The legendary alto-saxophone player Charles Christopher “Charlie” Parker Jr., nicknamed Yardbird, then Bird, was born in 1920, raised in Kansas City, Mo., and first made his way to New York in 1939. In the mid-1940s, he revolutionized jazz music as one of the principal creators of the harmonically, rhythmically and melodically advanced style named bebop, or bop, and as bop’s greatest virtuoso instrumentalist. Parker, a habitual user of narcotics and alcohol, died in 1955, at age 34. The graffiti “Bird Lives” bloomed on New York walls in the wake of his passing.
Bird lives on most vividly through his recorded legacy, as well as through his ubiquitous influence on scores of musical contemporaries and descendants. Now, 61 years after his death, comes a notable addition to the saxophonist’s catalog of sound recordings. Earlier this month, Verve Music, whose founder Norman Granz recorded Parker often throughout the 1940s and ’50s, released “Unheard Bird: The Unissued Takes,” a two-CD package co-produced and annotated by Grammy Award-winning Bird scholar Phil Schaap, containing 58 previously unreleased Parker tracks.
Though many of these takes are false starts, there are several complete and excellent alternative versions of previously released numbers (which are also included). Studio chatter is overheard: an engineer shouting at visitors to keep quiet (“Hold it! Hold it! Hold it!”); Parker more politely saying, “Y’all got to stop talkin’, man.” Bird stops the musical proceedings with a sharp whistle when he’s unhappy with how things are going. It is fascinating to hear Parker work out his approach to tunes and arrangements over the course of several takes—“Forgive me,” he says after muffing an entrance on one of his own lines, “I misunderstood it myself. OK, do it again”—before coming through with one or more masterly performances.