Charlie Parker and the Impact and Problems of extremely isolated professionalism

Charlie Parker and the impact and problems of extremely isolated professionalism

This article sets out to analyze the famous Jazzguy in order to get insights for musicians in general – if you can't stand the analytical part before the conclusion, just jump to the fourth paragraph.
If you don't know who Charlie Parker is, watch my video on him or go to Wikipedia. In short: Saxophone player from the mid-1900s, developed extremely high technique and vocabulary compared to his contemporaries and by doing so stood at the forefront of developing a new variety of 'Jazz', namely Bebop.

Charlie Parker was an innovator – he innovated new vocabulary, a new style and (for his time) a new level of technical proficiency. He arguably did so by starting with the style of his day, then went into extreme practice mode, pushed his technique, and consequently built his style and new/own ideas around his technical capacities. Now I imagine hearing a few outraged cries from you – Bird wasn't about technique! IT WAS FEELZ! INSPIRATIONZ! JAZZ! BwbGewtzufdgwjchromaticZ

To that I respond yes – and no. Certainly we can assume that playing music gave Bird an enormous amount of joy – being a musician your whole life and practicing the enormous amount of time that he practiced, if he didn't enjoy that, he probably wouldn't have preservered. I would argue further that there probably is no human being who can sustain such enormous amounts of work without getting some inspiration/joy/(insert favorite word here) out of it. Still, it doesn't change the fact that from a 'mechanical' standpoint Bird's style was all about executing his awesome techniques in all the contexts he could pull them off. Heck, the whole reason why being measured against the standard of playing Bebop within the Jazz community exists in the first place is because of the technical nature of the style (similarly to writing in cursive to make your point). If you don't believe me, get a Charlie Parker Omnibook and let's look at the Standards and Improvisations he has played. If that is not a style based on learned high-level-techniques then what the heck is?

Now for clarification – I am not here to establish some stupid variety of 'Bird is good/bad', 'Jazz is good/bad', 'It's all about technique/feels/no technique/no feelz/(insert favorite word here)' or somesuch. Rather, I find it interesting to look at what it takes to get to such an extreme level of competency, and then what implications that has for the musician and the ones coming after him. These observations (with some limitations) could be applied to other musicians from other styles, of which there is no shortage – both 'famous' and 'game-changing' ones, as well as the other ones.

So let's look first at some implications for the musician, then implications for other musicians. Firstly, the in my opinion biggest implication a high standard of technique bring along is the enormous personal cost of doing all the practicing. While this might have nothing to do with the music being played at first sight, you gotta remember that the decision what to play lies with the musician. And if you have a huge 'debt' of invested time, then you obviously want to play as much of your techniques as possible as possible – and so it is very likely that a lot of practice will end up influencing your choice of repertoire. That doesn't mean you will only play high-caliber music, but whenever you're making the choice that bill is hovering above you – and nobody likes feeling all their work going to waste by not showcasing it. So technique will (most likely) both enable you to play more stuff and simultaneously push you to include more technical stuff (you don't have to do that, but I would argue it's very likely that you'll do it). This assumption certainly fits with Charlie Parker's musical output – as well with those of Coltrane, Yngwie (most shredders?), probably most classical musicians, and so on and so forth. Moving on.

So let's assume you've done your practice and you've got your highly sophisticated repertoire – and let's say your doing a good job as a musician and a lot of people listen to you. Do you realize the effect you're having on the scene? Newcomers are likely to look up 'who's hot right now', and when they find that the current thing is technical stuff, most likely the rivalry is on. Everybody has to play Bebop/Shred/whatever now. It's the cool stuff everybody's diggin' – and nobody's immune. Is that a bad thing? I wouldn't say so. Over time it just means that there'll be more sophistication and diversity in music, coming however at the expense that access to professionalism gets harder to attain.

What else? There might be a good chance that once you've 'done your work', that you might end up being a sort of one-trick-pony, always repeating the same type of thing – the thing with technique is that the higher it gets, the more specialized, specific and smaller your available artisitc categories tend to get. There's not that many places a badass-Bebopsolo fits into except – well – a Bebop tune. That is not to say that you have to only do one thing – but reaching out and doing other stuff at a similar level of quality as before will be hard, as those new things probably won't be entirely covered by your now 'old' skillset. And practicing will still be a lot of work.

Also – if you've managed to establish yourself in your 'old style', people might actually start to like it and get accustomed to it. The scene changes, everybody follows you – and nobody might like to adapt to your new artistic pursuit. In that case, your capacities might have 'locked' you into a single specific place.

Once again, those are not things that absolutely guaranteedly have to happen – but given that people both like to see their work florish and generally won't like to adapt volitionally, I think it's safe to assume that they are not too unlikely to happen. And if you look at already established players with high levels of technique, how many of my assumptions from here do you see manifest?

So why is any of this of relevance? Well, reaching high levels of technique does take a lot of work – and not all of the implications of reaching that goal might be volitionally choseable or in your interest. Therefore, I think it is usefull to look at people like Charlie Parker (or Yngwie, or whomever) look at what they did and the effects of that – and then make the decision yourself.


Given how much work and life practicing can be, I think that is always a consideration worth the time.


About the Author:
David Sertl is a composer and guitarist based in Vienna, Austria. He also runs David's Music Guild, the Youtube channel tellign you everything you (n)ever wanted to know about music. For more information you can visit his website.