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Charles “Bird” Parker, Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955) was an African-American jazz saxophonist and composer. Early in his career Parker was dubbed “Yardbird” (there are many contradictory stories of its origin). It was later shortened to ‘Bird’ and remained Parker’s nickname for the rest of his life and inspiration for the titles of his works, such as “Yardbird Suite” and “Bird Feathers”. A persistent myth, repeated by many reputable sources, including the Encyclopedia Britannica, is that Christopher was Parker’s second christian name.
Parker is commonly considered one of the greatest jazz musicians. In terms of influence and impact, his contribution to jazz was so great that Charles Mingus commented, “If Bird were alive today, he would think he was living in a hall of mirrors.” Bird’s talent is compared almost without argument, to such legendary musicians as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, and his reputation and legend as one of the best saxophonists is such that some critics say he was unsurpassed; jazz critic Scott Yanow speaks for many jazz fans and musicians when he suggests that “Parker was arguably the greatest saxophonist of all time.”
A founding figure of bebop, Parker’s innovative approach to melody, rhythm and harmony have exerted an incalculable influence on jazz. Several of Parker’s songs have become standards of the repertoire, and innumerable musicians have studied Parker’s music and absorbed elements of his style.
Parker also became an icon for the Beat generation, and was a pivotal figure in the evolving conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than just a popular entertainer. At various times, Parker fused jazz with other musical styles, from classical (seeking to study with Edgard Varese and Stefan Wolpe) to Latin music (recordings with Machito), blazing paths followed later by others.
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. He was the only child of Charles and Addie Parker. There is no evidence that Parker showed unusual musical talent as a child. As a small boy (possibly 3-4 years old), he may have sung in the church choir. Parker’s father presumably provided some musical influence; he was a pianist, dancer and singer on the T.O.B.A. circuit, although he later became a Pullman waiter or chef on the railways.
Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11 and then at age 14 he joined his school’s band. Groups led by Count Basie and Bennie Moten were the leading Kansas City ensembles, and doubtlessly influenced Parker. He continued to play with local bands in jazz clubs around Kansas City, Missouri, where he perfected his technique with the assistance of Buster Smith, whose dynamic transitions to double and triple time certainly influenced Parker’s developing style. In 1937 Parker joined pianist Jay McShann’s territory band , and was able to tour with him to the nightclubs and other venues of the southwest region of the USA, as well as Chicago and New York City. Parker made his recording debut with McShann’s band.
In 1939, Parker moved to New York City. He pursued a career in music, but held several other jobs as well. One of these was as bus-boy (dishwasher) in a restaurant where famous pianist Art Tatum was playing at the time. (Parker’s later playing was in some ways reminiscent of Tatum’s, with dazzling, high-speed arpeggios and sophisticated use of harmony.)
In 1942 Parker left McShann’s band and played with Earl Hines for eight months. The early history of bebop is difficult to document because of a strike by the American Federation of Musicians which meant that there were no official recordings in most of 1942 and 1943. Nevertheless we know that Parker was one of a group of young musicians who congregated in after-hours clubs in Harlem such as Minton’s (Minton’s Playhouse) and Monroe’s. These young iconoclasts included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, guitarist Charlie Christian and drummers Max Roach and Kenny ‘Klook’ Clarke. It was Monk who summed up their approach in the famous quote: “We wanted a music that they couldn’t play” – “they” being either the (mostly white) bandleaders who had taken over and profited from swing music or unwelcome fellow musicians wishing to jam with Parker, Gillespie and others. In his time in NYC, he also learned much from notable music teacher Maury Deutsch.
By now, Parker was emerging as a leading figure in the nascent bebop scene. According to an interview Parker gave in the 1950s, one night in 1939, he was playing “Cherokee” in a jam session with guitarist William ‘Biddy’ Fleet when he hit upon a method for developing his solos that enabled him to play what he had been hearing in his head for some time, by building chords on the higher intervals of the tune’s harmonies. In reality, the birth of bebop was probably a more gradual process than this story reports.
Early in its development, this new type of jazz was rejected and disdained by many older, more established jazz musicians, whom the beboppers in response called “moldy figs.” However, some musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman, were more positive about its emergence. It wasn’t until 1945 that Parker’s collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie had a substantial impact on the jazz world. One of their first (and greatest) small-group performances together was only discovered and issued in 2005: a concert in New York’s Town Hall on June 22, 1945 (now available on Uptown Records).
On November 26, 1945 Parker led a record date for the Savoy label, which was once marketed, during the LP era, as the “greatest Jazz session ever”. Although this may have been hyperbole, the Savoy sessions produced an astounding collection of recordings – in spite of Dizzy Gillespie having to deputize on piano for some of the tracks. Among the tracks recorded during this session, which sounds as fresh today as when recorded, are “Ko-Ko” (based on the chords of “Cherokee”), “Now’s the Time,” “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Thriving on a Riff.”
Shortly afterwards, a trip to Los Angeles by the Parker/Gillespie band to fulfill an engagement at Billy Berg’s club was less than successful. Most of the band soon decided to return to New York. Parker though, stayed in California, where his extravagant lifestyle was to catch up with him.
As a teenager, he had developed a morphine addiction while in hospital after an automobile accident, and subsequently became addicted to heroin, which was to plague him throughout his life and ultimately contribute to his death. Parker’s addiction unfortunately created the impression (for many musicians of his era) that his musical genius was somehow related to his drug use. For about a decade following Parker’s death, jazz was closely associated with narcotics, and many musicians began using drugs, partly in imitation of their musical idol.
Although he produced many brilliant recordings during this period, Parker’s behavior became increasingly erratic. Heroin was difficult to obtain after his dealer was arrested, and Parker began to drink heavily to compensate for this. A recording of “Lover Man” for the Dial label from July 29, 1946 provides evidence of his condition. Reportedly, Parker could barely stand during the session and had to be physically supported by others in order to keep him positioned properly against the microphone. Some, including Charles Mingus, consider it among his greater recordings despite its technical problems. Nevertheless, Bird hated the recording and never forgave his producer Ross Russell for releasing the sub-par record (and re-recorded the tune in 1953 for Verve, this time in stellar form, but perhaps lacking some of the passionate emotion in the earlier, flawed attempt).
A few days after the “Lover Man” session, Parker was drinking in his hotel room when he set fire to his mattress with a cigarette, then ran through the hotel lobby wearing only his socks. He was arrested and committed to Camarillo State Hospital, where he remained for six months.
Coming out of the hospital, Parker was initially clean and healthy, and proceeded to do some of the best playing and recording of his career. Before leaving California, he recorded “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” in reference to his hospital stay. He returned to New York and recorded dozens of sides for the Savoy and Dial labels that remain some of the high points of his recorded output. Many of these were with his so-called “classic quintet” that included trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach. The highlights of these sessions include a series of slower-tempo performances of American popular songs including “Embraceable You” and “Bird of Paradise” (based on “All the Things You Are”).
Parker’s soaring, fast, rhythmically asymmetrical improvisations could amaze the listener; nevertheless close inspection shows each line to hold a complete, well-constructed phrase with each note in place. Parker’s harmonic ideas were revolutionary, introducing a new tonal vocabulary employing 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords, rapidly implied passing chords, and new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. Although many Parker recordings demonstrate dazzling virtuoso technique and complex melodic lines – the early “Ko-Ko” is a superb example – he was also one of the great blues players. His themeless blues improvisation “Parker’s Mood” represents one of the most deeply affecting recordings in jazz, as fundamental as Armstrong’s classic “West End Blues”, from only twenty years before.
By 1950, much of the jazz world was under Parker’s sway. His solos were transcribed and copied; legions of saxophonists imitated his playing note-for-note (in response to these pretenders, Parker’s erstwhile bandmate Charles Mingus titled a song “If Charlie Parker were a Gunslinger, There’d Be A Whole Lot of Dead Copycats” featured on the album Mingus Dynasty.) In this regard, he is perhaps only comparable to Louis Armstrong: both men set the standard for their instruments for decades, and very few escaped their influence.
In 1953, Parker was invited to perform at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, where he was joined by Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach. Unfortunately, the concert clashed with a televised heavyweight boxing match between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott and as a result was poorly attended. Thankfully, for the sake of posterity, Mingus recorded the concert, and the album Jazz at Massey Hall is often cited as one of the finest recordings of a live jazz performance.
One of Parker’s longstanding desires was to perform with a string section; he was a keen fan of classical music. When he did record and perform with strings, some fans thought it was a “sell out” and a pandering to popular tastes. Time demonstrated Parker’s move a wise one: Charlie Parker with Strings sold better than his other releases, and his version of “Just Friends” is seen as one of his best performances. In an interview, he considered it to be his best recording to date.
Parker was known for often showing up to performances without an instrument and borrowing someone else’s at the last moment. At one venue he played on a plastic Grafton saxophone; later, saxophonist Ornette Coleman used this brand of plastic sax in his early career.
Parker died while watching Tommy Dorsey on television in the suite at the Stanhope Hotel belonging to his friend and patroness Nica de Koenigswarter. Though the official cause of death was pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, his death was doubtlessly hastened by his drug and alcohol abuse. The 34-year-old Parker was so haggard that the coroner mistakenly estimated Parker’s age to be between 50 and 60.
Parker left a widow, Chan Parker, a daughter, Kim Parker, who is also a musician, and a son, Baird Parker, who died in the Vietnam War.
The legend “Bird Lives” first appeared as graffiti in New York City subways, a few hours after Parker’s passing. For this, the poet Ted Joans is usually credited.
The character of Bleeding Gums Murphy in the television series The Simpsons may be based on Charlie Parker, especially due to the fact that he plays the alto saxophone. He also claims to have a $1500 a day habit – though this is revealed to be an addiction to buying Fabergé eggs.
In Julio Cortazar’s short story El perseguidor (The pursuer) from his book Las armas secretas (The secret weapons) the fictional characters are Johnny Carter (Charlie Parker), Lan (Chan) and Marquess Tica (Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter) and Lover Man session is remembered as Amorous session. A Far Side cartoon entitled “Charlie Parker’s private hell” shows him locked in a recording booth while the devil pipes in nothing but new age music. Charlie Parker has been an inspiration to many people including John Coltrane, Michael Brecker, Jaco Pastorius, and Yo-Yo Ma.
- * Parker’s performances of “I Remember You” and “Parker’s Mood” were selected by Harold Bloom for inclusion on his short list of the twentieth-century American Sublime.
- * The Birdland night club was named after him.
- * Deeply touched by Charlie Parker’s death, Moondog wrote his famous “Bird’s lament” in his memory. Moondog affirmed that he had met Charlie Parker in the streets of New York and that they had planned to jam together.
- * Lennie Tristano’s overdubbed solo piano piece “Requiem” was recorded in tribute to Parker shortly after his death. It begins with a classically-tinged introduction, and then turns into a slow blues that gradually accumulates layers of overdubbing – one of the earliest experiments in jazz with multiple overdubbing.
- * In New York City, Avenue B between 7th and 10th Streets is named Charlie Parker Place. Parker had lived in an Avenue B townhouse between 7th and 8th streets.
- * A memorial to Parker was dedicated in 1999 in Kansas City at 17th Terrace and the Paseo, next to the American Jazz Museum featuring a 10-foot tall bronze head sculpted by Robert Graham.
- * The Californian ensemble “Supersax” has harmonized many of Parker’s improvisations for a five-piece saxophone section, which to many listeners bring new life to them, whereas others consider the arrangements as somewhat constructed.
- * The avant-garde trombonist George Lewis released Homage to Charles Parker in 1979, an album that offers a unique combination of electronic music and the blues.
- * Saxophonist Phil Woods recorded a tribute concert for Parker, and in an interview stated that he thought Parker had said everything he needed to say.
- * A biographical film called Bird, starring Forest Whitaker as Parker and directed by Clint Eastwood, was released in 1988.
- * A biographical song entitled “Parker’s Band” was recorded by Steely Dan on their 1974 album Pretzel Logic.
- * The 2003 The White Albun by TISM contains a song about Charlie Parker.
- * In 1984, legendary modern dance choreographer Alvin Ailey created a piece entitled “For Bird–With Love” in honor of Parker. The piece chronicles his life, from his early career to his failing health.
Parker made extensive recordings for three labels – Savoy and Dial best document his early work, while Verve is representative of his later career:
- * Savoy (1944-1949)
- * Dial (1945-1947)
- * Verve (1946-1954)
Many live recordings, of varying quality, are also available. A small selection of the many are listed below:
- * Live at Townhall w. Dizzy (1945)
- * Bird and Diz at Carnegie Hall (1947)
- * Bird on 52nd Street (1948)
- * Jazz at the Philharmonic (1949)
- * Charlie Parker All Stars Live at the Royal Roost (1949)
- * One Night in Birdland (1950)
- * Bird at the High Hat (1953)
- * Charlie Parker at Storyville (1953)
- * Woideck, Carl (1998). “Charlie Parker: His Music and Life” (paperpack ed.). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-08555-7.
- * Woideck, Carl (editor) (1998). “The Charlie Parker Companion” (1st ed.). New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-864714-9.