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Bebop and bel canto in Charlie Parker's Yardbird

Katrina Becker – October 30, 2018

The famous riffs of saxophonist Charlie Parker aren’t so distant from the roots of Western classical music tradition.

Parker -- known by nicknames including “Bird” and “Yardbird” -- expanded on traditional jazz ensembles and enjoyed adding orchestral instruments including strings, harp and oboe. One of his recordings lifts a bassoon line from Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and he reportedly yearned to study with Nadia Boulanger, the teacher of Copland and Bernstein.

Born in Kansas City in 1920, Parker drew inspiration from the music of George Gershwin, Béla Bartók, Jacques Ibert, Fats Waller and Paul Hindemith. He collaborated extensively with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, who later said, “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong -- Charlie Parker.”

Parker gained fame by challenging accepted harmonies and rhythms, ingeniously devising new melodies and developing the new sound of bebop with syncopation and complexity. “Essentially what Parker did with jazz is what Wagner did with classical music,” says Joshua Borths, Director of Opera and Musical Theater at Capital University, who studied Charlie Parker’s Yardbird extensively. “He figured out a way to harmonize that created more options than were originally thought. He liberated it.”

“He began stacking swing music’s relatively simple chords with extra notes on top,” says poet-playwright Bridgette Wimberly, “and then using the additions instead of the core notes as the basis for improvising.”

Wimberly wrote the text of Charlie Parker's Yardbird, Arizona Opera’s next production (Nov. 9-11 at Phoenix’s Herberger Theater Center; Nov. 17-18 at Tucson’s Temple of Music and Art), working with saxophonist and composer Daniel Schnyder (pronounced SCHNEE-der).

“While I wanted the opera to be about Parker’s real life, I did not want it to be a typical biography,” Wimberly explains. “I searched for those private stories that helped us understand him as son, husband, musician and man.”

As she worked with Schnyder on Charlie Parker’s Yardbird for two years, says Wimberly, “we wanted to explore this king of improvisation’s creative process, but also his heroin addiction, his unrequited dreams, issues of racism, of segregation, of forgiveness and broken hearts as well as his place in history.”

The librettist considered Parker’s struggles with depression, multiple suicide attempts, brushes with the law and stints in mental hospitals along with her own uncle’s history with the musician. Charlie Parker’s Yardbird also gives a glimpse of the important women in Parker’s life, including those to whom he was married, one who was his patroness, and his mother Addie.

The vignettes of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird take place in the six-hour afterlife limbo immediately following Parker’s death as his body lies in a morgue and his spirit lingers to revisit the path of his life. Although he died at 34, Parker’s long-term use of heroin and alcohol contributed to his body being misidentified as 20 years older by the coroner.

Rather than dropping Parker’s music directly into his score, Schnyder uses motifs throughout the opera. Parker’s saxophone riffs appear in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird in the form of scatting from tenors Joshua Stewart and Martin Bakari, who share the title role. Both Stewart and Bakari have headlined in previous productions of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird.

Borths, who directed Arizona Opera’s The Barber of Seville, Florencia en el Amazonas and Rusalka, compares Schnyder’s take on Parker’s music to bel canto, the Italian operatic style of Donizetti, Bellini, Rossini and their contemporaries. “Taking these licks, written out just like the cadenzas of the great bel canto operas -- what happens if you throw in a blues note instead?”

“The composer will take cells or a series of notes that Parker is famous for, and use them as the beginning of his melody to unfold with the orchestration,” says Borths. “It really is a jazz opera hybrid -- a coming together of the two forms and celebrating their commonality.”

“I think it’s the continuation of a tradition that’s been a bedrock of American opera,” he adds. “Besides the different compositional styles it’s in the tradition of Porgy and Bess. It seems like jazz opera is kind of a novelty but it’s really not -- it goes all the way back to Tremonisha by Scott Joplin, a ragtime opera from the early 20th century.”

Sung in English with English supertitles, Yardbird runs for 90 minutes. Don’t miss Arizona Opera’s performances, and dig deeper with jazz scholar Phil Schaap’s archived “Bird Flight” radio shows chronicling the music of Charlie Parker.


Katrina Becker has written for Opera Magazine (UK), Downtown Phoenix Journal, Phoenix Chorale, Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts and AZ-Lifestyle magazine. She has worked for The Phoenix Symphony, all-classical 89.5 KBAQ and the University of Arizona, and teaches and performs as a violinist.

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