Charlie “Bird” Parker

Jul 24th, 2011 | By | Category: Arts & Entertainment
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Charlie “Bird” Parker1920 – 1955  Charlie Parker, widely known as “Bird” (both for his free lifestyle and affinity for chicken), was one of the creators of the jazz genre “bebop.” Along with Dizzy Gillespie and other musical pioneers, he created a new style of improvisation and composition that altered the entire jazz form, and inspired a generation of artists with his explorations into new musical territory. He was arguably the greatest jazz saxophonist of all time.

From Kansas to Missouri

Parker was born in 1920, the only child of Charles and Addie Parker, in Kansas City, Kansas. His parents separated while he was young. Thereafter, he had little contact with his father. His mother moved them to Kansas City, Missouri when Parker was seven. There African American music flourished, mixing jazz, blues and gospel. Parker played baritone saxophone in high school; by age 15 he switched to alto sax, and left school in 1935 for the city’s music scene. He played with a variety of ensembles and jam sessions, learning through experience and from older musicians. Sadly, a life-long attraction to drugs probably began at this time, and his musical enthusiasm was ahead of his technical ability. In one infamous jam session, the drummer threw a cymbal at Parker’s feet when he faltered, instructing him to leave. Parker did, vowing to return. During the summer of 1937, at a resort engagement in Eldon, Missouri, he dedicated time to “woodshedding,” or diligently practicing his instrument and technique.

He returned to Kansas City with new mastery and maturity, and in 1939 joined Jay McShann’s band touring Chicago and New York. Parker moved to New York shortly thereafter, and spent several months washing dishes in a club where the piano master Art Tatum was performing. His father’s funeral brought him back to Kansas City. He rejoined McShann in 1939 as head of the band’s reed section, again touring and participating in that band’s early recording sessions in Dallas in 1941. Parker’s musical epiphany occurred during this period, when he felt constrained by the customary chord changes and improvisational style, “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else… I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.” During a jam session, he experimented with a different approach on the tune “Cherokee,” concentrating on the higher intervals of the chords and developing a radically new improvised melody and structure. It would prove to be the foundation of bebop.

Parker joined Earl Hines’ big band in 1942, which included the innovative trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie. During this same period, Parker was frequenting after-hours jazz sessions, especially at Monroe’s Uptown House and Minton’s Playhouse in New York. This hothouse environment, where musicians were exposed to new ideas, was essential to the development of his approach. Parker was perfecting a lightening-fast technique, capable of generating endlessly creative lines at fantastic speeds.

A Jazz Revolution

Parker’s fully developed style appeared on the broader musical scene in 1945, and had the effect of a revolution among jazz cognoscenti. This was partly due to the fact that a strike by the American Federation of Musicians had curtailed all recording activity during the prior three years. When the ban ended, Parker emerged as a band leader and soloist to a wider public and his fellow musicians. He appeared frequently at a New York club named after him, Birdland, and other 52nd Street venues.

Teaming with Gillespie, Parker now led his own group in New York for the first time. The duo often worked together in other small ensembles and startled the jazz world with their innovative style on such tunes as “Dizzy Atmosphere,” “Groovin’ High,” Salt Peanuts,” and “Hot House.” They played an extended series of engagements in Los Angeles in early 1946. The avant garde audience there was sparse, and Gillespie returned to New York; but Parker impulsively decided to remain. A bout of drug and alcohol abuse, coupled with aberrant behavior, resulted in his confinement at Camarillo State Hospital until 1947.

Parker returned to New York that year, and entered into his most productive period. He recorded many of his classic improvisations and compositions with a quintet that included jazz greats Miles Davis, Max Roach, Tommy Potter, and Duke Jordan on both the Savoy and Dial labels. He also fulfilled a dream of recording with a string section on the Verve label, while experimenting with Afro-Cuban bands. Parker toured Europe in 1949 and 1950, and was greeted as visiting jazz royalty in Scandinavia. Despite continuing problems with drugs and alcohol, he had achieved a level of recognition and financial stability.

It was not to last. At the bidding of the New York Narcotics Squad, Parker’s cabaret license was revoked in 1951, curtailing his ability to perform and setting off a cycle of decline. In 1953, he appeared in top form at the famous Jazz at Massey Hall concert in Toronto. But by 1954 he was only intermittently employed, deeply in debt, and in poor mental and physical condition; in that year, he attempted suicide twice and committed himself to Bellevue psychiatric hospital in New York. Parker’s final performance was on March 5, 1955 at Birdland. One week later, he died at age 35 in the Manhattan apartment of his friend and jazz patron the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswater. His physical deterioration was so great that the attending physician estimated his age as between 50 and 60. Within days, the graffiti “Bird Lives” began appearing on the city’s walls. It was a fitting epitaph for this influential creator, whose solos are still studied by aspiring musicians and many of whose recordings and songs (including “Confirmation,” “Now’s The Time,” “Ornithology,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Billy’s Bounce,” and “Parker’s Mood”) remain jazz classics to this day.


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