Charlie Parker-Bird Gets The Worm

Charlie Parker-Bird Gets The Worm

Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk, developed the style of music known as Be-Bop. 

Charlie Parker, AKA Bird, short for Yardbird as a result of his love of chicken, was truly the innovator and originator of this music that overtook the city of New York in the early 1940’s.  Big band swing was the stylistic norm prior to World War II, but Bird rewrote the musical language of the time and began a musical revolution that reshaped music for eternity.  Bird’s influence extended not only to alto saxophone players like Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Stitt and Phil Woods, but to many instrumentalists across the jazz spectrum.  Charlie Parker was the dominant voice and influence on the vast majority of jazz instrumentalists from the late 1940’s until the hard bop movement took hold nearly fifteen years later.

More information about the life and too short career of Charlie Parker can be found here……

Be sure to read up on the other two main architects of the Be Bop Revolution…..

Pianist Thelonious Monk…..

Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie……

It has been common practice amongst jazz musicians to learn Bird solos, both by ear and by writing them out, via a process known as transcription. 

I remember the first time I came across the Charlie Parker Omnibook, a massive collection of transcribed Charlie Parker solos.  I believe that was probably 1978, and a few of the local private teachers in my area were working with their students out of it.  Gradually I became familiar with the book, and began collecting a few of the recordings that were documented in the Omnibook.  I remember reading through the material in the book, and in retrospect it was a pretty decent introduction to Bird’s recorded legacy.  It wasn’t until I met Warne Marsh in 1983 that I became convinced that the Omnibook was something to be avoided.  Warne was a man of serious musical conviction, and he hated that book to its core.  He cited the multitude of mistakes in the transcriptions, and the idea that learning solos by ear was the ultimate influence and study for any aspiring jazz improviser.  I threw away my Omnibook at that point, and began the study of singing along with the solos in order to internalize them deeply, and a few years later I couldn’t help myself from chastising students for taking the “easy way out” when I found them working from the Omnibook.  I even confiscated the books from a couple of students that refused to use their ears to learn solos!! Somehow over the years I got ahold of a Bb version of the book, which is pictured above.  I just dug it out of a file cabinet where it has lived for the last 15 years, I am surprised I still have it lying around!!!

Over my nearly three decades of teaching I have seen the amazing results that learning jazz solos by ear has had on my more advanced students.  Students need to have a solid technical background on their instrument to take on the challenges of Charlie Parker solos.  I make it a point to introduce high school students to these solos, and try to get these students to grasp the sophisticated phrasing and harmonic components contained in these gems.  In my own personal study I learn solos thoroughly first by ear, and then after many months of daily practice I will write them out, in order to take a further look at how they are constructed.  I find it easier myself to analyze various features of a solo when I have it written down.  I have found it very instructive to compare the linear construction of the solo to the chord changes, which can be a challenge to hear.

Warne Marsh loved the solo Charlie Parker played on Billie’s Bounce.  I am sure he considered it an essential and seminal solo; he did record the solo himself and used to play it as a regular part of his practicing.  I teach this solo by ear only to my students once they have the chops to tackle the challenge.  This solo is chock full of typical Bird phrases, and the solo unfolds in a logical and exciting manner.  All of you students of the saxophone, or any instrument for that matter, should play this solo daily by ear until it becomes completely part of your musical DNA.  

One of my personal favorites is the Charlie Parker solo on Cool Blues.  This short solo, which follows a very simple repeating riff that constitutes the melody, contains some classic Bird licks.  I often start with this solo with students learning Bird by ear for the first time as it can be taught phrase by phrase easily and most students can learn and retain this solo very quickly…..

Cool Blues:Bird

Charlie Parker was a masterful blues player, and his solo on Au Privave #1 is a classic one to study for inflection, note choice and rhythmic sophistication.  I play this one by ear several times a week.  If you look carefully you will see how he recycles the sixteenth note phrase from his Billie’s Bounce solo.  It is not uncommon to find similar melodic material in many different Charlie Parker solos……

Au Privave #1 Fixed

Another stellar solo can be found on Now’s The Time.  Bird made a whole smattering of recordings for Savoy Records which stand by themselves as some of the greatest recordings in the jazz canon.

Here is the transcription I’ve done on Now’s The Time, a simple blues melody that Bird turns inside out in his solo.  This one’s a classic, be sure to wear this one out both reading from the transcription and by ear!

Now's The Time:Savoy


I studied saxophone with a local teacher in the 1980’s while I was at San Francisco State University working on my undergraduate degree.  Saxophonist Hal Stein lived in Oakland at this time, and he was a true Be-Bopper in every sense of the word.  Hal was originally from the New York/New Jersey area, and he made a few recordings over the years, one of which I believe was with fellow Bird disciple Phil Woods.  He wrote out these Tiny’s Tempo solos, and I held on to them for many years, eventually putting them into Finale for posterity.  They are included here as I like to use these as sight reading material for students that have begun to grasp Bird’s language, they work very well for that, plus the melody contains some very interesting intervalic leaps.

Here is Hal Stein’s Wikipedia entry, there are some interesting facts here that I had not known about Hal……

Tiny's Tempo:Alto:Take 1
Tiny's Tempo:Alto:Take 2
Tiny's Tempo:Alto:Master


Warne Marsh also loved the Charlie Parker solo on Yardbird Suite, and Warne recorded a Hall of Fame solo himself on this tune when he was still a young and developing voice on the saxophone.  This short Charlie Parker solo is a “must learn” solo for all serious students of the saxophone.  Be sure to spend some time listening to and learning this solo…..

Yardbird Suite:Bb Bird Solo

Once a student achieves a higher level of proficiency with Charlie Parker solos I look to challenge them with more difficult material.  Donna Lee is a fast Be-Bop tune, and the Bird solo on this tune is a perfect example of his technical mastery and genius.  I have learned and relearned this melody and solo many times, it never ceases to amaze me how brilliant and truly unique Charlie Parker was.  To me this tune and solo embody his greatness as an artist.

Donna Lee:Bird:Alto

Another devastatingly brilliant and challenging melody and solo can be found on Groovin’ High.  Bird recorded this tune many times, and this particular take is an incredible example of Be-Bop improvisation.  If you are up to the challenge give this one some practice time, you will be rewarded with some serious musical growth and insights into this musical style with a language all its own.

Groovin High:Bird Solo

To challenge my clarinet playing I occasionally take a solo that I’ve played on saxophone and work it through on clarinet.  The Billie’s Bounce solo I’ve made a part of my practice routine both on tenor saxophone and clarinet.  One has to decide on some octave displacement at times to make the solo fit the range of the particular instrument you are adapting it to, but his is all part of the learning process.  Here I have taken this challenging Groovin’ High transcription and adapted it to the clarinet.  Clarinet players beware, this is an advanced study, but attack it with all you’ve got…..

Groovin High:Bird:Clarinet


Another great tune that I’ve adapted to the clarinet is Anthropolgy, an alternate melody on George Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm/Rhythm Changes that Bird recorded.  Saxophonist Art Pepper was also a wonderful clarinetist, and he played and recorded this tune on clarinet a couple of times.  Here is a chart that works the melody through a couple of registers of the clarinet, great practice and a super cool introduction to improvising over these changes….



You know you’ve set the jazz world on fire when they name a jazz club in your honor.  Charlie Parker was one of the major creative musical forces of the 20th Century.  Upon his death “Bird Lives” was scrawled on subway walls all over New York City.  If you love or play the saxophone, Charlie Parker should have a prominent place in your record collection.  Charlie Parker simply was THE greatest alto saxophonist that ever lived.

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