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Jazz Appreciation Month - Charlie Parker's Bebop

April is Jazz Appreciation Month, so what better time to talk about a genre of jazz that has evaded my understanding for almost eighteen years.

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Not long after I had started to get to grips with how the tenor saxophone worked and I wasn't getting so confused between the changeover of going from clarinet to saxophone and vice versa, Dad bought me a music book called 'In Session With Charlie Parker'. It contained six Charlie Parker classics: Donna Lee, Yardbird Suite, Anthropology, Billie's Bounce, Now's The Time, and Ornithology. The reason why this book is so special is because it also had Parker's solos, written out, from a specific recording as well.

Anyone who knows Charlie 'Bird' Parker's music, will tell you that to play at the same speed as him takes a lot of practice and skill. Fortunately, the book's backing CD came with fast and slow versions of the songs. At the point of receiving this book, I'd been playing saxophone for about a year so using the fast backings was out of the question and even the slow ones were a challenge. I soon found that my favourites to play were Billie's Bounce and Yardbird Suite. The melody of each was very fun to play and I could just about get the solos down with the slow backing tracks.

I'll admit now that, at the time, I wasn't really that interested in bebop jazz. I thought it was way too fast to enjoy and found I wasn't able to understand the nuances of the genre. When playing solos, I much preferred to come out with some nice melodies than 'go insane with the notes' as I referred to it. For quite a few years, I even went so far as to avoid the genre, deciding that I just didn't have the skill for it and, as time went by, the 'In Session With Charlie Parker' book began to gather dust on an old bookshelf.


As late as last year, one of my music students, a clarinettist, asked about learning bebop jazz. I remembered that I had the 'In Session' book and decided to recommend it as, despite being for tenor saxophone, it could be played on clarinet. Over the years, since putting the book down, I had developed a better and broader understanding of music theory and, as we began to study the book (again) together, I realised I now understood and could appreciate bebop jazz.

The key thing that allowed me to appreciate Charlie Parker's bebop, was being able to slow the music down using technology and software that hadn't been available to me back in 2003. By using apps like Audacity or ABRSM's Speedshifter, my clarinet student and I were able to slow Parker's recordings down, picking out the phrasing in his solos a lot easier and play along to them.

Because of this method of learning, my new favourite Charlie Parker song is Ornithology, one that I thoroughly disliked as a child simply because I didn't understand it. I love how Parker constantly re-uses licks from other solos and then imitates, inverts, and modulates them. The fact that he manages to stay on top of the constant chord changes, yet isn't afraid to create dissonance, is just phenomenal. Then there are the glissandos, a 'blink and you missed it' feature that, when slowed down, you can make out every single note of a 2-octave slide. Just when you think he couldn't go any faster, he doubles his speed over a 3-bar phrase, creating a wave of melodic sound that seems impossible to play so smoothly.

All these things, however, with a little patience, playing slowly and gradually speeding back up, are possible and feel so good to be able to play, even if I can't quite make the godlike speed of Parker's intonation.

Charlie Parker, bebop jazz; I appreciate you both and I'm so sorry it has taken me this long to do that. Now to discover more amazing bebop music. Does anyone have any recommendations?


If you are looking for clarinet lessons or a saxophone teacher near you, I offer face-to-face music lessons in Wells, UK and online music lessons to anyone worldwide. Feel free to get in touch!


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