Pianists who played with Charlie Parker

Since jazz music includes such a wide range of styles, it can be tempting to think of each sub-genre as having a relatively narrow spectrum of variety. To put it another way, since bebop sounds so different from modal jazz, we sometimes think that all bebop sounds the same and all modal sounds the same.

Once we put a seemingly-narrow genre under our audio microscope, however, we begin to notice a great deal of variety. It’s just like when we look out over a field of grass in nature. From a distance, it looks like a uniform blanket of green or perhaps brown. But when we bend down and observe a small patch of earth closely, the variety practically jumps out at us. We notice colorful wildflowers, twigs, clover, and a huge variety of plants, which taken together form the composite color it appears to be from a distance.

It’s the same with music, and we can hear this when we listen to the pianists we played with Charlie Parker.

Let’s begin with the “ideal” bebop pianist, Bud Powell. In a general sense, his playing matches the feeling, imagination, and virtuosity of Parker’s alto sax playing very closely. Here’s Powell playing with Parker at the Birdland jazz club, in 1947:

Charlie Parker: Anthropology

Powell’s playing is a good place to begin, since many of the other bebop pianists are unfairly compared to him. But as we shall see, his pianistic peers, while perhaps not having all of his genius, definitely brought something unique and special to the keys in their own way. We’ll find that the more we dig into the bebop style, the more noticeable and delightful these individual qualities become.

Now, let’s go to Al Haig, whom Parker loved playing with:

Charlie Parker at Town Hall (Complete album)

Al Haig had found the “door” into the melodic and rhythmic language of bebop right at the beginning, which, considering the small size of the bebop scene, was a huge accomplishment. He was able to play clear, logical solos in the bebop dialect, and his playing holds its own in comparison to innovators like Powell.

The pianist in what is now considered Charlie Parker’s golden era bebop quintet during the 1940s was Duke Jordan. I used to think that Jordan as a poor substitute for Powell and Haig, but over the years I’ve grown to love his lyricism, which is apparent in this recording:

Charlie Parker: Bird Of Paradise (You get “extra credit” if you can figure out which well-known jazz standard has the same chord progression.)

Did you hear how different he sounds from Powell and Haig? Yes, the bebop feel is still prominent. But within that, he’s expressing something highly personal and after we listen to him for a while, we begin to hear how different Parker’s group sounded with Duke Jordan at the piano.

Now let’s now go to two pianists with very different approaches to bebop, John Lewis and Walter Bishop, Jr. (Full disclaimer: I had a personal connection with each of these wonderful pianists, having led the dance band at Lewis’s son’s wedding and when I took a piano lesson with Bishop in the mid-1980s.)

John Lewis brought influences from both the swing era and from classical music into bebop. And although he was one of Miles Davis’s favorite musicians, Parker ultimately looked elsewhere for a steady pianist in his group. But his recordings with Parker brought a special quality to Parker’s music, especially on the slow blues Parker’s Mood. Let’s listen to it, and we’ll observe how this is utterly different from anything Bud Powell, Al Haig, or Duke Jordan would have played.

Charlie Parker: Parker’s Mood

John Lewis was as happy playing one note as he was when playing twenty notes. He embraced simplicity and a direct expression of his musical ideas, and while he functioned perfectly well within a bebop context, he embraced the riffs of southwest swing and he wasn’t afraid to play dance rhythms that may have seemed to be a little old-fashioned to the bebop “hipsters.” He brought a delightful sense of playfulness and deep blues sensibility to it all.

To round out our survey of Charlie Parker’s main pianists, let’s listen to some Walter Bishop Jr. Bishop was Parker’s pianist during the last few years of Parker’s life, and he wrote this emotional tribute to his predecessor, Al Haig.

Walter Bishop Jr. on Fellow Bopologist Al Haig

Walter Bishop, Jr. on fellow bopologist Al Haig

To my ears, Bishop’s playing isn’t as “note-perfect” as that of Bud Powell or John Lewis, yet he epitomized the bebop feeling in its pure form. He also brought elements of arranging into his playing, with planned rhythmic hits and counterlines behind the melodies, and by his use of block chords while soloing.

Here’s a great example of his piano playing, from Parker’s final recording sessions.

Charlie Parker: Love For Sale

Take a few minutes at some point to carefully listen to each of these recordings. When we immerse ourselves in a seemingly-narrow genre such as bebop, it’s amazing how much variety we begin to notice. Besides increasing our musical understanding, we start to realize just how vibrant the bebop scene must have been at the time. Luckily, we still have the recordings and yes, our own playing to keep the tradition alive.

Enjoy the journey, and “let the music flow!”


Learn the 5 Essential Left Hand Techniques with my free ebook: Left Hand Techniques for Jazz Piano
You’ll also get my weekly jazz newsletter with practice tips and inspiration

Leave a Comment

Sign up for Blog Updates