Despite passing away in 1955 before reaching his 35th birthday, alto saxophonist Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker is largely credited with shaping the sound of jazz as we know it today. Almost as well known for his troubled life as innovative saxophone playing, we’ve picked 10 of the best Charlie Parker songs which sum up the genius of the man they called ‘Bird’.
Music is no stranger to stories of ‘overnight success’ but perhaps no style of jazz seemed to spin onto the scene as quickly as bebop.
There’s a good explanation, though…
Whilst Charlie Parker was developing his revolutionary concept for improvisation in the late 1930s and early 1940s, all was not well in the industry.
The Musician’s Union called a ban on all commercial recordings in 1942 which lasted for a whopping two years and meant that the early developments of Parker’s playing – and bebop in general – are largely undocumented.
History’s loss must have made things all the more exciting for fans at the time who, come 1945, were suddenly exposed to this radical new style of jazz.
This, coupled with Parker’s well-known struggles with alcohol and heroin, explain why our list of the best Charlie Parker songs cover the incredibly short period of 1945-1949.
Don’t be fooled though; these four years showcase a musician almost single-handedly changing the face of jazz…
(Rec: May 11, 1945)
Whilst erroneously credited to Parker on more than one occasion, Salt Peanuts was a popular bebop tune written by his close musical associate Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke.
Parker and Dizzy were arguably The original bebop paring and this early session under the trumpeter’s leadership features a sparkling solo from Bird showing just how advanced his concepts were; lightning fast, perfectly constructed and entirely logical-sounding.
Now’s The Time
(Rec: November 26, 1945)
The chords of The Blues and I Got Rhythm (“Rhythm Changes”) featured in many of Charlie Parker’s compositions; Now’s The Time is one of his most famous which utilises the former.
With a slower and easier-to-follow tempo than many of his other performances at the time, Parker’s gloriously full alto tone flows lyrically, beautifully off-setting the almost ‘lazy’ feel of the theme.
The tempo is also ideally suited to a certain 19 year old trumpeter – Miles Davis – who acquits himself well.
(Rec: November 26, 1945)
Ko Ko is another classic Parker tune, this time a contrafact of Ray Noble’s ‘Cherokee’ – a piece which remains a famous challenge for aspiring jazz musicians.
In fact, it was Cherokee where some of the most important beginnings of bebop took root.
As recounted in book ‘Visions of Jazz: The First Century‘ Charlie Parker spoke of a night in 1939 when “I was working over ‘Cherokee’ and, as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.”
This 1945 version is fast and trumpeter Miles Davis allegedly refused to play it for this recording. As such, it’s Dizzy Gillespie who takes over on trumpet duties.
Moose The Mooche
(Rec: March 28, 1946)
Recorded in one of several sessions for Ross Russell’s Dial Records in Los Angeles, Charlie Parker is magnificent form in Spring 1946 and performs this version of Moose The Mooche alongside several other classics.
Rumoured to be named after Parker’s drugs supplier Emry ‘Moose The Mooche’ Byrd, the song was recorded with a septet whose full treatment of the theme gives the perfect springboard Parker’s solo.
A Night In Tunisia
(Rec: March 28, 1946)
It’s hard to dig into the life and music of Charlie Parker without hearing of the famous ‘alto break’ which features on this version of A Night In Tunisia.
Written by Dizzy Gillespie, the tune has a relatively complicated melody compared to usual bebop themes, but does set the mood for some stunning playing from Parker.
The saxophonist takes a short solo after the initial theme before the melody returns. It’s the solo ‘break’ – where the band stops and leaves the soloist exposed for a few seconds – that pushed the song into the history books.
Bird’s astonishing four-bar break is an incredible piece of improvisational and instrumental virtuosity that still has the ability to surprise the listener and give budding jazz musicians all around the world weeks of study.
(Rec: May 8, 1947)
Back in New York with his quintet featuring Miles Davis on trumpet, Parker was in the studio recording for the Savoy label.
An air of confidence and assurance pervades the session, with both Parker and Miles claiming credit for the song.
Based on the harmony of the old jazz Song ‘Back Home Again in Indiana‘, its intricate melody and unusual phrasing have made it a popular challenge with jazz musicians ever since.
Even though the tempo is quick, we hear the maturing Miles Davis finding his unique way of playing through the changes, whilst Bird, as usual, bounces through with a fluid and full toned solo.
(Rec: August 14, 1947)
Not to be confused with the ‘other’ Milestones which Miles Davis composed some 10 years later, this 1947 version of a John Lewis song was actually recorded under the trumpeter’s name, with Bird as a featured guest.
In another twist, the saxophonist is heard playing tenor – a very rare occurance.
In fact, this is Miles’s date with a quintet and Parker agreed to play on it, and features Bird on tenor saxophone instead of his customary alto.
Parker still plays with his usual grace and fluency, but it is fascinating to hear him play in a lower register.
(Rec: November 4, 1947)
In what was a productive year for the alto saxophonist, Charlie Parker recorded Klactoveedsedstene back in Los Angeles for Dial Records.
A somewhat catchy tune, it’s perhaps one of the few songs in jazz history that is easier to hum along to than pronounce!
With his regular quintet featuring the young Miles Davis on trumpet, it showcases a totally cohesive unit.
Parker is as assured as ever, with Davis finding his way as a counterpart to Bird’s explosive flurries of notes.
Whilst there’s a lot of focus on his virtuosity as an improvisor, this is a great Charlie Parker song to hear how melodic and blues-infused his playing was.
(September 18, 1948)
It may be a simple blues in Bb, but the song Parker’s Mood perfectly encapsulates the saxophonists genius with an improvised performance that is alive with expression and detail.
His phrasing and tone are beautiful over all three takes of the piece which were recorded. Along with two incomplete performances, the only constant in these five publicly available takes is the opening two bars.
(Rec: November 30, 1949)
In late 1949 Bird headed into the studio to fulfil a long-time dream of recording an album with string orchestra; the jazz standard Just Friends was one of the most memorable tracks to come out of the session.
Released on a 10” LP in 1950 as ‘Charlie Parker with Strings’, it was Norman Granz of Verve Records who made it happen and perhaps, with one eye on commercial success, pushed for six standards from the jazz repertoire.
However it came about, the session provides a fantastic opportunity to hear the saxophonist on some incredible familiar songs, in a lush orchestral setting.
One could have been forgiven for thinking the change in setting might have fazed him; in fact he brings his multi-noted and complex improvisational style to the recording with considerable ease and seemingly endless creativity.
Rounding Up The Best Songs of Charlie Parker
Of course, every fan will have their own take on the best recordings and performances of Parker. And, with a musician of his stature and importance, ten barely scraps the surface.
We hope, however, that these highlighted Parker songs allow you to dig deeply into his work at the most crucial time of both his career, and jazz history in general.
Even in that short time-span, his development as an improvisor is stunning to hear.
His recordings in the early 1950s, whilst widely agreed to miss the sparkle of his best years, already hinted at something new in his musical thinking, and we can only wonder what might have been had he lived to old age…
Looking for more? Whilst diving into this topic, we also selected a bunch of our favourite Charlie Parker albums. You can also find Parker sat at the top (well, joint first…) of our guide to the best saxophone players of all time.