Parker, Charlie (1920-1955)

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Parker, Charlie (1920-1955)

When alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker died at the age of thirty-four from the effects of drug and alcohol addiction and hard living, graffiti appeared on walls and sidewalks all over New York City proclaiming "Bird Lives!" The grief-stricken graffiti artists were more prescient than they could have imagined. One of the premier jazz artists in history, Parker made a contribution to American music that continues to be strongly felt decades after his own life was cut short. First reckoned as a major influence in jazz when he helped develop the "bebop" style while playing in Harlem clubs in the 1940s, his style is still widely imitated not only by saxophone players, but by jazz musicians on every instrument and even by scat singers. A master improvisationist whose command of theme and counterpoint has been compared by some critics to Bach, Parker was not only a victim of his addictions but also of the contradictions of being a brilliant black musician in the racist United States of the 1940s and 1950s.

Charles Christopher Parker, Jr., was born in Kansas City, Kansas. His father, a singer and dancer who also worked as a Pullman chef for the railroad, left the family when Parker was quite young. Parker was raised by his mother, who doted on her chubby, affectionate, only child. His hearty appetite, especially his love for chicken, may have given rise to his lifelong nickname "Yardbird" or "Bird." When he was eleven, Parker bought his first alto sax, inspired by listening to Rudy Vallee on the radio. By the age of fifteen he had left school to become a professional musician, playing at clubs in the lively Kansas City jazz district. Within a year, through a family friend, he became addicted to morphine.

While developing his music in Kansas City jazz clubs, Parker married a local girl at age sixteen, and by the time he was eighteen he was a father. A year later, in 1939, he asked his wife's permission to leave. He felt that he needed to go to New York to develop his music. Playing with several well-known big bands as well as in the Harlem jam sessions where the direction of jazz evolved, Parker developed a formidable reputation as a saxophone soloist. Modern studies of Parker's recorded music show that he never repeated an improvisation, no matter how often he played the same piece of music.

It was while playing in Harlem with trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie that Parker helped develop the innovative flexible rhythm patterns that became known as bebop or bop. The bebop sound worked better in small combos rather than big bands, and Parker and Gillespie worked together for many years co-leading small jazz groups. From the big bands Parker had learned the delicate art of blending with other instruments while leading them through inventive riffs and motifs. In the five-piece combos and jamming with such greats as Thelonious Monk and Max Roach, he learned to expand on the rhythmic inventions and dynamic phrasing that would revolutionize jazz.

Parker was always a man of contradictions. His warm personality and transcendent horn improvisations made him a revered character in the jazz community, while his ruthless ambition and flamboyant disregard for authority often caused both peers and employers to be wary of him. In the 1920s and 1930s, white America's view of the African-American experience usually came from minstrel shows featuring white (or even black) actors in blackface. With the rise of the jazz age, white audiences thronged to hear black musicians playing the blues and jazz they had developed. Parker was deeply angry and defiant about the contradictions of being famous and black, privileged and oppressed. As a leader in jazz, one of the most American and one of the most truly African-American art forms, Parker constantly rebelled against the power structures in the music business. Unfortunately, his rebellion was often self-destructive, and he became known as a difficult musician. In 1946, after being found naked in his hotel lobby and setting a mattress on fire, he was sent to jail and then to a state mental hospital for six months. Even when he returned to his career, he continued to have problems bowing to authority. In 1949 the famous Birdland Club, named in honor of Parker, opened in Harlem, but in 1954 he was fired, no longer allowed to play there because of his unpredictable behavior.

Parker died in 1955 from complications of pneumonia, but his impact on jazz was immense, affecting not only how jazz is played but also how it is listened to up to the present day. Actor/director Clint Eastwood made a movie about Parker's life called Bird, which was released in 1988. Many of Parker's fans complained that it stereotyped the sax player by focusing on his addictions and showing his life through the eyes of his fourth wife, a white woman, and other white characters. Perhaps the only way to really understand Parker is to listen to his music. New mixes of his recordings are continually released, and jazz fans wait for them enthusiastically. It is in these recordings, as well as in the music of thousands of subsequent musicians and singers influenced by Parker's style, that Bird truly lives.

—Tina Gianoulis

Further Reading:

Crouch, Stanley. "Birdland: Charlie Parker, Clint Eastwood, and America." The New Republic. Vol. 200, No. 8, February 27, 1989, 25.

Giddins, Gary. Celebrating Bird. New York, Da Capo Press, 1999.

Woideck, Carl. Charlie Parker: His Life and Music. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1998.

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Parker, Charlie (1920-1955)

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