Charlie Parker Changes Jazz

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The American 20th century was dominated by many diverse genres of music, such as rock and roll, rhythm and blues, country, pop, blues, and jazz. Now in the early 1940s, the so-called swing style jazz had started to fade away and a newer trend of music had begun to form. This form of jazz, known as bebop or modern jazz, was completely different then the dominate swing for it was heavily influenced on smaller bands and the use of improvisation. Now bebop would never had come into play if it wasn’t for the most extraordinary, remarkable, and influential jazz player named Charlie Parker. At just 15 years old, Charlie had discovered his great talent and extreme passion for playing music by taking lessons at numerous schools in Missouri. When he was in the schools’ bands he played the baritone horn, but later due to his fondness of the alto saxophone he had made a switch and it became his prime instrument throughout his career. In fact, “Charlie's mother had given him a saxophone a few years prior, to help cheer him up after his father had abandoned the family” (, 2019). Charlie Parker was so hooked on playing the alto saxophone that in 1935, he had made up his mind to drop out of school and pursue a full-time music career. Although he didn’t know it yet then, but in the pursuit of a career Charlie Parker will have completely revolutionized and change the entire sound of jazz forever with his unique use of improvisation.

In the musical field, improvisation is the art of composing and recording in the same time; in other words, it is inventing in that time. Now Charlie Parker was famously known for his use of improvisation and even went a step further by taking it to a whole new level. However, we must go back and see when he first improvised in his music to grasp a better understanding of where he got his techniques from. So, after Charlie had dropped out of school, he stayed in Kansas City and played in what was called ‘jam sessions’. These sessions at the time were known as small unplanned performances and often became musical battles because the better, faster, stronger, and more the creative you were as a musician you would win. Now one night in one of these sessions Charlie had become lost in his music which had prompted the drummer to throw down his instrument, making Parker come to a stop. This drastic incident had actually proved to help Parker work even harder to improve his playing and performance. Now 1939 when Parker moved to New York City to play in jam sessions, he had made his big discovery of bebop and for the first time learned how to improvise. The discovery came when he grew tired of playing songs the same exact way all the time and he often had said, “I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn't play it”. So, when he was working on the song ‘Cherokee’, he had decided to try something different and had use higher notes of a chord as the melody line, this little use of improvising had finally made Parker able to play the things he was hearing.

Later on in his career, Charlie Parker had developed a concept and many techniques that had transcended to what was before him and elevated the jazz style music to newer heights. These techniques of improvising were constructed on his feeling of rhythm, the scales he created, the technique of a three to a flat nine, the use of the upper structure of chords, and targeting. Now rhythm is the most crucial part of music and most jazz players and improvisers simply had no clue as to the great importance that rhythm actually had and the main role it played in the overall feeling and clarity of improvised lines. On the other hand, Charlie certainly knew and understood the importance of rhythm, and in almost every one of Parker’s songs the phrases are rhythmically defined. This is because he didn’t just hear the melodies and harmonies in his head, but he felt them. Along with that, the most critical piece of rhythm that Charlie most understood and was considered a master of it, was the use of space. “The space between notes is what defines the actual rhythms within phrases, and the space between phrases clarifies how separate musical ideas relate, contrast, and build into the larger story you’re trying to convey” (Forest, 2018). Now this was noticeable when he wrote the song ‘Thriving on a Riff’ because the A section of that song broke the larger phrases in to even smaller ones. Also, during this section he did not take the instrument out of his mouth, instead he just used small bits of rests (eighths and quarters) to break his steady notes. Due to these bits of rests that Charlie used, it had completely transformed the entire song into something more rhythmic, exciting, and interesting to listen to.

Now during the swing era, most songs were written with a great emphasis on basic jazz scales and much of the attention was put on to the riffs around the melody. However, Parker had changed all of that by altering and coloring the chords and using his own creation of scales which were based on higher extensions of chords. The three basic bebop scales that Charlie Parker wrote for his songs were the Mixolydian, Dorian, and the major seventh scale, and each one of these scales was an “eight-note rather than the typical seventh-note scale” (Christiansen, 2001). Now the Mixolydian scale which was used against dominate seventh chords had differed from the Mixolydian mode because it had and extra note between the root and the flatted seventh degree of the normal Mixolydian mode. So, this means that when Charlie would start in a chord tone and play this particular scale, each chord tone in the dominant seventh scale would be played on the downbeats (stronger beats). The next scale that Charlie played was the Dorian which was used against minor seventh chords. Now with this eight-note scale it would take Parker approximately four beats to play this, that is to say if all the eight notes were employed. However, not every chord tone could be played on down beats, so Charlie had utilized this by starting on the fourth of a chord (a G note while he was playing against the Dm7), which had led to the third F chromatically. Now it can be argued that Parker might have been using the minor seventh chord as the dominant seventh in a fourth way, which means he would be playing a G7 chord against a Dm7 chord. The last scale that Parker used was the major scale and this one was used against the major sixth and seventh chords. Like the other scales this too was an eight-note scale, again it would have taken Parker four beats to play it if the eight notes were used, and if Parker would start on a chord using this scale, each chord tone would be played on down beats just like the other scales.

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Another technique that Charlie Parker had used was the three to a flat nine which he used over dominate seventh chords. This meant that if Charlie was playing for example a G7 chord, the third would be a B and the flat nine would be an A flat. Now there were two ways that Charlie would be able to get the third to the flat nine, one way and the most obvious was by skipping. Which meant he would “move from the third and ascend to the flat nine or move from the third and descend to the flat nine” (Christiansen, 2001). The second way to get the third to the flat nine was by a way of a diminished arpeggio. Now a diminished arpeggio would have consisted of nothing, except for the minor third intervals. So, in order to build the diminished seventh arpeggio from the G7 chord, Charlie would start with the third of the G7 B chord, and then play a D either moving up or down. Next, he would ascend or descend to the minor seventh of the chord F and from that he could ascend or descend to an A flat.

A great technique that Charlie Parker had implemented in his songs, when he was improvising them, was arpeggiating the upper structure of the chords which were the notes in the chords above the seventh ones. For an example, a C major seventh chord would have a root C, a major third E, and a clean fifth a G, and the major seventh which would be a B. Now all of these notes were derived from the C major scale, and the upper structure chord tones or extensions of the C major seventh chord would be the ninth a D, the eleventh which would be an f, and last the thirteenth which would be an A. Now Charlie Parker had used this by starting on the third chord which would be an E and then arpeggiate up to a ninth chord which would be a D chord. Now if an upper-structure of any type of chord were to stand by itself, then another chord would be formed, and this is why the certain term called secondary arpeggio is often times used to describe this particular technique of Parker.

Now the very last technique that Charlie Parker had used was targeting. Targeting simply means that a musician has landed on the tones of a chord, for an example an A chord is based on the root or the 1st chord of a scale and the other notes such as the 3rd, 5th, 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th are all above the root in the scale. Now there are several ways that Charlie had targeted a chord. The first one was by ascending or descending the chromatic approach, which meant that he would play a note a semitone above or below a particular chord tone. For an example, if Charlie were to play an E flat at the end of the line in his music and then resolve by moving up a semitone to an E natural, he would be targeting the third of the E natural chord. Now targeting could be used with any type of chord, however the rhythm must be played so that the chord tones would fall on the stronger beats or down beats. In addition to that, the bebop melodic improvisation of targeting would also focus on the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth notes of a chord in a phrase before resolving them into a seventh chord tone. Last, when Charlie Parker would be writing bebop music, he would often alter the ninth, eleventh, and thirteenth notes by adding sharps or flats to them. So, his ninths could be either flattened or sharpened, the elevenths he would typically play them sharpened, and the thirteenths he often had played them flattened.

In the end, Charlie Parker, the man whose was nicknamed ‘Bird’, without a doubt was the most legendary and important jazz figures of the American 20th century. Even thought he had suffered drug and alcohol addictions throughout his career life, no one can’t say that he wasn’t a genius. He was a man that had single handily change the entire course of jazz history forever. His very own style of bebop was a grand masterpiece and the fact that he was unrestricted by arrangements made him the master of improvisation too. The techniques of his improvisation had completely revolutionized the entire sound of jazz and to this day he has inspired many young jazz artists to improvise in their music and to play things not just see on paper, but what they hear as well.

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Charlie Parker Changes Jazz. (2023, January 31). Edubirdie. Retrieved April 15, 2024, from
“Charlie Parker Changes Jazz.” Edubirdie, 31 Jan. 2023,
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