Lyric Premiere Charlie Parker’s Yardbird
By Daniel Schnyder & Bridgette A. Wimberly
- Language - Performed in English with projected English texts
- Running Time - 1 hour 30 minutes
- Location - Harris Theater, 205 E Randolph St, Chicago, IL
In that empty twilight between life and death, tortured jazzman Charlie Parker composes his final masterpiece, revisiting the inspirations, demons, and women who fueled his creative genius. This freeform expedition into the mind, heart, and personal purgatory of the bebop great stars Lawrence Brownlee as the legendary saxophonist — a role crafted around the effortless, improvisational style that makes him one of music’s most sought-after tenors. Set in the famed NYC jazz club Birdland, the opera is as uncompromising in its artistic vision as the “Yardbird” himself.
As his body lies misidentified in the morgue, Charlie’s ghost enters Birdland, a 500-seat club named after him that also featured caged finches as decor. Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Joe Louis could be seen there regularly. Owning no part of Birdland, Charlie was kicked out in 1954 after an altercation with another musician. On March 4, 1955, he made his final appearance there. Eight days later he was dead.
His spirit, both surprised and inspired, now stands in this new Birdland. Here, he will create his final masterpiece. He is interrupted by Nica, his friend, who appears frantically in search of his wife Chan, so she can tell her Charlie is dead. Charlie needs all the time available to write. Nica, on the other hand, needs Chan to claim Charlie’s body and end the potential nightmare of the press announcing that he has died in her hotel suite forcing the hotel to evict her.
Charlie tries to write but the notes will not stay on the paper. As a master of improvisation, Charlie long realized that the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale could lead melodically to any key, freeing musicians from the twelve bar blues.
Needing a new freedom, Charlie is visited and inspired by people who have meant much in his life. With the inspiration of his strong mother Addie, three of his four wives, Rebecca, Doris, and Chan, and his partner in the jazz revolution that was bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker will struggle to calm his demons and write his new masterpiece before his body is identified in the morgue and this gig is up forever.
Can he do it or will the demons of his past rear their ugly heads? Will he succumb to heroin or alcohol, or is he just too tired and sick to go on? Will he channel the strength and love of his mother, a woman who worked long hours to give him everything she could? He was her only child. Did she mother him too much or will he honor her with a new masterpiece? He left his first wife Rebecca with an infant son nearly 15 years earlier. Can she forgive him?
Charlie will bravely revisit Camarillo State Mental Hospital, a purgatory, searching for inspiration and healing. Will he find it and will he be able to forgive himself for the death of his daughter Pree, whom he could not save? Can her forgiveness save him? This opera searches for the music in dreams deferred and the power of redemption.
We proudly close the opera with “I know why the caged bird sings,” the last stanza from “Sympathy,” a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), understanding and acknowledging both the struggle and triumph of Charlie Parker
Go inside this production of Charlie Parker’s Yardbird with engaging articles, notes from the director, a complete plot synopsis, artist bios, and more.
Meet The Artists
Bridgette A. Wimberly