sampling of Charlie Parker's most illustrative works, much like a guided tour through a retrospective exhibition of a particular artist's work.

Readers are urged to purchase and listen to the most important Parker recordings discussed in this book. The transcribed musical examples are keyed to compact disc timings for easy location, and the CD sources for the examples are found in Appendix A. Once the readers have listened to Parker's works while following the verbal descriptions and discussion of musical examples in the book, they will have acquired a significant basis for appreciation of Parker's musical world. Much like going back, alone, to visit that art exhibition, repeated listenings to the musical examples in this book will yield new discoveries unique to the listener. In addition, it is hoped that the appreciation gained through this guided musical tour will help to illuminate the many other brilliant and moving works in Charlie Parker's recorded legacy that the listener may encounter.

No technical knowledge of music is needed to enjoy the music of Charlie Parker, and readers of this book with no training in music will gain an understanding of Parker's music through discussion of qualities vital to his improvisational art including his facility and virtuosity; intensity of swing feeling; inventiveness and spontaneity; playfulness and sense of humor; and bluesiness and poetic qualities. Many of the musical passages discussed are keyed to compact disc timings and will be easy for the reader to locate and play on Parker CDs. More technical in nature but still accessible to most readers will be descriptions of Parker's music in terms of repertoire; compositional style; rhythmic properties; accents and syncopation; vibrato and timbre; melodic line; and harmonic vocabulary. Readers with technical knowledge of music will of course glean even more appreciation from these descriptions and will be especially interested in the book's transcribed excerpts of Parker's improvised solos and the accompanying analysis of them. It is hoped that all readers will gain greater appreciation of the depth of the art of one of the most brilliant musical artists of any era or any genre, Charlie Parker.

Praise / Awards

  • ". . . a valuable work. . . . Music students will find Woideck's informed analysis of much interest; and the general reader will benefit from a greater appreciation of the skill and creativity of this highly influential artist."
    Daily News/L.A. Life
  • "Even readers who cannot play readers who cannot play [the passages featured in the text] or follow them while listening to a recording will find that Woideck's commentaries, enriched by pertinent anecdotes and a wealth of other historical material, deepen their understanding of the many qualities that made Parker a musical giant--his inventiveness, humor, virtuosity and swing-ability."
    Michigan Today
  • "Woideck has done an excellent job at piecing together bits of information provided through interviews and recorded oral histories, which effectively lay to rest several earlier tall tales or misinformed statements about Bird. . . . [T]his book makes a valuable contribution to the archive of Parker scholarship."
  • "In Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, Carl Woideck addresses Parker's achievements in meticulous detail. In doing so, he makes a much-needed case for jazz as an art equally as worthy of serious inquiry as classical music. Although the book is mostly devoted to analyzing Parker's music, it begins with a biographical sketch that seeks to dispel some of the myths that have bedeviled the musician since his death in 1955 at the age of 34. Through well-researched anecdotes as well as musical analysis, Woideck, a saxophonist who teaches jazz history at the University of Oregon, illustrates how Parker's genius sprang from a fortuitous confluence of talent and circumstance. . . .If the book does nothing else, it debunks the stereotype that jazz musicians are unschooled and unsophisticated when it comes to music as art rather than entertainment. As Woideck makes clear, Parker's art was the product of a fertile mind that set challenges for itself, and met those challenges in the studio and on the bandstand. As surely as the saxophonist was an entertainer, he was also an artist. Parker's contribution to American music was as great as that of Louis Armstrong—another genius and innovator who has been similarly underappreciated and misrepresented. . . . Woideck is to be commended for getting past the trap of presenting Parker as a tragic artist in favor of concentrating on his art—and on the meaning of that art for the nation and the world. Charlie Parker is not the last word on Bird. But it is certainly an insightful and informative addition to the literature of jazz."
    —Calvin Wilson, "Another Good Riff on Charlie Parker", Kansas City Star
  • ". . . the musical analysis is brilliant, particularly of the pre-1945 fragments."
    Down Beat
  • ". . . Woideck meticulously analyzes the various ways in which Bird grew from a talented young disciple to the most influential musician of his time and, ultimately, one who relied increasingly on reiteration of earlier licks instead of further innovation."
  • "Carl Woideck, himself a saxophonist and professor of jazz history, has opened up to us some of the inner workings of the improvisational art of Charlie Parker. He takes us to the music itself, painstakingly transcribed from recordings. He walks us through the melodies and harmonies of Bird's characteristic works. . . . Woideck identifies 13 qualities and traits found in Parker's music, including poetic depth, the range of tempos, and the melodic building blocks. . . . [T]he book is superbly competent in its musical analysis. . . ."
    —William Edgar, Books & Culture
  • "Music students will find Woideck's informed analysis of much interest; and the general reader will benefit from a greater appreciation of the skill and creativity of this highly influential artist."
    L.A. Life
  • "Carl Woideck's Charlie Parker: His Music and Life is a useful addition to the Parker literature, building on the work of earlier writers and musicologists like Robert Reisner, Gary Giddins and Thomas Owens. Woideck is a saxophonist and Jazz educator, and the book is an outgrowth of his Master's thesis on Parker's earliest work. There's a brief life of Parker (pgs. 3-50), with illuminating concentration on his musical apprenticeship, but the heart of the book (pgs. 53-221) is the detailed analysis of some key passages from Parker's recordings, divided into four chronological phases. In all, Woideck examines 90 short transcribed passages, and an appendix includes a complete solo transcriptions from each of the four periods. . . . One highly useful feature of the book is that musical examples are keyed to the times at which they appear on CDs, making it much faster (and certainly easier) to find them. It's a small step toward making musicology user-friendly . . . In general, he [Woideck] does a fine job of balancing analysis, verbal description of music, and biography. Those who read music and have some knowledge of harmony will get the most out of it, but Woideck has gone to some lengths to make his book accessible to others with an interest in the musical structures of Jazz. Whatever background you bring to it, the book will likely enrich your understanding of Parker's music, and that's as much as one can ask of any book on the subject."
    —Stuart Broomer, "Book Look", Cadence
  • "Woideck . . . devotes the majority of this book to a well-written and accessible analysis of Parker's music, illustrating points with transcriptions from various recordings . . . . While the untrained reader will likely find it rather rough going, Woideck has worked hard to keep his analysis accessible to anyone with a basic understanding of music . . . . students of jazz will welcome this text; strongly recommended for all jazz collections."
    Library Journal

News, Reviews, Interviews

Review on | 3/20/2010

Product Details

  • 6 x 9.
  • 304pp.
  • 8 B&W photographs, 90 music examples.
Available for sale worldwide

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  • Paper
  • 1998
  • Available
  • 978-0-472-08555-2

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  • $25.95 U.S.