Vincent Herring on Charlie Parker’s Perennial Influence

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Gary Bartz (left), Vincent Herring and Bobby Watson perform at the New York club Smoke, where they recorded Bird At 100, a tribute to saxophonist Charlie Parker.

(Photo: Jimmy Katz)

Sixty-five years after his death at the age of 34, saxophonist Charlie Parker continues to bewitch us—with his technical ingenuity, his radical approach to harmony and time and his towering charisma.

While young jazz students might know his legend more than his original music, 100 years after his birth, Bird continues to be the standard for improvisation and melodic reinterpretation. To celebrate his centennial, saxophonists Vincent Herring, Gary Bartz and Bobby Watson recorded Bird At 100 (Smoke Sessions) during three nights late last summer. It’s a tribute that Herring, the youngest of the three saxophonists at 55, has been brewing for some time.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

You started playing in the ’70s, 20 years after Parker died. Was he an influence on you when you were developing?

At that time, if you were playing saxophone, there were two “channels” you could follow. One was classical saxophone and the other was Charlie Parker. That said, I ended up getting into Cannonball Adderley before Charlie Parker, just because those Miles Davis recordings with Cannonball were higher fidelity. My mother was a serious jazz fan, but she didn’t have any Charlie Parker recordings. She told me about him, though. So, I checked him out at the public library, but I wasn’t ready to deal with that kind of distortion. A few years later, Verve put out a package of Bird recordings that sounded amazing, and that’s when I really heard him.

As a young player hearing his music, how daunting was his technical facility on the horn?

Each person is different. For me, it didn’t seem unattainable. What was overwhelming about him was the beauty and the creativity of what he played. Those things are not as easy to attain. Today, in the students I see, I’d say there are maybe 30 percent who feel they can reach the technical facility of Charlie Parker or John Coltrane. Not to say they’ll get there, but what’s harder to get to is that creative energy. That’s what’s special about Charlie Parker.

So much has been written about Parker’s innovations in terms of melody, harmony and rhythm. How do you characterize his contributions?

A lot of people don’t understand what’s important about Charlie Parker. Sometimes, you hear about his technical advancements on the horn—and that’s not it. The truth is his technical facility, while at one time may have been overwhelming, it’s not that way anymore. What is special about Charlie Parker is his imagination, his creativity. Like Albert Einstein. That imagination is something I wake up in the morning and hope and dream that I might reach a portion of someday. He changed the jazz vocabulary.

You’ve got before and after Charlie Parker.

Your band is not the first to pay tribute to Bird with multiple horns. Were you influenced at all by the approach that bands like Med Flory’s Supersax took?

I love—L-O-V-E—Supersax. Are you kidding me? That stuff was unbelievably bad, and I played those charts when they were published—in the Army band and in some rehearsal bands. But the big thing was, those Supersax recordings got played on the radio. Charlie Parker harmonized on the radio? I mean, how great was that? Those recordings actually made Bird palatable to a lot of people, because they could hear it in high-fidelity with a different kind of energy. That was a tremendous band.

How did you, Watson and Bartz approach selecting and arranging the music?

Well, we had many discussions. I can’t tell you how many variations we went through trying to decide what we wanted to do. My original idea was actually to have maybe 10 alto saxophonists playing Bird’s music—players like Kenny Garrett and Rudresh Mahanthappa. But the record company was like, “Uh, no, that’s crazy.” Then, the idea was to have me, Gary and Bobby each arrange Bird’s songs. But that got to be taxing, and no one had the time to do that. So, I hired some professional arrangers.

What does Parker say to us today, so many years after he created this music?

Charlie Parker is going to be, forever, one of the greatest contributions that America made to mankind. He’s just one of those people, and I’m grateful that I know enough of his music to make him part of my life. It’s difficult to imagine someone coming along now and just radically changing the musical vocabulary, and not just change it, but change it with logic and beauty. It was just an amazing thing to accomplish, especially when you consider the environment he lived in and the challenges he overcame. DB




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March 2020
Pat Metheny
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