The rich, buttery tenor of Lawrence Brownlee soars as if it’s on wings in the opening aria “Birdland.” He is channeling bebop genius Charlie Parker, whose life is at the center of the opera Charlie Parker’s Yardbird—co-produced by the Apollo Theater and Opera Philadelphia. It is set in New York City’s iconic Birdland jazz club on March 12, 1955—the day Parker died—as his spirit composes his final masterpiece.
Coinciding with Parker’s induction into the Walk of Fame at the Apollo on March 30, the opera will make its New York premiere at the theater in Harlem April 1 and April 3. There are also several related events, including a Charlie Parker Harlem Tour and an open dress rehearsal of the opera March 31.
“It’s a great challenge for me,” says Brownlee, whose recording of Virtuoso Rossini Arias was nominated for a Grammy. The Associated Press has called him “one of the world’s leading bel canto tenors.” But the man who grew up in the church singing gospel and then joined a band doing madrigals, and later an R&B group, says it’s been a little different to get into the mind and character of this musician known for his bold musical experiments.
“I have to try to be flexible and try and learn the mind and body of a jazz musician,” Brownlee explains. “Charlie Parker was virtuosity. His music, his scales, his soloing, his orientation, was so out of this world. The composer of this transcribed some of the actual solos of Charlie Parker into vocal lines. … To learn a scat language, I listen to some of the great scatters and try and think in the mind of a virtuosity jazz person.”
Bridgette Wimberly, who wrote the libretto (which is the story the music will tell), had some challenges as well. The composer, Daniel Schnyder, asked her to make sure Parker wrote something new in this opera. So Wimberly read everything about Parker, from biographies written by people who knew and loved him to a letter written by his mother, Addie, about the relationship she had with her son. Parker died at the New York City apartment of his friend and patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, and his body was taken to Bellevue Hospital.
“His soul is in Birdland while his corpse is in Bellevue,” Wimberly says. “The people who knew him were the women in his life. … I couldn’t get into all that music playing; that’s not my world. But I do understand women in love with men.”
Wimberly based her story on those women and on his quest to write a new piece, a big orchestration, a classical masterpiece for 40 instruments instead of a quartet or quintet.
“He visits parts of his life, the people he loved most, for inspiration,” Wimberly explains. “I hope that people get an understanding of Charlie Parker the man, his life and what he did as a musician.”
“His music inspired people all over the world in the way they improvised, in their freedom of expression in music,” says Jimmy Heath, 89, a jazz legend himself who played with Parker. The brilliant composer, arranger and instrumentalist says that Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, along with Thelonious Monk, were the architects of the music known as bebop.
“They started a new movement in jazz that had swing still embedded in it but was complex in its improvisation,” Heath says. Parker used Heath’s saxophone during a series of gigs in Philadelphia with Miles Davis, Max Roach, Tommy Potter and Duke Jordan. But Parker used to leave his mouthpiece on Heath’s horn.
“I would take it up … I would say, ‘Charlie Parker played last night and I know he left some of his music in here, but it went right through the horn,’” Heath says, chuckling. “I said I can’t capture it like that, I’ve gotta study it; and that’s what I began to do, and they started calling me Little Bird.”
Heath will be performing at Parker’s Walk of Fame induction, where a plaque will be installed along 125th Street alongside those of other legends, from Louis Armstrong to Michael Jackson.
“We want people to understand Charlie Parker and his relationship with the Apollo,” says Mikki Shepard, the Apollo’s executive producer. “[He] played the Apollo so many times … and did his classical recording. The first time he performed it was in August of 1950. … He had been doing big band and then bebop and exploring the whole classical-jazz combo and doing his new classic album because he knew it was a safe space and a community that supported him.”
Heath wants people coming to the show to remember a few things about Parker and about the contributions of African Americans to music.
“He was a prolific composer, and people are still playing his compositions,” Heath says. “There are a few things for black history that need to be documented, and maybe we can change the lives of some young people. … There are not enough of us playing our music. Everybody has taken it and called it theirs, but African-American classical music is jazz.”