Bold. Brave. Brilliant.

The Paradox of Charlie Parker

Josh Borths – October 4, 2018

When opera was invented in Italy during the 1590s, it had more in common with a jazz club than the opera house. These first operas were performed in dimly-lit, intimate rooms, and they were highly improvised. Small ensembles—or combos—of continuo instruments would stretch time, play with dissonance, and do whatever it took to highlight the drama at hand. Singers too would improvise—or riff—their way through early arias, showing off their technical skill and emotive power, and as opera developed, these virtuosic, improvisatory proclivities continued to grow, culminating in the great and famous cadenzas of the bel canto style. 

When jazz was first invented in the United States in the 1800s, it drew its inspiration from the dramatic stories, dances, histories, and traditions of its founders. Through music, jazz told stories that could not be put into words and celebrated the power of its people to overcome and persevere. With a new, potent style of music to explore, jazz influences quickly found themselves into classical and operatic works such as Joplin’s ragtime opera Treemonisha, Krenek’s Jonny spielt auf, Copland’s narrative ballet Rodeo, Grant Still’s Troubled Island, Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and Bernstein’s West Side Story. Throughout the 20th century, jazz harmonies—and more importantly jazz’s emotions—were used to tell stories depicting both unimaginable tragedies and glorious triumphs of the human spirit. And because of these brilliant works (not all of which have received the acclaim they deserve), opera began to sound a lot like jazz too.

Opera and jazz. To many audiences, these two styles are as different from one another as possible, but they ultimately share much in common. This commonality was composer Daniel Schnyder’s inspiration for Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. But unlike others before him, Schnyder was not interested in appropriating jazz harmonies for the operatic stage. Instead, he wanted to create a musical dialogue between the forms, exploring the two-way street that traverses these seemingly different worlds.

As Daniel Schnyder and his librettist Bridgette Wimberly set out to explore the operatic power of jazz and the jazzy roots of opera, they settled upon the subject of Charlie Parker. Like many great composers who came before—Mozart comes to mind—Parker was a musical genius who died too young. Parker broke musical boundaries while always coming up against racial and societal barriers he couldn’t get through. Parker was a paradox, and this inner conflict always makes great opera.

 Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City and raised (mostly) by his mother Adelaide “Addie” Parker (his father was often away for work). Addie ran a boarding house and doted on her only child, Charlie. By the age of 11, Parker had picked up the saxophone and began exploring the instrument (to the dismay of their surrounding neighbors). Parker eventually married his childhood sweetheart, Rebecca Ruffin, who had lived in the Parker’s boarding house. While they had a sweet relationship, it was not fated to last.

In the 1930s, as Parker continued to obsessively practice and find a place for himself in the Kansas City jazz circuits, he was in a car accident which led to a lifetime of addiction to opioids and other drugs. 

After recovering from the harrowing accident, Parker was accepted into the Jay McShann’s band which toured all across Missouri and the midwest. Eventually, they debuted triumphantly in New York City, and Parker’s sphere of influence continued to grow as he travelled and gigged in, around, and between Kansas City and New York. 

As the 1930s became the ‘40s, Parker caught the eye of prominent jazz musicians including Dizzy Gillespie and earned his nickname after an incident took place between a bus and a chicken—at least this is one of the origin myths for the name “Yardbird.” 

Throughout the 1940s, Parker’s sound caught on, and bebop—the name for the wild, chromatic style that he and his contemporaries created—took hold and jazz transformed: jazz could be art music not just dance music

Many of Parker’s albums are required listening for any music lover, and the breadth, depth, and creativity captured on those records are still awe-inspiring today. But as his art was booming through the 1940s and early 50s, his personal life was in crisis. He married twice more: Chan Parker followed by Doris Parker. He suffered great loses including the death of his daughter and survived multiple suicide attempts. Eventually, he was hospitalized in a mental institution (an episode immortalized in his rendition of “Relaxin’ at Camarillo”) and forced to get clean… for a time.

Charlie Parker died in 1955 in the hotel room of his patron the Baroness Nica. And when his body was brought in for examination, the coroner thought he was looking at a man in his 50s or 60s—not a young man at the age of 34. 

This extraordinary life, full of triumph and despair, is ripe for operatic adaptation, and just as Parker helped change the way audiences heard jazz, Schnyder and Wimberly’s Yardbird is helping to change the way audiences hear opera. After all, the tradition of opera is far richer and more diverse than most opera lovers realize. It’s scope and influences extend to every part of the human story, converging on styles and forms that would be unfamiliar to the originators of opera. Or jazz for that matter. Because at its core, opera and jazz simply want to express. Its musicians want to tell a story and take audiences on a powerful journey from the first blue notes uttered to its final rest. 

Joshua Borths is the Director of Opera and Musical Theater at Capital University in Columbus, Ohio.

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