Charlie Parker 101

Charlie Parker 101, saxophone graphic

During the 2021-22 academic year, The Department of Music hosted a year-long celebration of the legendary Charlie Parker. To kick off the programming, we welcomed renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis to the UNC Charlotte campus on August 30, 2021 for an afternoon of masterclasses with music students and an evening program that was part conversation, part demonstration. The celebration continued throughout the year with other collaborative events, presentations, and learning.

Original "Charlie Parker 101" art by G'Kar Joseph '21, BFA in Graphic Design

black and white photo of charlie parker with his saxiphoneBird Lives!  Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955) was an innovator, a virtuoso, and an artist. In his 101st year, we’re taking the opportunity to explore Charlie Parker—to share the breadth and depth of a musician who made an indelible impact not only on jazz, but on the communities and spaces he came into contact with. Parker’s genius reverberated well beyond the circles of musicians with whom he played and those who came after him, inspiring visual artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Romare Bearden and writers like Ralph Ellison and Ted Joans.

Along with Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach, Parker is best known for his musical innovations in the jazz genre known as bebop. Today, bebop is known as both a genre of protest (against racism in both American society and in a music industry that continually privileged white musicians over Black musicians) and as an outgrowth of swing. Bebop—especially as Parker played it—features extended harmonies, fast tempos, more triplets and syncopation, wide-ranging and sometimes angular melodies, and a high standard of virtuosic improvisation. Perhaps more than any other jazz musician, Parker’s approach to bebop remains a crucial part of the jazz lexicon today. Take a listen to his solos on “Klactoveedsedstene,” “Ornithology,” “A Night in Tunisia,” and “Ko-Ko” to hear a range of his approaches to improvisation—from solos filled to the brim with scalar passages and arpeggios to tuneful melodies. Through it all, Parker never lost the blues, masterfully merging tradition with a forward-thinking sound in tunes like “Now’s the Time,” “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Bloomdido.”

In his life, and well after his death, discussions of Parker’s musical ability have almost always been accompanied by sensationalized stories about his drug use. These stories dehumanized him and fitted him to racist stereotypes and tropes, rather than dealing with his complex life. Through tremendous societal and personal trauma—the racist, segregated system that routinely denied his humanity, the loss of his young daughter to pneumonia —Parker’s brilliance persisted.

“Bird Lives!” The message spread quickly after Parker’s death in 1955, graffitied in chalk on the streets, sidewalks, and walls around New York City—a reminder of the ongoing, never-ending importance of a man whose tragic death at age 34 didn’t keep him from changing jazz forever. When we say “Bird Lives!” we recognize the full life of a man whose music touched many. We acknowledge his continuous influence on a broad range of artistic communities. And we celebrate Parker’s place in an ongoing tradition of Black American music. 

Dr. Kelsey Klotz, jazz historian and lecturer in the Department of Music

concrete with the words "bird lives" scratched into it

EVENTS + Performances

branford marsalisAugust 30 – Branford Marsalis
The College of Arts + Architecture is thrilled to welcome renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis to the UNC Charlotte campus on August 30. After conducting an afternoon masterclass with music students, Marsalis will kick off the Department of Music’s year-long celebration of the legendary Charlie Parker with an evening program that's part conversation, part demonstration. Marsalis will speak about Parker, then engage in a discussion with music faculty and students, including audience Q&A, to further explore his unique perspective on jazz, music performance, artist-citizenship, and his singular career.

September 27-October 18 - Jazz Appreciation: The Life of "Bird," Charlie Parker

Presented in partnership with JazzArts Charlotte, this four week online interactive workshop explores the life of the legend, Charlie Parker. Dr. Kelsey Klotz, lecturer in the Department of Music, will chart Parker's development of bebop with his blazing virtuosity and revolutionary ideas, demonstrating how he personified the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than just an entertainer. Details and registration here.

November 22 – UNC Charlotte Jazz Ensemble and Combos, 7:30 pm Belk Theater

January 14 &15, 2022 – “Bird Lives!” at The Jazz Room
Presented in a partnership with Jazz Arts Charlotte, Charlie Parker 101 comes to The Jazz Room. Led by UNC Charlotte Jazz Studies Director and Professor of Saxophone Will Campbell, music faculty join local professional musicians for four shows devoted to “Bird,” featuring selections from the rarely played Charlie Parker with Strings albums and spoken word performances by Hannah Hasan.

March 3, 2022 – CP at CP: A Student/Faculty Collaboration
Students and faculty from UNC Charlotte and Central Piedmont Community College collaborate to celebrate Charlie Parker with a performance in the Halton Theater. On the program is a student-focused performance of selections from the Charlie Parker with Strings albums.

March 23, 2022 - Charlie Parker: Reverberations
Presented in partnership with the Harvey B. Gantt Center of African-American Arts + Culture, this multifaceted event will explore the influence of Parker’s genius within and beyond his circle of musical collaborators. The evening will include live music, spoken word performance, and a panel conversation, featuring internationally acclaimed saxophonist Charles McPherson, along with UNC Charlotte faculty Jeffrey Leak, Kelsey Klotz, and Will Campbell.