Is Charlie Parker the best “entry point ”for beginning jazz musicians?

Charlie Parker is such a towering figure on the jazz world that it may seem like a “given” that every jazz musician should listen to his music. Parker, after all, was one of the founders of modern jazz in the 1940s and his alto saxophone solos are still considered to be the pinnacle of the art form.

But I’ve seen something interesting regarding this and it happened again last week. I was teaching a new piano student over Skype who is interested in learning jazz, blues, and funk. Since a lot of funk musicians came from the world of jazz, I suggested that she listen to Parker’s recording of “Billie’s Bounce.”

She emailed me a few days later saying that she didn’t like the recording and could she study something else. At first I was surprised. I thought, “How can someone learn jazz without listening to Charlie Parker.” And then I remembered my own first experience with Parker’s music. I was a teen and remember thinking that Parker’s “KoKo” was the weirdest music in the whole world! The recording sounded old, even by 1940s standards, and my rock-oriented ears weren’t used to the sax-oriented arrangement. It was like hearing a foreign language.

Even though I myself gradually became accustomed to the sound of Parker’s recordings, I realized that my student needs to go through this process for herself. It will take time and s may or may not come to enjoy Parker as much as I do. And that’s all right.

Parker’s music is perhaps the most “distilled” type of jazz. Bebop. Many jazz musicians refer to his playing as “the truth.” Maybe an acquired taste.

There’s a parallel with food. My teenage son loves Italian food and asked me if we could have it more often at home. So I dutifully took out my copy of Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan and made the best Bolognese sauce ever. Just like I had in Italy, made with milk and several types of meat. We set the dinner table, ladled it over his favorite pasta, and I watched with anticipation. If he likes spaghetti and meatballs so much, surely he’s going to live this even better. It’s the real thing!

I was surprised when my son told that while he enjoyed the Bolognese sauce, he still preferred our usual spaghetti and meatballs. I realized that the “real” Italian food simply wasn’t what he was used to eating. It was still strange to him, and he’d need some time to become accustomed to it. We went back to cooking the Italian-American dishes he was used to, and he’s gradually enjoying the more authentic Italian specialties more and more. Neither is “better” than the other in his mind, and he’s still interested in discovering a variety of Italian foods.

It’s a question of time and familiarity, with both music and food.

So getting back to bebop, I sent a link to a different recording of “Billie’s Bounce” to my new student. This recording takes her current listening preferences into account. It’s piano-based, is recorded clearer, and while the music is bebop-influence, the musicians are playing in a style that she’s more accustomed to hearing.

Listen to this, and compare it with the Parker recording above:

It’s still “real” jazz, and it may be a much better entry point for some beginning jazz pianists. And it may, or may not, eventually lead her back to Charlie Parker.

Either way, she’ll hear some great music and learn a lot of jazz, which she can then apply to her blues and funk playing as she sees fit.

Here’s the Charlie Parker recording of KoKo that took me so long to love. (There’s a story behind that but I’ll leave that for another blog post!)

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