Charlie Parker Plays For Stravinsky

by Roy “Futureman” Wooten


Charlie Parker and Igor Stravinsky

One night in the winter of 1951, Charlie Parker’s quintet was the featured attraction at “Birdland” and the house was packed even before pianist Billy Taylor‘s opening trio set. There was a good table near the front of the bandstand with a RESERVED sign for a very special guest which was very unusual for this small club.

unknownAfter Billy Taylor’s opening set finished, four men and a woman came to the reserved table, as whispers of excitement ran through the crowd. One of the men was Igor Stravinsky, a great Russian Composer and classical celebrity who became an icon to jazz fans. This was because he had given the prestige of his name to compose new music for a jazz big band in his “Ebony Concerto” for the Woody Herman Orchestra in 1941.

In the early 20th century, when Stravinsky visited Birdland, a number of prominent European and American composers were becoming intensely interested in Jazz and Ragtime, and wrote works that created a fusion between Jazz and classical music. Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud and Ernst Krenek were among the most notable. The Austrian composer Ernst Krenek (1900 -1991), as a young composer in his 20’s, he wrote a popular Jazz-influenced opera called “Jonny Spielt Auf,” about an African American Jazz musician living and working in Europe. The opera ends with Johnny, on top of a globe on stage, celebrating the triumph of Jazz taking over Europe.

Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker

This opera, which translates in English as “Johnny Strikes Up” became the rage in Europe in the 1920’s until the Nazis took over and banned it as “degenerate music.” “Johnny” could be a metaphor for Charlie Parker who was also “striking up” as one of the leading lights of the African American jazz which was influencing all of Europe. London and Paris became foreign outposts for this new American jazz and many composers such as Ravel, Stravinsky & Darius Milhaud who were absorbing the influence of Jazz. They also came to America and worked directly with authentic sources of this American music -You can hear Jazz inflections in Ravel’s “Piano concerto in G” and Milhaud’s ballet score “La Création du Monde” (The creation of the world), Milhaud’s 1923 ballet, La Création du Monde was based on an African creation myth and is credited as the first full-length jazz-to-classical crossover piece. The influence of great European composers traveling to Harlem and throughout the United States in support of Jazz, bestowed respectability on black American music and culture which was at that time officially disdained in the US.

Birdland Historical Jazz Club

Birdland Historical Jazz Club

Stravinsky had already written a kind of Ragtime piece before he visited America and he would eventually follow Milhaud to the jazz clubs of Harlem, and continue on to hear more American jazz played by black musicians in Chicago and New Orleans. Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto highlighted Europe’s love affair with American jazz and drew attention to an agreement made without prejudice between many of western Europe’s leading classical composers and conductors, who were eager to meet the rising stars of American jazz, regardless of their race and skin color. The classical love affair with American jazz inspired Stravinsky to compose the Ebony Concerto for Woody Herman Big Band, and he continued on to compose another work in 1949 called Prelude, Fugue and Riffs. This piece was premiered by Benny Goodman in 1955.

If any 20th century composer was likely to make significant use of jazz, it was Stravinsky: who became the composer of the most rhythmically complex piece of orchestral music in history to date: The Rite of Spring (1913).

1468679918-041-igor-stravinsky-theredlistIt is important to note that Stravinsky was introduced to ragtime through reading sheet music and before he wrote his Ragtime and Piano Rag-Music, he had never actually heard this exciting new American music which was the precursor of jazz.

Not everyone agreed with the classical love affair with American jazz that continued to blossom at the turn of the century. ‪One critic in a music magazine called the mixing of classical and jazz “a wave of vulgar, filthy and suggestive music” which has inundated the land.

The fact that Stravinsky was eager to attend a Charlie Parker jazz club performance highlighted the growing international acceptance of American jazz and its black superstars, such as Charlie Parker. Duke Ellington and Art Tatum. Parker’s nick name was “Yard Bird,” and he was often called “Bird” for short. The “Birdland” jazz club was a special New York jazz club that was named in Parker’s honor. On one particular night in “Birdland,” the trumpeter Red Rodney recognized Stravinsky in the club and informed Parker that the famous Russian Composer was in the audience. Parker did not look at Stravinsky, but instead of greeting the crowd, he immediately called the first tune “Koko” at a break neck speed.

Parker showcased his virtuoso saxophone technique on this daunting tune and at the beginning of the second chorus he injected the opening of Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” and made it fit perfectly inside Koko as if it was a natural part of the song.

Stravinsky recognized Parker’s use of his “Firebird” theme and roared with delight while pounding his glass on the table, spilling his liquor and ice cubes. People nearby threw up their hands or ducked. Stravinsky was visibly moved and hilarity of this scene did not distract Bird who clearly struck a nerve with the great composer.

Charlie Parker played for Igor Stravinsky at Birdland in 1951, enthusiasts circa 1950 often declared him the jazz equivalent of Stravinsky and Bartok, and asserted that he’d absorbed their music, though skeptics countered that there was no evidence he was even familiar with it. Parker himself clarified the issue for me one night in the winter of 1951, at New York’s premier modern jazz club, Birdland, at Broadway and Fifty-second Street.

bird-with-strings-2It is important to note that in the early 20th century, a number of prominent European and American composers became intensely interested in Jazz and Ragtime, and wrote works attempting a fusion between Jazz and classical. Modern European composers such as Louis Andriessen and Mark-Anthony Turnage, regularly incorporate jazz idioms into their music and history shows that composers have been incorporating elements of vernacular music for centuries. Composers such as Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven often used the popular tunes of their day.

Maurice Ravel was an early admirer of Gershwin’s work and it has been researched to find that ‘Le Gibet‘ (The Gibbet) which is a part of Ravel’s piano suite Gaspard de la Nuit – contains 95% of all ‘modern’ jazz chords.

America’s own superstars George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein and Gunther Schuller also came under the influence of the Jazz tradition. The love affair between jazz and classical music demonstrated mutual respect, with European Composers such as Debussy, Stravinsky and Ravel embracing the music called jazz and performers such as Art Tatum, Charlie Parker, Bill Evans and Miles Davis embracing classical music influences. Miles Davis, when asked about the inspiration behind one of his tunes, once remarked “Well, we were really into Rachmaninoff that week.”  Ted Gioia tells the story (in his History of Jazz) about Charlie Parker, who heard Stravinsky’s ‘Song of the Nightingale’ in a blind fold listening test and declared, ‘Give that all the stars you’ve got’, before going on to talk further about Prokofiev, Hindemith, Debussy and Ravel.

Many people may think that classical music is far removed from black culture, “normal” music and the real world, but this is a myth and in my next blog I will continue to dig behind this myth.

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