Parker, Charlie (actually, Charles Jr.; aka Bird; Yardbird; and Charlie Chan)

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Parker, Charlie (actually, Charles Jr.; aka Bird; Yardbird; and Charlie Chan)

Parker, Charlie (actually, Charles Jr.; aka Bird; Yardbird; and Charlie Chan), brilliant alto saxophonist and the single most influential jazz musician after Louis Armstrong, stepfather of Kim Parker; b. Kansas City, Kans., Aug. 29, 1920; d. N.Y., March 12, 1955. He got the name “Yardbird” because of his liking for fried chicken. This was later shortened to “Bird.” He did not have a middle name, though Christopher has been given. His father, Charles Parker Sr., was born in Miss, and raised in Memphis and was a pianist, dancer and singer in Kansas City; by the late 1920s he worked in railroad dining cars. His mother, Adelaide “Addie” Bailey (b. c. 1888), was part Choctaw and lived in Okla. before coming to Kans. She cleaned in private homes and for the Western Union office. She was a Baptist but sent Charlie to a Catholic school. The family moved to Kansas City, Mo. in the late 1920s, settling eventually at 1516 Olive St. (his mother later bought the house at 1535), and the parents separated around 1932. Probably also in 1932, Parker Jr’s first musical experience was in the band at Lincoln H.S. under Leo Davis and Alonzo Lewis, first on alto horn, then baritone horn. He began teaching himself on a used alto saxophone that his mother bought later in 1932 for $45. He said that hearing Rudy Vallee got him interested in the saxophone, but he didn’t become serious at the time and even loaned the instrument to a friend, he said, for two years.

By 1934, Parker was apparently playing alto with Mary Kirk’s trio and with other students (some of whom were probably later in the Deans of Swing), was studying chords on a piano at home, but sometime after that he sat in with Jimmie Keith’s band at the High Hat and got laughed off the stage. He said that this drove him to practice seriously, all day long, over the next three or four years. He had tried alcohol and “pills” as early as 1932, but in 1935 he became a heroin addict, which was to shape the rest of his short life and also, perversely, to help initiate a vogue for the destructive drug among his legions of disciples in the late 1940s. He had never been interested in school and finally dropped out in June 1935, after playing with the high school orch. He worked for the next year and a half with the Deans of Swing, initially a student band led by pianist Lawrence Keyes that included singer Walter Brown; around the end of 1935, he played briefly with Oliver Todd. On July 25, 1936, he married Rebecca Ellen Ruffin (b. Feb. 23, 1920), who with her mother and six siblings had been boarders in the Parker home since April 1934, but who had moved out that spring at Addie’s request when the courtship became serious. Sometime around mid-1936, in a famous incident, Parker was jamming at the Reno Club with Count Basie’s group, which included his idol Lester Young, when Jo Jones “rang the gong” on him by dropping a cymbal on the floor. On Nov. 28, 1936, he was injured in a serious auto accident (one passenger died) on the way to a gig in the Ozarks. He continued to freelance; he played baritone and tenor as needed but specialized on alto saxophone. Like all self-taught musicians he was not in isolation; he picked up many pointers from colleagues such as Tommy Douglas, with whom he worked in 1936. In the summer of 1937, while working with George E. Lee at Muesser’s Ozarks Tavern in Eldon, Mo., he learned some of Young’s solos by heart—probably including “Oh Lady Be Good” and “Shoe Shine Boy” (1936 recordings)—and returned two months later a much improved musician. That fall he played in the band of Buster Smith, a significant mentor, which included Jay McShann, at Lucille’s Paradise (making some radio broadcasts that were not preserved) and at the Antler Club. During the latter engagement, Smith moved to N.Y., leaving Parker and a tenorist to lead the band. After a while, Parker led his own quintet at Lucille’s. He worked for perhaps three months at Martin’s-on-the-Plaza with McShann’s band; McShann later fired him for unreliability. During this gig, Parker wrote “What Price Love?,” a vocal number which the group performed; it was later known as the instrumental “Yardbird Suite.” Sometime in 1938, he had his first of several brushes with the law when he stabbed a taxi driver in a fight over his inability to pay the fare. Rebecca gave birth to Francis Leon (after Leon “Chu” Berry) Parker on Jan. 10, 1938, but Parker spent less and less time at home and she did not accompany him on his trips out of town. In January 1939, he worked with Harlan Leonard for perhaps two weeks, then went to Chicago where he sat in and maybe even gigged for money, then went to stay with Buster Smith in N.Y. While he looked for gigs, he supported himself by cleaning up for two weeks at a little club, and then for three months washed dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where Tatum often sat in. Though Parker was never asked about Tatum, it seems likely that he learned from the pianist’s innovations in voicings and chord substitutions, and possibly from his fondness for inserting clever quotations; Parker also worked at a dance hall, the Parisien. Parker said that while sitting in with guitarist Biddy Fleet at Dan Wall’s Chili House on Seventh Ave. in Harlem he experimented with new chords and different keys and one night had a breakthrough when he played on the higher intervals of “Cherokee” while Fleet tried backing him with related harmonies.

At the end of 1939, Parker and Fleet were working with Banjo Burney in Annapolis, Md., when his father was killed, stabbed by a lover in a drunken quarrel, and he returned to Kansas City for the funeral around the beginning of 1940. Sometime after, perhaps in February, he joined McShann’s touring band, with which he made his first recordings in Wichita, Kans. in November 1940 (not counting an undated solo demo disk from around this time); these private discs were not issued until 1974. While with McShann he got the nickname “Yardbird” (later “Bird”). He first recorded commercially with McShann on April 30, 1941, in Dallas. Afterward the band had a break between gigs and Parker and Walter Brown became violently ill while staying with Gene Ramey and family in Austin because they could not locate a source of heroin. They soon resumed touring with McShann; in November 1941, the band went to Chicago and they debuted at the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem on Jan. 9, 1942, followed by touring. Soon after a recording session in N.Y. on July 2, Parker chose to remain there when the band went out on another tour. He began appearing at jam sessions at Monroe’s and Minton’s, then rejoined McShann briefly, finally leaving to join Earl Hines on tenor in December 1942. While the Hines band was in Chicago from Feb. 14 to March 2, 1943, Parker was recorded privately in jam sessions with Gillespie and others; these were first issued in 1986. On April 10, 1943, while the band was in Washington, D.C., he married Geraldine “Gerri” Scott, whom he had apparently known back home; he never went through a legal divorce from his first wife, though. During this visit, or another one to D.C. later in the year, he left Hines to work with Charles Thompson, then returned to Kansas City without Gerri, the relationship having quickly ended, and performed at Tutty’s May-fair Club.

In early 1944 Gillespie sent Parker a telegram offering to hire him for his group, but he never received it; soon he had rejoined McShann. In the spring, he was fired for passing out on the bandstand in Detroit, rode from there with Andy Kirk’s band, and joined Noble Sissle in N.Y. When Sissle arrived in St. Louis in the summer of 1944, Parker transferred to the Billy Eckstine band. On Sept. 15, 1944, he recorded in N.Y. accompanying Tiny Grimes. Later that year, he worked briefly with Andy Kirk, and then joined Cootie Williams at the end of 1944, including gigs in N.Y. at the Apollo (Jan. 12–17, 1945) and the Savoy Ballroom (mid-February 1945). In 1945 he began recording regularly with Gillespie, and performing with him at the three Deuces in N.Y. in March and in concerts at Town Hall (May 22 and June 30; one of which was recorded) and Philadelphia’s Academy of Music (June 5, 1945). He and Gillespie practiced together and became leaders of the new music, bebop. At times, Parker and Gillespie would even turn practice compositions upside down and play them that way for relief. Parker became the acknowledged leader of bebop as he developed an improvising technique characterized by virtuosic speed, intense tone, complex harmonies, and florid melodies having irregular rhythmic patterns and asymmetric phrase lengths. During the 1940s and 1950s, he also wrote a number of seminal tunes, among them “Ornithology,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Parker’s Mood,” and “Yardbird Suite.” As a composer, he usually worked with the 12-bar blues patterns (but always in an nonstereotypical manner; he made 175 blues recordings, all markedly different) or with chord progressions of well-known “standard” tunes: his “Ornithology,” for instance, is based on the progression of “How High the Moon.”

Around this time he studied Islam and Arabic with Argonne Thornton (later Sadik Hakim) and was sometimes known as Saluda Hakim among his Muslim friends. Late in 1945, he began living with Doris Sydnor, but she stayed behind when he went to L.A. with Gillespie’s group for an engagement at Billy Berg’s lasting from Dec. 10, 1945, through Feb. 3, 1946. Radio broadcasts survive, but a silent home movie clip of the band remains unconfirmed. On Feb. 5, 1946, Parker and Gillespie made the first recording session for the new Dial label; it had been hoped that Lester Young would join them but he was out on tour. The Gillespie group then returned to N.Y. but Parker remained in L.A. He was briefly in a hospital for withdrawal; in February, he was visited by a lover from N.Y., Chan Richardson (born Beverly Dolores Berg). He led a group at the Finale Club with Miles Davis (of which broadcasts survive), recorded again for Dial, was recorded live with Young and others at J.A.T.R, and led Sunday jam session at Billy Berg’s; he also met his early idol Rudy Vallee. In April, the Finale closed after a raid and his drug connection, Emery “Moose the Mooche” Byrd was arrested. Parker was soon in withdrawal, drinking alcohol as a substitute, broke, and crashing in a converted garage. In May, Chan left: she was pregnant with another man’s child and gave birth in N.Y. to Kim, who became known as Parker’s daughter. Howard McGhee hired Parker for an engagement at the Hi-De-Ho and recorded with him on July 29, 1946. But at that infamous “Lover Man” session Parker was in poor condition (he later said it “should never have been released”); Elliott Grennard, who was present, wrote a romanticized short story based on the session, “Sparrow’s Last Jump.”

That night while sitting naked, Parker accidentally started a fire in his room at the Civic Hotel with a cigarette, failed to get dressed when the firefighters came, made a scene and was arrested. He was taken to a hospital, then placed in the psychiatric wing of the L.A. county jail and finally sentenced to be confined at Camarillo State Hospital, where he was broken of his addiction. In September, Doris moved to L.A. to lend support and visit him regularly. Upon his release on Jan. 31, 1947, in the custody of and partly through the efforts of Dial producer Ross Russell, he moved into a furnished room with Doris and immediately resumed his career. He was already becoming a cult figure and numerous private recordings were made of him in clubs and even jam sessions, almost all of them were eventually issued. After a stint at the Hi-De-Ho in March, he returned to N.Y. and soon returned to heroin and alcohol, often failing to pay his sidepeople, and sometimes engaging in outrageous behaviors, such as urinating in a nightclub’s phone booth. Tragically, his heroin habit was copied by many younger musicians, among whom heroin use became a social norm. Still, Parker managed to lead a productive and increasingly successful career. He won first place in the alto saxophone category of the Metronome Poll from 1947 through 1952, and in the Down Beat Readers Poll from 1950 through 1954. From 1947 through 1950, he led a quintet, first with Miles Davis (followed by Kenny Dorham, then Red Rodney) and Max Roach (followed by Roy Haynes). In 1948, he and Doris married. In May 1949, he appeared at the jazz festival in Paris. The Manhattan club Birdland, named for him, opened Dec. 15, 1949. In early 1950, his marriage with Doris broke up and by May he moved in with Chan, who became known as Chan Parker though they never legally married. He served as a father to Kim and titled a recording for her; they had a daughter Pree and a son Baird (for whom he wrote “Laird Baird”).

In 1950, Parker’s quintet broke up. He performed live with strings plus oboe added to his rhythm section. He also began touring as a “single,” accompanied by local musicians in each city. His playing between 1950 and at least 1952 revealed an even more developed technique—a smoothness of sound in all registers, cleanness of execution, and an increased ease at the fastest tempos. His innovative patterns, incorporating bitonality, presaged at times Dolphy and other later disciples. His style is most evident in live recordings, such as those from Sweden (1950) and from the Rock-land Palace in 1952 (“Lester Leaps In,” “The Rocker (2)”). His studio recordings for Norman Granz were generally highly arranged affairs featuring voices, strings, and various bands; they did however serve to bring him a wider audience, and he was especially proud of the string group because of his interests in modern classical music. He used Slonimsky’s Thesaurus of Scales and Melodic Patterns and studied scores of Stravinsky. He met Stefan Wolpe and wrote to Varése and Schoenberg, with the intent of studying with them, but never followed through. In November 1950, he toured Sweden and Denmark but did not appear for a scheduled performance while in Paris. In N.Y., he was hospitalized for a stomach ulcer caused by drinking. Because of narcotics possession, he was arrested in July 1951. He was only given a three-month suspended sentence, but his cabaret card was revoked, denying him the right to work in most N.Y. nightclubs. He was not prevented from concert halls, and he did work frequently in Philadelphia and elsewhere. His card was restored in 1953 after he wrote a letter requesting clemency. In 1953, King Pleasure set lyrics to his solo on “Parker’s Mood” (1948 recording); it was a hit but Parker disliked the lyrics which (presciently) told of him dying and going back to Kansas City. (Eddie Jefferson had set it to more typical “miss my baby” lyrics in 1949 as “Bless My Soul,” but his recording remains little known.) On May 15, 1953 he appeared in Massey Hall, Toronto with Gillespie, Powell, Mingus and Roach. Poorly attended at the time, it resulted in a celebrated recording. From Feb. 28 through March 28, 1954, he and Gillespie were on a package tour where they were accompanied by the Stan Kenton Orch.

His health and mental condition were deteriorating. He still had ulcers, and Chan referred to a “heart attack” of some kind while in Philadelphia. He was grief-stricken when Pree died on March 6, 1954 of a congenital heart problem, while he was performing at the Tiffany Club in L.A. He was fired from the Tiffany for his erratic behavior. That summer his family vacationed in East Brewster on Cape Cod and though he was touring he probably spent some time there before they returned to N.Y. But his relationship with Chan was suffering and after a row he attempted suicide on Aug. 30, 1954 by drinking iodine, and subsequently entered Bellevue Hospital until Sept. 10. On Sept. 28, he voluntarily returned to Bellevue to get help with depression and alcoholism; he was released on Oct. 15 and continued to report there for psychotherapy. Chan separated from him and he lived in the apartment of Ahmed Basheer in Greenwich Village; his last gig was on March 4 and 5, 1955 at Birdland. The second night was disastrous, with Parker and Bud Powell arguing on stage and both Powell and Charles Mingus storming off. On March 9, before going to a gig in Boston, he stopped in the Stanhope Hotel apartment of jazz patron Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Seeing that he was vomiting blood, she had him stay for several days under a doctor’s supervision. He choked and died while watching television there. It seems that alcoholism, not heroin, was the immediate cause due to the cirrhosis of his liver and stomach ulcers. Chan arranged for him to be buried near Pree at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Westchester County, N.Y., but his legal wife Doris intervened and scheduled services for March 21 at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th St. before flying his body to Kansas City for burial. Soon after his death there were memorial concerts, and the graffiti “Bird Lives” began showing up around N.Y., a tribute to his powerful impact.

Parker’s life with Chan was the main subject of the 1988 film, Bird, directed by Clint Eastwood. He is also the subject of the documentary Celebrating Bird, and an animated short by Peter Bodge. He appeared in a Noman Granz JATP film in 1950; the film was never edited but the two performances on which he appears (and others without him) were released in the late 1990s, without synch sound. The only footage of Parker with “live” sound is a performance of “Hot House” with Gillespie from a television variety program, Feb. 24, 1952. The films clearly illustrate that he played with perfect composure and a minimum of movement, far from the laughable wiggling of neck and fingers as portrayed in Bird. Only audio survives of other television appearances in N.Y. and Montreal. Doris’s daughter Kim was raised by Phil Woods and is a jazz singer.


First Recordings (1940); Early Bird (1940); Birth of the Bebop (1943); Yardbird in Lotus Land (1945); Every Bit of It (1945); CP on Verve (1946); Lullaby in Rhythm (1947); Dial Masters, Vols. 1 & 2 (1947); Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker (1947); Complete Dial Sessions (1946–47); Bird on 52nd Street (1948); Band That Never Was (1948); Complete Savoy Studio Sessions (1948); Rara Avis (1949); Live at Carnegie Hall (1949); Charlie Parker & Stars of Modern Jazz (1949); Jazz at the Philharmonic (1949); Bird in Paris (1949); At the Roost, Vols. 1–4 (1949); One Night in Chicago (1950); One Night at Birdland (1950); Bird in Sweden (1950); Evening at Home with the Bird (1950); Bird with Strings (1950); Bird at the Roost, Vol. 3 (1950); Bird at St. Nick’s (1950); Bird You Never Heard (1950); Apartment Sessions (1950); Summit Meeting at Birdland (1951); Happy Bird (1951); Bird with The Herd (1951); Sept. 26, 1952 (1952); Inglewood Jam (1952); Live at Rockland Palace (1952); Yardbird: DC-53 (1953); One Night in Washington (1953); Jazz at Massey Hall (1953); CP at Storyville (1953); C.R Plays South of the Border (1953); Bird at the Hi-Hat (1953); Big Band (1953).


M. Harrison, C. P. (London, 1960); R. Reisner, Bird: The Legend of C P. (N.Y., 1961); J. Jepsen, A Discography of C P. (Copenhagen, 1968); D. Morgenstern et al., Bird and Diz: A Bibliography (N.Y., 1973); R. Russell, Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times ofC. (Yardbird) P. (N.Y., 1973/4); P. Koste, D. Bakker, C. P. (Alphen aan den Rijn, the Netherlands, 1976); C. Parker and E Paudras, To Bird with Love (Poitiers, France, 1981); B. Priestley, C. P. (N.Y., 1984); G. Giddins, Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of C. P. (N.Y., 1987); L. Koch, Yardbird Suite: A Compendium of the Music and Life of C. P. (Bowling Green, Ohio, 1988/89); M. Miller, Cool Blues: CP in Canada 1953 (London, 1989).

—Lewis Porter

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Parker, Charlie (actually, Charles Jr.; aka Bird; Yardbird; and Charlie Chan)

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