Charles Parker, Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Early in his career Parker was dubbed Yardbird; this was later shortened to Bird and remained Parker's nickname for the rest of his life.
Parker is commonly considered one of the greatest jazz musicians, ranked alongside Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and a handful of others in terms of influence and impact. Parker is widely ranked as one of the best saxophonists; 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 many musicians have studied Parker's music and absorbed elements of his style.
Parker 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.
Early Life and Career
Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. 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 15 with his schools' 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. In 1938 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 New York City
In 1939, Parker moved to New York City. He pursued a career in music, but held several other jobs. He became fond of pianist Art Tatum, frequently attending his performances. (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 broke away from McShann's band and played with Earl Hines for eight months. In 1945 he joined the ascendent jazz trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and quirky pianist Thelonious Monk.
Eventually, Parker emerged as a leading figure in the bebop scene. According to an interview Parker gave in the 1950s, one night in 1939, he was playing "Cherokee" in a jam session 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 "mouldy figs." It wasn't until 1945 that Parker's collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie had a massive impact on the jazz world. A trip to Los Angeles by the Parker/Gillespie band was less than successful, however; their music was mostly hated or ignored, and the band decided to return to New York.
Parker was also a notorious drug addict. As a teenager, he 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 kill him. Parker's addiction unfortunately created the impression (at least to some) 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 some valuable 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. The record illustrates how the man's genius tried desperately to come out through his agony. Parker never forgave his producer for releasing the sub-par record (and re-recorded the tune in 1953 for Verve, this time in stellar form), but it remains an invaluable testimony to a part of his career.
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 clean and healthy, and proceeded to do some of the best playing and recording of his career. He returned to New York and recorded dozens of sides for the Dial and Savoy labels (including "Relaxin' at Camarillo," in reference to his hospital stay) that remain one of the high points of his recorded output.
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."
By 1950, much of the jazz world was under Parker's sway. His solos were transcribed and copied; legions of saxophonists copied his playing note-for-note. In 1953, Parker joined Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach to record Jazz at Massey Hall, 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 the move of a sell out catering to popular tastes. Time demonstrated Parker's move a wise one: Charlie Parker with Strings was a best-seller, and his version of "Just Friends" is seen as one of his best performances. In an interview, he considered it himself 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; this inspired saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who used a plastic sax in his early career.
Parker died while watching Tommy Dorsey on television in the suite at the Hotel Stanhope belonging to his friend and patroness Nica de Koenigswarter. Though the official cause of death was pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, his death was doubtless 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, a daughter, Kim Parker, who is also a musician, and a son, Baird.