Bird 100: Ah Leu Cha

Second post today to mark the centenary of the great alto saxophonist Charlie Parker (“Bird”), undoubtedly one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century. Together with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Bird effectively created a revolution in Jazz after the end of World War II in the form of a new style called bebop.

Sadly, as with many Jazz legends, Charlie Parker died young as a result of chronic alcoholism and, especially in his case, drug addiction. He became hooked on heroin when he was a teenager and when he couldn’t get heroin he used anything else he could. The result was a body ravaged by abuse and a career frequently interrupted by illness. When he died, at the age of 35, the doctor who signed his death certificate estimated his age as “about 60”.

I remember, as a teenager, finding a Charlie Parker LP in a second-hand record shop and buying it for 50p. When I got home I put it straight on the record player and couldn’t believe my ears when I heard the staggering virtuosity of his playing. I just didn’t realise the alto sax could be played the way he played it. I’ve been a devout Charlie Parker fan ever since, although most of recorded output is quite difficult to get your hands on. In fact, the first record I bought as an LP has never been released on CD, which I think is a scandal.

Many people I know can’t really stand any Jazz that’s stylistically dated after about 1940. I have never really understood this attitude. To my mind the two tracks I’ve picked here, recorded in 1948, sound as fresh and exciting to me now as they did when I first heard them 30 years ago. They also seem to me firmly rooted in a wonderful tradition of music-making that reaches back to Louis Armstrong and King Oliver and forward to the likes of John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and Ornette Coleman. Anyway, I’m not going to preach. I love this music and it’s up to you whether you agree or not.

Parker’s ideas didn’t just remain within jazz, and bebop had a huge cultural influence on post-war America. It never became as popular as pre-war Jazz, but had a devoted following on both sides of the Atlantic and breathed new creative life into a form that was in danger of becoming stale and commercialized.

The piece is called Ah Leu Cha and – as far as I’m aware – it is the only tune Bird ever wrote that involves any kind of counterpoint (provided by a very young Miles Davis on trumpet).

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