Charlie Bird Parker
Saxophonist, composer, arranger
Proclaimed the “Mozart of Jazz” by prominent jazz critic Barry Ulanov, Charles “Yardbird” Parker represents one of the most influential figures in the history of American music. Like the great classical composer, Parker was a musical genius who died in his mid-thirties without widespread acclaim or national recognition. Despite his lack of popular audience, Yardbird—or Bird as he was more affectionately called—was idolized by many musicians, intellectuals, and enthusiasts. It was from these elite circles of disciples that Parker ascended to the height of deification after his death. “Music is your own experience, if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” he lamented. Ironically, Parker’s life became a struggle to balance his often reckless and self-destructive personal experiences with the gift of musical vision.
Charlie Parker was born on August 29, 1920, to Addie and Charles Parker in Kansas City, Kansas. At the age of seven he moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri, a short distance from the nightclubs and dance halls where a new style of jazz was flourishing. Although Parker played baritone horn in the high school band, it wasn’t until he was fifteen that he displayed a strong interest in music and passion for the alto saxophone. Not long afterward he joined the Deans of Swing led by pianist Lawrence Keyes.
Parker received his early musical tutelage in Kansas City nightclubs, listening to such saxophone giants as Lester Young, Johnny Hoges, and Leon “Chu” Berry. Around 1935 he decided to leave school in search of a full-time musical apprenticeship. In the year that followed, Parker faced humiliation at a jam session at the Reno Club, where Count Basie performed. After blowing a couple of faltering choruses, drummer Jo Jones signaled the end of the amateur performance by hurling his cymbal at Parker’s feet. (This incident was vividly portrayed in the 1988 Warner Bros, film Bird.) It was also in this period that the young altoist began to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Commenting years later, Parker attributed his later heroin addiction to “being introduced too early to nightclub life.”
Between the years 1936 and 1937, Parker traveled to the Ozarks to work with the bands of Ernie Daniels, George E. Lee and “Professor” Buster Smith. In the Ozarks, Parker spent long hours woodshedding—memorizing two saxophone solos of Lester Young from phonograph records. It was from Lee’s rhythm guitarist, Efferge Ware, that he learned the cycle of fifths and advanced chord patterns.
Returning to Kansas City, Parker re-emerged a much more confident, or in his words, “coordinated” musician. In 1938, he joined pianist Jay McShann’s band for a few months before his drug habit led to his dismissal.
Full name, Charles Christopher Parker; born August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Mo.; died of lobar pneumonia complicated by chronic alcoholism, March 12, 1955, in New York, N.Y.; son of Charles (a traveling entertainer and Pullman chef) and Addie (a maid-charwoman for Western Union) Parker; married Rebecca Ruffin, July 25, 1936; married Géraldine Scott (a dancer), April 10, 1943; married Doris Snyder (a hat-check girl), 1948; married Chan Richardson (a model and dancer), July 1950; children: (first marriage) Francis Leon; (fourth marriage) Pree (daughter), Baird; Parker also adopted Chan’s daughter, Kim. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Performer (alto saxophone), arranger, composer. Left school to enter full-time musical apprenticeship at age 15; during late 1930s, played with numerous musical groups, member of musical group fronted by Jay McShann, 1938, and 1939-42; also played with Harlan Leonard’s Rockets, 1938; played with Earl Hines’s band, 1942-43; played with Billy Eckstíne’s band, 1944-46; fronted his own quintet, 1947-53; performed with numerous musicians in a variety of groups, 1953-55; last public performance, March 4, 1955.
Awards: Recipient of New Star Award, 1946; elected to down beat Hall of Fame, 1955.
A year later, he made his way to Chicago, where he astounded listeners with his fiery alto solos. At a club located on 55th Street, the bedraggled Parker sat in at a breakfast dance where Billy Eckstine was in attendance. “He blew so much,” recalled Eckstine, “until he upset everybody in the place.”
Parker’s next destination was New York. Failing to find work with his horn, he washed dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where the brilliant pianist Art Tatum performed in the front room. He befriended guitarist Biddy Fleet, whose musical instruction expanded Parker’s knowledge of harmonic theory. One evening while performing at the Chili House, he experienced a revelation. “I found by using high intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes. I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.”
Shortly after Parker returned to Kansas City to attend the funeral of his father, he joined Harlan Leonard’s Rockets. During his five months with Leonard, he was introduced to the band’s extremely talented pianist and arranger, Tadd Dameron. He rejoined McShann in 1939, and was put in charge of the reed section. While not performing with McShann’s blues-based ensemble, Parker rehearsed and organized jam sessions. In his four years with McShann, he was a featured soloist on several recordings, including “Hootie Blues,” “Sepian Bounce” and the 1941 rhythm-and-blues hit, “Confessin’ the Blues.” “Bird had crying soul,” recalled McShann, who later designated the year’s alto saxophonist as the “greatest blues player in the world.”
While on tour with McShann in New York in 1942, Parker performed at jam sessions held at Monroe’s and Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, where he attracted the notice of such modernists as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk. That same year his worsening drug addiction led to his final break with McShann. In December, Parker began an eight-month stint blowing tenor with Earl Hines—providing him with the opportunity to appear with he progressive talents of Gillespie, Benny Harris and singer Sarah Vaughan. Although he greatly admired Parker’s musicianship, Hines possessed little tolerance for his erratic lifestyle. “He was afine boy and there was nothing wrong with him when it came to character,” commented Hines, “all the harm he did he did to himself.”
In 1944, Billy Eckstine brought together many of the veterans of the Hines ensemble to form one of the most innovative big bands of the period. Eckstine sent for Parker, who was in Chicago performing with Noble Sissle. Eckstine, like Hines, was astounded by Parker’s genius for improvisation and “photographic memory” for learning arrangements. “Bird was so full of spontaneity,” exclaimed Eckstine, “it just… Boqm!… came out!” After his short stay with Eckstine, Parker performed at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street with Dizzy and saxophonist Ben Webber as well as a group including nineteen-year-old Miles Davis. According to Gillespie, the Dizzy-Parker collaboration was a “meeting of the minds.” Their powerful unison work laid the foundation for modern jazz—or “be-bop” (a label that Parker greatly despised).
Throughout 1945 Parker recorded with Clyde Hart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. Leading his own group on the Savoy label, Parker also recorded the compositions “Billie’s Bounce,” “Thriving from a Riff,” “Now’s the Time” and the furiously executed “Ko Ko.” A few weeks later, he appeared at Billy Berg’s in Hollywood. Save for a few devoted followers, their be-bop invasion of the west received a harsh reception from patrons and critics. Parker’s increasing absences prompted Gillespie to hire a replacement (Dizzy admitted years later that his decision did not effect his relationship with Parker).
Soon afterward, Parker toured with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic series—an engagement that put him on the same bandstand with Gillespie and Lester Young. In March 1946, Parker recorded for Ross Russel’s newly founded Dial label, which included the arrangements “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology,” “Mouse the Mooche” and Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia.” On the West Coast Parker’s life took a serious downturn. Years of drug abuse, artistic disillusionment and failed marriages drove him to near-collapse. Following the session of “Lover Man,” he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital, where he underwent psychiatric treatment for six months.
Returning east in 1947, Parker began his most innovative, or “classic” period. For the next few years he retained a level of stability—touring the U.S. and Europe with his own quintet (that most often included Miles Davis, bassist Tommy Potter, drummer Max Roach and pianist Duke Jordan). His unique sense of melody and rhythmic accents had a immense impact on all the instruments of modern jazz. Max Roach explained that he began using new variations on the drums to keep up with Parker’s breakneck tempos. Although critics still scoffed at him, Parker emerged in the late 1940s as the most influential jazz musician in the country.
Parker first traveled abroad in 1949 to perform at the Paris Jazz Festival, where he was hailed by crowds of enthusiastic followers. During the course of the year, he recorded “Bird with Strings”—an effort that fused his deep admiration for classical and modern composers with his blues and swing background. Although it became his biggest seller, it was not without its critics. “Some of my friends said … Bird is getting commercial. That wasn’t it at all,” asserted Parker, “I was looking for new sound combinations.” Between 1948 and 1950, his artistic search for new forms of expression inspired him to record several Afro-Cuban sides with Machito’s orchestra.
Parker’s life, like his music, became unpredictable, often lacking the effusive spirit of his earlier work. In order to control his drug addiction he drank to excess—causing a severe ulcer attack that hospitalized him.
Disputes, debts, absences and inconsistent performances often forced club owners to hire him to play one show or a single set. In 1953, Parker led his last significant recording session, which contained “Chi Chi,” “I Remember You,” “Now’s the Time” and “Confirmation.”
Throughout the remainder of his career, Parker worked without a regular group—often performing with side-men of varying talent as well as pick-up bands that often failed to provide him with adequate accompaniment. Following a disastrous performance with strings at Birdland (the club named in his honor) in 1954, he attempted suicide and was admitted to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. In October of that year, Parker recaptured a glimpse of his earlier prowess by performing brilliantly at the Town Hall Concert. In his final months, Parker lived in Greenwich Village, appearing occasionally at a club called the Open Door. Jazz writer Leonard Feather, who encountered Parker around this time, described him as “bloated” and “raggedly dressed,” possessing “desperately sad eyes.”
In his last public appearance, on March 4, 1955, Parker took the stage with Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, Kenny Dorham and Art Blakey. After a bitter verbal exchange with Powell, Parker got drunk and left the club. On Wednesday of the following week he died in the apartment of jazz disciple Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter. In his thirty-four years, Parker not only brought the art of improvisation to a new height, but helped found an entire modern school of jazz. His life became a model for a postwar subculture that envisaged him as a god-like figure who broke with social and artistic tradition. “As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker’s life make little sense because they fail to explain his music,” wrote Gary Giddings.
But Parker knew no boundaries in art or life—for Parker they were synonymous in his search for new avenues of expression and escape. His saxophone became the voice that delivered him from torment. “I was amazed how Bird changed the minute he put his horn in his mouth,” observed Miles Davis. “He went from looking real down and out to having all this power and beauty just bursting out of him.” Despite his personal travails, the power and beauty of his music remains.
(With Jay McShann) First Recordings (contains broadcast, private, and studio recordings, 1940-45), Xanadu ORI 221.
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Bird at the Royal Roost (recorded 1944), Savoy SJL-1108.
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The Verve Years, 1952-54, Verve VE-2-2523.
Bird with Strings, Columbia, 1951.
The Essential Charlie Parker, Verve V-6 8409.
Bird/The Savoy Recordings (master takes), Savoy SJ 2201.
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Feather, Leonard, Inside Be-Bop (second edition), Da Capo Press, 1980.
Feather, Leonard, The Jazz Years: Eyewitness to an Era, Da Capo Press, 1987.
Feather, Leonard, The New Encyclopedia of Jazz, Horizon Press, 1960.
Koch, Lawrence, Yardbird Suite: A Compendium of the Music and Life of Charlie Parker, Green State University Popular Press, 1988.
Giddins, Gary, Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Gillespie, Dizzy, with Al Fraser, To Be or Not to Bop: Memoirs, Double.
Gitler, Ira, Jazz Masters of the Forties, Cullier Books, 1966.
Hear Me Talkin’ to Ya: The Story of Jazz as Told By the Men Who Made It, edited by Nat Shapiro and Nat Hentoff, Dover, 1966.
down beat, April 20, 1953.
The Essential Charlie Parker, written by Don Cerulli, Verve V6-8409.
Parker, Charlie 1920–1955
Charlie Parker 1920–1955
Jazz saxophonist and composer
When alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker made his first significant solo recordings with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie in 1945, his music had a tremendous impact on a new generation of jazz musicians. In cities across the country, jazz instrumentalists sought to play in the Parker-style. Known to fellow musicians as Yardbird, Yard, or Bird, Parker expanded the musical horizons of jazz and influenced various instrumentalists with his unique phrasing and harmonic conception. Parker drew much of his inspiration from the blues, swing jazz standards, popular song forms, Afro-Cuban music, and modern European symphonic music. While Parker’s blues-based compositions elevated the form to a new creative level, his deep interest in the modern symphonic works of composers such as Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok inspired countless other jazzmen to study classical music. An avant-gardist of the bebop subculture, Parker’s heroin addiction elevated him to cult status among hipsters, poets, and intellectuals. Despite his self-destructive lifestyle and early death, Parker remains one of the twentieth century’s most innovative instrumentalists and composers.
Parker was born on August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Kansas. His father, Charlie Sr., was a stage entertainer and his mother, a domestic of Native American descent. Raised by his mother, Parker attended Catholic schools and, not long after, became a student at Charles Sumner Elementary. In 1931 Addie took her son to live in Kansas City, Missouri, a hotbed of swing jazz and home to Tom Pendegast’s political machine which, as a result of its widespread corruption, fostered the city’s musical night club scene. A follower of tenor saxophonist Lester Young, Parker took up alto horn. Having never received any formal musical instruction, he faced stiff competition at local jam sessions from more seasoned musicians. Although Parker experienced humiliation at the hands of more experienced players, he persevered by practicing relentlessly and using exercise books.
Parker dropped out of school at age sixteen to pursue a career in music. His mother’s full-time employment at Western Union offered Parker plenty of opportunities to experience Kansas City’s nightlife and drug subculture
At a Glance…
Born Charles Christopher Parker August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Missouri; son of Charles Parker (traveling entertainer and Pullman chef) and Addle (domestic); married Rebecca Ruffin July 25, 1936; children Francis Leon; Geraldine Marguerite Scott (dancer) April 10, 1943; Doris Snydor (hat check girl); Chan Richardson (model and dancer) July 1950; children Pree and Baird, also adopted Richardson’s daughter Kim. Died March 12, 1955 in New York City.
Career: Left school to play music at sixteen; mid 1930s played in Kansas City bands; 1937 with Buster “Prof” Smith; with Jay McShann orchestra 1940–1942; performed with Earl Hines 1942–1943; joined Billy Eckstine big band 1944; 1945 made first solo recordings in a quintet with Dizzy Gillespie; performed in California 1945–1947; first performed with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic series; recorded for Dial label 1945–1948; returned to New York in April 1947; recorded for Savoy label 1948; signed with Norman Cranz’s Mercury label 1948 and subsequently with recorded with Cranz’s Verve label; played the Paris International Jazz Festival, May 1949; recorded with strings 1949–1952; visited Scandinavia 1950; performed with various side-men 1950–1955.
Awards: Down Beat New Star Award, 1946; elected to Down Beat Hall of Fame 1955.
alone. In 1937 Parker worked in Ozark mountain resort clubs, including a four-month stint with George E. Lee’s band. The job with Lee’s band afforded Parker ample time for private practice, and he spent hours trying to imitate the Lester Young tenor saxophone solos featured on recordings by the Count Basie Band. Back in Kansas City, he broadened his musical knowledge by performing with another influential saxophonist, Buster “Prof” Smith.
In 1938 Parker performed for several months with pianist Jay McShann’s Sextet, and then moved on to New York City. On his way to New York, he stopped in Chicago where, at a breakfast dance, he sat-in with the band on saxophone. Despite his disheveled appearance, Parker’s saxophone lines astounded listeners. Unable to find musical work in New York City, he washed dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem. While working at Jimmy’s, Parker had the opportunity to hear the brilliant house pianist, Art Tatum. As Royal W. Stokes remarked in The Jazz Scene, Art Tatum “was an important transitional figure” in Parker’s musical education. Eventually, Parker performed at dime dance halls and jam sessions. At Don Walls’ Chili House, his interaction with guitarist Bill “Biddy” Fleet expanded his knowledge of harmony and chord substitutions. Parker also took part in jam sessions at Clark Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, where he worked out brilliant lines over the changes of pop standards such as his favorite showpiece, “Cherokee.”
After returning to Kansas City in 1940, Parker joined Jay McShann’s big band and was put in charge of organizing the reed section. “But it was no question [Parker] had a profound effort on the band,” commented McShann in Talking Jazz, “… when Bird took a solo, he just lifted the band, lifted everybody.” In April of 1941, Parker made his first commercial recordings with McShann’s orchestra, including the Decca side “Hootie Blues.” His playing on this slow blues number, though ignored by critics at the time, made an immediate impression on many saxophonists. Parker’s appearance on McShann’s 1942 sides “Jumpin’ Blues,” “Lonely Boy Blues,” and “Sepian Bounce,” inspired Gunther Schuller to remark in The Swing Era, “Although the ‘cool’ timbre and linearization of musical ideas of Lester Young are clearly the base of [Parker’s] inspiration, he is also beginning to be very much his own man.”
In January of 1942, Parker opened at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom. When he was not performing with McShann’s orchestra, he sat in at Harlem jam sessions held at Monroe’s and Minton’s Playhouse. At these impromptu performances, Parker joined other jazzmen in experimenting with small ensembles and playing extended solos over complex harmonic forms built upon standard song and compositional forms. Although Parker’s talent impressed his contemporaries at the jam sessions, his worsening drug habit forced McShann to fire him. Parker then bided his time between jam sessions and free lance work until December of 1942 when, through the intercession of Billy Eckstine and trumpeter Benny Harris, he found work as a tenor saxophonist in Earl “Fatha” Hines’ big band which included vocalist Sarah Vaughan. However, Parker’s erratic behavior forced Hines to fire him after only eight months with the band.
In 1944, Parker joined Billy Eckstine’s innovative bebop big band. He often shared the bandstand with Dizzy Gillespie and several other former alumni of the Hines orchestra, including Sarah Vaughan. After a few months, Parker left Eckstine’s band and played on 52nd Street with saxophonist Ben Webster, and later worked with trumpeter Cootie Williams. In February of 1945, Parker collaborated with Gillespie on sessions for the Guild label which produced the numbers “Groovin’ High” and “Dizzy Atmosphere.” Three months later, a session for Guild yielded “Salt Peanuts,” “ShawNuff,” “Hot House,” and “Lover Man” with vocalist Sarah Vaughan. Not long after the first Guild sides were released, Parker’s music divided musicians and critics into warring camps. “With Parker’s emergence,” noted jazz trombonist Benny Green in The Reluctant Art, “the term [jazz] had no longer a precise meaning.” It forced jazz musicians to align themselves with “music that was pre-Charlie Parker or the music he was playing.”
In the fall of 1945, Parker and Gillespie landed a job at the Three Deuces. Shortly thereafter, Parker’s irresponsibility and disregard for promptness caused Gillespie to quit the group. Parker subsequently hired trumpeter Miles Davis to perform in a quintet which included drummer Max Roach. As Davis enthusiastically recounted in his memoir Miles, “I was nineteen years old and playing with the baddest alto saxophone player in the history of music.” A month after opening at the Three Deuces, Parker debuted on the Savoy label. Under the name “Charlie Parker’s Reboppers,” Parker, Gillespie, Davis, Russell, and Roach recorded the classics “Ko Ko” and “Now’s the Time.” Gary Giddins stressed in Celebrating Bird that, “Ko Ko’ was the seminal point of departure for jazz in the postwar era. It’s effect paralleled that of [Louis] Armstrong’s ‘West End Blues’ in 1928.”
As a member of the Dizzy Gillespie sextet, Parker traveled to Hollywood in December of 1945 to perform at Billy Berg’s, a one-story stucco building on Vine Street. “That little band was very skillfully assembled, recalled Gillespie in To Be or Not to Bop “Charlie Parker I hired, because he was undeniably a genius, musically, the other side of my heartbeat.” Billed with the popular acts Slim Gillard and Henry “The Hipster” Gibson, the sextet played to packed houses. With the exception of a small circle of followers, however, the reaction to the sextet’s modern sound was met with indifference.
After finishing their stint at Berg’s, Parker and Gillespie recorded several sessions for Hollywood record store owner Ross Russell. As a result of poor organization and personnel problems, these first sessions for Russell’s newly formed Dial label yielded little material. When Gillespie’s band returned to New York, Parker stayed behind in Los Angeles and continued to record for Dial. Parker then took a job playing in Howard McGhee’s group at the Club Finale. He also attended several Dial recording sessions which produced a wealth of music including “Yardbird Suite,” “Moose the Mooche,” and “A Night in Tunisia.” As Ted Goia noted in West Coast Jazz, these sides “rank among the landmarks of jazz music. On a level with Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens and Ellington’s work from the early 1940s, the Parker Dial sessions stand out as monumental achievements.”
Despite the fine musicianship Parker displayed on the Dial recordings, his personal life was in shambles. He was living in poverty and suffering from drug withdrawal. On July 29, 1946, Parker attended a Dial recording session. Later that night a fire, presumably caused by careless smoking, destroyed his room at the Civic Hotel. Earlier that evening, Parker was seen wandering around the hotel lobby wearing only his socks. He was arrested and held in the psychiatric ward of the East Los Angeles Jail. Charged with arson, indecent exposure, and resisting arrest, Parker served a six-month term at the Camarillo State Hospital. He was released in January of 1947 and periodically experienced episodes of good health, only to succumb to eating binges and further drug abuse. Before returning to New York, Parker participated in recording sessions for Dial with pianist Erroll Garner, Howard McGhee and Wardell Gray.
Between 1947 and 1948 Parker led a quintet which included, at various times, Miles Davis, pianists Duke Jordan and Al Haig, and Max Roach. Also, extended engagements at New York nightclubs such as the Three Deuces and the Royal Roost provided Parker with a relatively stable period of work. In September of 1948, Parker cut the Savoy side “Parker’s Mood.” Acclaimed as one of Parker’s finest blues numbers, “Parker’s Mood,” as Thomas Owens noted in Bebop: The Music and Its Players, “contains a number of [Parker’s] standard melodic figures, but the slow tempo gives him more time than usual to reshape and combine them, and to think of new phrases. In the process he creates a beautiful and poignant picture of the poetic meaning of the blues—he ‘tells his story’ as though he was a great blues singer.” In December of 1948 and January of 1949, Parker recorded with Machito’s Afro-Cuban orchestra for the Verve label.
In May of 1949, Parker made his European debut at the Paris International Festival of Jazz. That same year, Parker hired trumpeter Red Rodney. Rodney told Ben Sidran in Talking Jazz, “Charlie Parker was very much like he played. He was beautiful. He was so proficient that the instrument was like a toy.” In November of 1949, Parker recorded with a string section conducted by Mitch Miller. The session yielded the smash hit, “Just Friends.” In 1950 and 1952, he continued to perform and record with string quartets and other small groups. In March of 1951 and January of 1952, Parker recorded his Latin-inspired album, South of the Border. This album, released on the Verve label, contained his popular number “My Little Suede Shoes.”
In 1953 Parker joined Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, bassist Charles Mingus, and pianist Bud Powell for a performance at Toronto’s Massey Hall. Around this time, Parker’s constant drug use began to take its toll. Although he was still capable of delivering fine performances, his reputation for showing up in mid-performance or missing entire shows often forced club owners to hire Parker on a per set basis. After being admitted twice to Belle vue psychiatric hospital in 1954, Parker attempted suicide. On March 4, 1955, he made his final appearance at Birdland—the club named in his honor. During the performance, he exchanged harsh words onstage with Bud Powell and left the nightclub. Five days later, Parker traveled to New York City to visit his close friend and benefactor, Baroness “Nica” Ponnonica de Koenigswarter. Parker suffered an ulcer attack while visiting the baroness, but refused to be hospitalized. He died on March 12, 1955. Autopsy results attributed the cause of death to lobar pneumonia and the long-term effects of alcohol and heroin abuse.
During his brief life, Charlie Parker inspired a school of jazz, a legion of followers, and helped to define a generation of post-war poets and writers. A few months after Parker’s death, Beat writer Jack Kerouac hailed him in his book of poems Mexico City Blues, as “the perfect musician … and a great creator of forms.” In recent decades, Parker has become the subject of books, film documentaries, and a feature motion picture. His music remains an internationally recognized source of musical inspiration and one of America’s highest artistic achievements.
Charlie Parker, The Verve Years (1952–54), Verve, 1977.
Charlie Parker at Storeyville, Blue Note, (recorded 1953) 1988.
Charlie Parker The Legendary Dial Masters Vol. I, Stash, 1989.
Charlie Parker Swedish Schnapps+, The Great Quintet Sessions 1919–1951.
Charlie Parker, “Round Midnight and Other Gems,” Tel-Star, 1991.
Bird at St. Nick’s, Original Jazz Classics, (recorded 1950) 1992.
Charlie Parker, Jazz at the Philharmonic 1949, Verve, 1993.
Bird on 52nd Street, Original Jazz Classics, (recorded 1948) 1994.
Charlie Parker Plays Standards, Jazz Masters 28, Verve, 1994.
Charlie Parker, South of the Border, (recorded 1951–1952), 1995.
Charlie Parker, The Complete Dial Recordings, Rhino, 1996.
Bird and Diz, (recorded 1948) Verve, 1997.
Yardbird Suite, The Ultimate Charlie Parker, Rhino, 1997.
Davis, Miles with Quincy Troupe. Miles, The Autobiography, Simon & Schuster, 1990.
Giddins, Gary. Celebrating Bird, The Triumph of Charlie Parker, Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Gillespie, Dizzy with Al Fraser. To Be, or not …To Bop, Memoirs, Doubleday &Co., 1979.
Gioa, Ted. West Coast Jazz: Modern Jazz in California 1945–1960, Oxford University Press, 1992.
Gitler, Ira. Jazz Masters of the Forties, Collier Books, 1966.
Green, Benny. The Reluctant Art: Five Studies in the Growth of Jazz, Da Capo, expanded edition, 1991.
Kerouac, Jack. Mexico City Blues (242) Choruses, Grove Press, 1959.
Owens, Thomas. Bebop: The Music and Its Players, Oxford University Press, 1995.
Reisner, Robert, ed. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, Da Capo, 1962.
Schuller, Gunther. The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930–1945, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Sidran, Ben. Talking Jazz: An Oral History, expanded edition, Da Capo, 1995.
Stokes, Royal W. The Jazz Scene: An Informal History From New Orleans to 1990, Oxford University Press, 1990.
August 29, 1920
March 23, 1955
Jazz alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, often known as "Bird" or "Yardbird," was the primary architect of the style of jazz called bebop, which revolutionized jazz, taking it from dance music to a black musical aesthetic and art form. He accomplished this as performer, composer, and theorist.
Charles Christopher Parker was born in Kansas City, Missouri. When he was eleven, his mother bought him an alto saxophone. By the time he was fifteen he had become a professional musician, leaving school at the same time. At first his playing was ridiculed, but after he spent some time at a retreat in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, his technique grew immensely, and during the next couple of years he played in and around the Kansas City area. During this period he learned his craft mainly by sitting in and playing in bands, where he absorbed all he could about music.
In 1939 Parker made his first visit to New York. He stayed about a year, playing mostly in jam sessions. After that he began playing in the band of Jay McShann, touring in the Southwest, Midwest, and East. It was with this band that Parker made his first recording, in Dallas in 1941. At the end of 1942 he joined the Earl Hines orchestra, which featured trumpeter "Dizzy" Gillespie. Bird and Dizzy began an informal partnership that launched the beginning of bebop. A strike by the American Federation of Musicians made it impossible to make records for several years, and the early period of bebop's development is largely undocumented. In 1944 Parker, along with Gillespie and other modern players, joined the Billy Eckstine band. This band was one of the first to introduce the innovations being developed in the music, and it provided a platform for Parker's new improvisations.
In 1945 Parker began to record extensively with small groups that included Gillespie. His playing became more familiar to a larger audience and to other musicians, even though critics harshly criticized the new music. At the end of 1945 he took a quintet to California for what turned out to be an ill-fated trip. Audiences and musicians in the West were not familiar with bebop innovations, and Parker's addiction to heroin and alcohol finally forced him into the Camarillo State Hospital. He stayed there during the second half of 1946 and was released in January 1947. He did make several important recordings for the Dial record company before and after his stay at the hospital.
Parker returned to New York in April 1947 and formed a quintet featuring his protégé Miles Davis on trumpet, Duke Jordan on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Max Roach on drums. Between 1947 and 1951 Parker left a permanent imprint on jazz. With the quintet he recorded some of his most innovative compositions: "Now's the Time," "Koko," "Anthropology," "Ornithology," "Scrapple from the Apple," "Yardbird Suite," "Moose the Mooche," "Billie's Bounce," "Confirmation," and others. In addition to playing in his own quintet, Parker worked in a variety of other musical groups, including Afro-Cuban bands and a string chorus, which he led during 1950. He was featured soloist in the Jazz at the Philharmonic series, produced by Norman Granz. Parker's main venue continued to be his quintet, which changed members several times but still was vital. Within his quintet he worked in nightclubs, recording studios, and radio broadcasts, and made his first trip to Europe in 1949, returning there the next year for an extensive stay in Sweden, where he worked with Swedish musicians.
Parker's lifestyle continued to create problems for himself and his family. In 1951 he lost his cabaret card in New York because of his constant confrontations with narcotics police. This kept him from playing in New York clubs for over two years. His alcohol and drug use precipitated a downward financial spiral from which he never recovered. In 1953 he presented a landmark concert in Toronto with Gillespie, Bud Powell on piano, Charles Mingus on bass, and Max Roach on drums. The concert was at Massey Hall and featured many of the pieces Bird and Dizzy had created during the 1940s: "Night in Tunisia," "Hot House," "Wee," and others. This was Parker's last great musical statement. After the Toronto concert his physical and mental health deteriorated to the point where he attempted suicide several times, finally committing himself to Bellevue Hospital in New York. His last public performance was in early March 1955 at Birdland, the New York City club named after him. On March 23 he died of heart seizure in the New York apartment of his friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.
Parker's contributions to jazz are extensive. He took saxophone playing to a level never reached before and in so doing led the way for others, not only saxophonists but all instrumentalists. He was able to weld prodigious skill with poetic content, and he left hours and hours of recordings of wondrous improvisations. Parker's playing struck fear in the hearts of many musicians and made some put down their instruments. John Coltrane, the gifted performer of the 1950s and 1960s, moved from alto to tenor saxophone because he felt that Parker had played all that was going to be played on the alto. Parker frequently composed using the harmonic structures of established melodies as the basis of his works. He did not invent this technique but used it more than anyone else before or since. In his improvisations he used all the intervals of the scales. In his harmonic structures he consistently used chords made up of eleventh and thirteenth intervals in order to take harmony out of the diatonic system and into chromaticism. Parker was clearly one of America's most innovative and prolific artists. In 2004, Parker was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame.
See also Jazz
Giddins, Gary. Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987.
Morgenstern, Dan, Ira Gitler, and Jack Bradley. Bird and Diz: A Bibliography. New York: New York Jazz Museum, 1973.
Reisner, Robert G. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker. New York: Citadel Press, 1962.
Russell, Ross. Bird Lives: The High Times and Hard Life of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker. New York: Charterhouse, 1973.
william s. cole (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005
Charlie Parker, American musician, was one of the most widely influential soloists in jazz history and one of the creators of a new style of playing called bop, or bebop.
Charles Christopher Parker Jr. was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920, the only child of Charles and Addie Parker. The family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1927. His mother, who raised him by herself after his father left the family, bought him a saxophone in 1931, and he started taking lessons in school. In the following years he played with several well-known local big bands, and in 1935 he left high school to become a full-time musician. By the age of fifteen Parker, known as "Yardbird" or "Bird" because of his love of eating chicken, was married and had begun using drugs. In 1941 he became a member of pianist Jay McShann's (1916–) band, with which he made his first commercial recordings.
Parker's earliest records reveal that he was already developing the more complicated musical approach that was characteristic of his mature work. This approach and his 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, his music sometimes met with opposition or downright confusion. Parker played with extraordinary technical skill, which allowed him to express his ideas very clearly even at the most rapid tempo (the rate of speed of a musical piece).
New style of playing
At this time Parker also met and began performing with trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie (1917–1993), widely accepted as the cofounder with Parker of the jazz style that became known as bop or bebop (featuring complicated harmonies and quick tempos). In 1945 they recorded some of the greatest titles in the new style. Although younger musicians quickly realized Parker's genius, musicians who were older and more set in their ways did not approve of him or his playing. In 1946, as a result, Parker suffered a mental breakdown and was committed for six months to a sanitarium (an institution for rest and recovery). Upon his release he formed his own quintet (five-piece group) and performed with it 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, France, in 1949 and Scandinavia in 1950.
Parker composed a number of tunes that became jazz classics, 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 songs in the bebop style. Many other musicians imitated his playing, but his own achievements were unique.
In the last five years of Parker's life he was unable to work steadily as a result of physical and mental illness. On March 4, 1955, he made his final public appearance; he died eight days later in New York City.
For More Information
Giddins, Gary. Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker. New York: Beech Tree Books, 1987. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Reisner, Robert George. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker. New York: Citadel Press, 1962. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1975.
Russell, Ross. Bird Lives: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker. New York: Charterhouse, 1973. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1996.
Parker, Charlie Bird
Charlie Bird Parker (Charles Christopher Parker, Jr.), 1920–55, American musician and composer, b. Kansas City, Kans. He began playing alto saxophone in 1933 and, shifting from one band to another, eventually met Dizzy Gillespie in New York City. Becoming friends and collaborators, they formed a quintet, which in 1945 made the first bop (or bebop) records. Their technique and style led the jazz world away from big-band swing music, and made them the leaders of the bop movement. Parker's brilliant improvisations, noted for their power and beauty, soon earned the admiration of innumerable musicians. He composed several instrumental quartets and made many recordings. For many years Parker was addicted to drugs, which hastened his death.
See biographies by B. Priestley (2006), S. Crouch (Vol. 1, 2013), and C. Haddix (2013); studies by G. Giddens (1987, repr. 1998, 2013) and L. O. Koch (1988).