‘Charlie Parker’s Yardbird’ offers new insights into jazz legend’s life — and death

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This week, Opera Philadelphia presents the world premiere of a work that provides a new look at jazz legend Charlie Parker.

You could summarize saxophonist Charlie Parker’s musical legacy with just one word: Bebop.

Parker’s unparalleled virtuosity and complexity changed jazz. His life was as fast paced and risk-taking as his music. It was a life plagued with hardship, genius and a hefty dose of struggle. It was crowded with music, women, drugs and the pain of being a black man in a divided society. A life, in other words,  worthy of an opera.

This week Opera Philadelphia premieres a new work that gives another insight into Parker’s life, which ended in 1955 when he was just 34.

“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” is not a biography; it starts after he died when, ghostlike, he visits Birdland, the Harlem jazz club named in his honor.

He sings of his life and his music, the women who loved him, especially his mother, and the heroin that destroyed him. He sings of his regret at not having the time to finish the work that was in his mind.

Composer Daniel Schnyder decided to start the opera with what he imagines was the saxophonist’s last dream and aspiration.

“Because he always wanted to compose classical music,” Schnyder says. “He wanted to study with Edgard Varèse, and he wanted to go to Paris, and he knew Stravinsky and loved his ‘Firebird.’ And so that was sort of a dream that never came true because he died so early and he never got his act together “

A haunting end

“Yardbird” tells the story in a fantasy mode, kind of a ghost story, in which an adolescent Parker encounters his mother, and then the three important women in his turbulent life.

Librettist, Bridgette Wimberly says she read everything that she could find about Parker to write a fresh and engaging story. One fact, in particular, haunted her.

“When I found out he was dead in the morgue for three days, I was like, that is it, because nobody talks about that,” she says. “People talk about his heroin addiction or his music creation, but the fact that you can lay in a morgue unidentified and forgotten. Your body is there, but where is your spirit? It’s gone.”

Schnyder, well known as a performer and composer in both the jazz and classical fields, has composed all new music for “Yardbird.” His deep appreciation of Parker’s music, and his knowledge of “one of the cornerstones of modern jazz,” helped him there.

“You have to know his music, and you have to study his music. It’s very addictive music. It’s very logical and strong.

“Once you have learned it and played it, it is part of your repertoire,” says Schnyder. “I always felt very attracted to that. It’s very fast music, but very elegant music. And, in many ways, it’s perfect music.”

Reflecting on Parker’s music

The challenge for the composer and for the musicians was to create and perform an opera based on the life of a prolific and renowned American musician without using any of his original work.

Not to worry, says Schnyder.

“Little parts will be Parker-like, but it’s not about Charlie Parker’s music. It’s my music and something that reflects on Charlie Parker’s music,” he explains. “It’s a different thing than just taking his music and using it for an opera.”

The starring role of the legendary saxophonist is played by celebrated tenor Lawrence Brownlee. In fact, Opera Philadelphia crafted “Yardbird” specifically around Brownlee’s singing style.

“It’s not too different from what I have been listening to my whole life,” says Brownlee. “I appreciate what he has done for music, but it’s a great challenge and responsibility to bring light to his life.”

Many say that his life was a tragedy. Wimberly sees it as much more than that.

“We all have to die, but let us die having done something.” says Wimberly. “And, certainly, Charlie Parker did.”

By the end of the opera it becomes clear that Parker had only one love, one mistress — his music.

“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird” will be performed this and next weekend at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater.  

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