188 Sullivan: Charlie Parker’s New York in the 50’s

Charlie Parker playing saxophone

Charlie Parker photo by William Gottlieb.

Monday, February 24, 7:30pm
Royal Room
5000 Rainier Ave S

It’s hard to overestimate the impor­tance of Charlie “Bird” Parker, the co-inventor of bebop whose extravagant skill as a composer and alto-saxophon­ist shaped the very soul of jazz to come. As Miles Davis once stated: “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker.”

One hundred years after his birth, the Seattle Opera presents Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a one-act opera written by composer/saxophonist Daniel Schny­der and poet/playwright Bridgette Wimberly. The opera follows Kansas-born Parker, who, stuck in limbo after his death, returns to the famous New York club Birdland (named in his hon­or) to compose a final masterpiece.

On February 24th, presented in as­sociation with the Seattle Opera and KNKX, the Royal Room will prove that Bird lives through the next cen­tury with a night of tributes and origi­nal music.

The night will explore different fac­ets of Parker’s life and work. Soprano Angela Brown, who plays Parker’s mother Addie in Yardbird, will bring the opera’s drama back to the club by performing a short spoken-word piece “Discography,” written by Wimberly, the opera’s librettist for vocals and small jazz ensemble.

Despite Parker’s tragic death in 1955 after a heroin overdose, he had already triumphed with his music. Besides his recorded work, often imitated but seldom duplicated, his compositions have since become classics, and will be featured by a quartet led by drummer D’Vonne Lewis (last year’s Golden Ear instrumentalist of the year), featuring Stuart MacDonald (sax), Tim Kenne­dy (piano), and Michael Glynn (bass).

The night will also feature a premiere of “188 Sullivan,” written by pianist/ composer Wayne Horvitz for Seattle Modern Orchestra (SMO), conducted by Julia Tai. The piece takes its inspira­tion from Parker’s brief encounter with another great New York modernist, the French composer Edgar Varèse.

Himself drawing deeply from the classical tradition, Parker was enam­ored of then-down-and-out Varèse, whose bombastic rhythm-centered compositions formed the beginnings of modern electronic music. Accord­ing to legend, Parker followed the composer through Greenwich Vil­lage, begging the composer for lessons in composition. Though they ended up meeting at the composer’s apart­ment—188 Sullivan Street—Parker died in 1955 after Varèse left for Paris to begin his early work for orchestra and tape, Déserts.

Though Horvitz doubts the two mu­sicians wouldn’t have gone further than mutual admiration if Bird had lived longer, he does point out thatVarèse later became involved in jam-sessions with musicians like Charles Mingus and Hal Overton.

“The cross-pollination of ideas and aesthetics is impossible to avoid, and we’d be poor human beings if we tried,” Horvitz explains of the affini­ties between the modes of classical and jazz music. Earle Brown, another com­poser of that era influenced by New York’s crossing currents, was featured by SMO in last fall’s Earshot Jazz Fes­tival, in addition to George Lewis, Tyshawn Sorey, and Horvitz.

“James Falzone with be the featured improvising soloist, but the other mu­sicians will be making contributions as well, improvising within certain parameters and within the constructs of ‘conduction.’” Horvitz said of the piece, which features himself (elec­tronics), Falzone (clarinet), Bonnie Whiting (percussion), and Cristina Valdés (piano). Conduction refers to the conducting of an improvised en­semble, often with a different set of signals than standard classical conducting.

Conductor Julia Tai emphasizes im­provisation as a characteristic of jazz that has returned into contemporary classical music. “My role as a conduc­tor is to understand and shape the piece, while giving musicians enough space to come up with their own ma­terial,” she explains, reveling in the music of the moment. “It’s going to be really fun, and it’ll be different every time!

Ian Gwin

Visit theroyalroomseattle.com for tickets and information.

Seattle Opera’s production of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird runs from February 22­–March 7. Visit seattleopera.org for details.


Posted on

January 22, 2020