How Charlie Parker Taught Me to Fly


It was just another Thursday on campus when my professor put on one of the Bird's popular recordings of "All the Things You Are" as an example of his work. Sitting in darkness in the back row, I found my mind racing as I was suddenly fourteen years old again, trying to make sense of that very same recording and why such a seemingly plain song was so important to jazz.

“All the Things You Are” is often the first standard that budding jazz musicians will learn as it encompasses some of the most common chord changes -- 2-5's, chords moving in fourths diatonically, the chromatic walkdown at the end of the form, and that unmistakable intro/outro made famous by Bird himself. However, when lectured on the significance of this just a few years ago, I was left frustrated and confused with all questions and no answers.

Coming into high school, I was a drummer -- nothing more. Three music classes a day, five days a week, and I still couldn't tell you what made up a scale or name a note on the staff. Each day brought humiliation. Ready to throw in the towel and daydreaming about transferring schools, those walks to the band room filled me with dread. While my peers worried themselves over Chemistry and History, Jazz had become the bane of my existence.

As a teenager, Bird allegedly had a cymbal flung at him on the bandstand. If a sixteen year-old Parker could persevere, why couldn't I? Mama didn't raise no quitter after all. I relocated my lunch period to the practice rooms, and after school I spent hours hulked over the Vibraphone, fumbling over scales and arpeggios. Days turned to weeks, weeks to months, and soon I had upgraded from two mallets to four mallets, working on chord voicings and comping patterns.

A summer of regimented practicing came and went, and I began sophomore year confident in my abilities. "All the Things You Are" showed me that I couldn't be any more wrong. I had all my scales down, minor, major, dominant, bebop, diminished, whole step, you name it. I was successful in teaching myself not only treble but bass clef in the span of a year. I could read down a lead sheet and comp the chords no problem. What I could not do, however, was improvise.

The sole basis of all jazz music is improvisation. The art of instantaneous composition, of creating your own ideas and phrases over chord changes to tell your story -- that’s what makes the music. It’s what the greats from Monk to Miles were all renowned for. They say that the page is just a road map, a loosely interpretable guide to the music. Even still, staring at the first four chords (Fm7, Bbm7, Eb7, Abmaj7) I had no idea what to do with them, no understanding of what they had to do with each other. I was a dog, and my owner put the leash in my mouth and left me to walk myself.

A new door had opened before me, a door to a previously unexplored world. Countless lessons and innumerable hours of practice later, I played my first solo at a concert (over Mingus' "Love Chant," in case you were curious). In time I was piecing together the puzzle, understanding the functions of each chord and what I could do to best serve them in my own playing. Armed with a new kind of confidence, it was hard to believe that music had seemed so grim and daunting just a few months prior. My playing evolved past any and all prior expectations I had reserved, and I began to experiment, pushing past my preconceived limits.

The year I learned how to blow over "All the Things You Are" was the same year that I first composed music of my own. The same year that I took up playing the bass to sub in for a musical. The same year that I transcribed my first solo, Miles Davis' two choruses on "So What." The same year that I led a section for the first time, taking control of the drumline to arrange parts for the marching band’s repertoire. Although I began playing as a child, the flower of my musical career found the nutrients to blossom in high school.

During those four years in high school, I had the privilege of meeting many great musical minds, orchestrating and performing my own written works, and learning four more instruments than I came in knowing. If I were lucky, I got to go home right after classes three or four days a month as I spent most of my time practicing in rehearsals or solo after school. I’ve played venues from the likes of Carnegie Hall to the streets of Little Italy and Chinatown. All of the things I am today, all thanks to Bird's "All the Things You Are." 

Mr. Boston is a Staten Island native studying Environmental Science at the Macaulay's Honors College at CCNY. This is his first article for

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