Charles Christopher Parker Jr

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Charles Christopher Parker Jr.

Charles Christopher Parker, Jr. (1920-1955), American musician, was one of the most widely influential soloists in jazz history.

Charlie Parker, widely known as Yardbird or Bird, was born in Kansas City, Kans., on Aug. 29, 1920. His mother bought him an alto saxophone in 1931, and in the following years he played with several prominent local big bands. In 1941 he became a member of Jay McShann's band, with which he made his first commercial recordings.

At this time Parker met Dizzy Gillespie, widely accepted as the cofounder with Parker of the jazz style that became known as bop or bebop. In 1945 they recorded the definitive titles in the new idiom. Although younger musicians quickly realized his genius, Parker met with considerable hostility from musicians of earlier stylistic persuasions. In 1946, as a result, he suffered a mental breakdown and was committed for 6 months to a sanitarium. Upon his release he formed his own quintet and worked with this format for several years, mainly in the New York City area. He also toured with Norman Granz's "Jazz at the Philharmonic" and made trips to Paris in 1949 and Scandinavia in 1950. From his teen-age years Parker had been a narcotics addict, and in the last 5 years of his life he worked irregularly as a result of physical and mental illness. On March 4, 1955, he made his final public appearance; he died 8 days later.

Parker's earliest records reveal that he was already developing the more complex harmonic approach that was characteristic of his mature work. This style is notable for a then unheard-of variety of rhythmic accentuation, harmonic complexity allied to an acute melodic sensitivity, solo lines that employ a wider range of intervals than had previously been the norm, and a disregard for the four-and eight-bar divisions of the standard jazz repertoire. This approach and his strident, even harsh, tone made it difficult for the casual listener to follow the logic of his choruses. Also, with major changes taking place in the rhythm section, it was not altogether surprising that his music sometimes met with opposition or downright incomprehension. Another facet of Parker's playing was its extraordinary technical facility, enabling him to express his ideas with the greatest clarity even at the most rapid tempos.

Parker composed a number of tunes that became jazz standards, though these were usually casually assembled items based on chord sequences of popular tunes. In terms of melodic skill, his recordings of ballads such as "Embraceable You" and "How Deep Is the Ocean" are even more revealing than his interpretations of the bebop repertoire. He spawned dozens of imitators, but his own achievements were unique.

Further Reading

Robert George Reisner, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (1962), contains a great deal of material on Parker by his fellow musicians and friends, some of it more colorful than enlightening. A critical study that offers many valuable insights into Parker's music is Max Harrison, Charlie Parker (1960). See also Marvin Barrett, The Jazz Age (1959), and Albert McCarthy, Jazz on Record: A Critical Guide to the First Fifty Years, 1917-1967 (1968). □