Charles Parker, Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.
Parker is widely considered one of the most influential of jazz musicians, along with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. Parker acquired the nickname "Yardbird" early in his career, and the shortened form "Bird" remained Parker's sobriquet for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles of a number of Parker compositions, such as "Yardbird Suite" and "Ornithology."
Parker played a leading role in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, virtuoso technique, and improvisation based on harmonic structure. Parker's innovative approaches to melody, rhythm, and harmony exercised enormous influence on his contemporaries. Several of Parker's songs have become standards, including "Billie's Bounce," "Anthropology," "Ornithology," and "Confirmation". He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including a 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 — such as "Koko," "Kim," and "Leap Frog" — 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. At various times, Parker fused jazz with other musical styles, from classical to Latin music, blazing paths followed later by others.
Parker also became an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat generation, personifying the conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than just a popular entertainer.
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City
and raised in Kansas City
, the only child of Charles and Addie Parker. Charles, an alcoholic
, was often absent. Parker attended Crispus Attucks Elementary School
Parker displayed no sign of musical talent as a child. His 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. His mother worked nights at the local Western Union. His biggest influence however was a young trombone player who taught him the basics of improvisation.
Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11 and at age 14 joined his school's band using a rented school instrument. One story holds that, without formal training, he was terrible, and thrown out of the band. Experiencing periodic setbacks of this sort, at one point he broke off from his constant practicing.
In 1937, Parker played a concert that included Jo Jones
on drums, who tossed a cymbal
at Parker's feet in impatience with his playing. Exasperated and determined, from that point Parker improved the quality of practicing, learning the blues, "Cherokee" and "rhythm changes
" in all twelve keys. In an interview with Paul Desmond
, he said he spent 3-4 years practicing up to 15 hours a day.. Rumor has it that he used to play many other tunes in all twelve keys. The story, though undocumented, would help to explain the fact that he often played in unconventional concert pitch key signatures, like E (which transposes to C# for the alto sax).
Groups led by Count Basie
and Bennie Moten
were the leading Kansas City ensembles, and doubtless 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. The band toured nightclubs and other venues of the southwest, as well as Chicago and New York City. Parker made his professional recording debut with McShann's band. It was said at one point in McShann's band that he "sounded like a machine," owing to his virtuosity without implying a lack of musicality.
As a teenager, Parker developed a morphine addiction while in hospital after an automobile accident, and subsequently became addicted to heroin. Heroin would haunt him throughout his life and ultimately contribute to his death.
In 1939, Parker moved to New York City
. There he pursued a career in music, but held several other jobs as well. He worked for $9 a week as a dishwasher at Jimmie's Chicken Shack where pianist Art Tatum
performed. Parker's later style in some ways recalled 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 one year. Also in the band was trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, which is where the soon to be famous duo met for the first time. Unfortunately, this period is virtually undocumented because of the strike of 1942-1943 by the American Federation of Musicians, during which no official recordings were made. Nevertheless we know that Parker joined a group of young musicians in after-hours clubs in Harlem such as Clark Monroe's Uptown House and (to a much lesser extent) Minton's Playhouse. These young iconoclasts included Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, guitarist Charlie Christian, and drummer Kenny Clarke. The beboppers' attitude was summed up in a famous quotation attributed to Monk by Mary Lou Williams: "We wanted a music that they couldn't play" — "they" being the (white) bandleaders who had taken over and profited from swing music. The group played in venues on 52nd Street including the Three Deuces and The Onyx. In his time in New York City, Parker also learned much from notable music teacher Maury Deutsch.
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 on the chords' extended intervals
, such as ninths
, and thirteenths
. Still with McShann's orchestra, Parker at this time realized that the twelve tones of the chromatic scale can each be quickly led melodically to any key, breaking some of the confines of simpler jazz soloing.
Early in its development, this new type of jazz was rejected and disdained by many older, more established jazz musicians, who disdained their younger counterparts with comments such as "They flat their fifths; we drink ours." The beboppers, in response, called 'moldy figs'. However, some musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman, were more positive about its development. It was not until 1945 that Parker's collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie had a substantial effect 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.
On November 26, 1945 Parker led a record date for the Savoy label, marketed as the "greatest Jazz session ever." The tracks recorded during this session include "Koko" (based on the chords of "Cherokee"), "Now's the Time" (a twelve bar blues incorporating a riff later used in the late 1949 R&B dance hit "The Hucklebuck"), "Billie's Bounce", and "Thriving on a Riff."
Shortly afterwards, the Parker/Gillespie band traveled to an unsuccessful engagement at Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles. Most of the band returned to New York, but Parker remained in California.
Parker's addiction to heroin caused him to miss gigs and to be fired for being high. To continue his "buzz," he frequently resorted to busking on the streets for drug money. Parker's example was typical of the strong connection between narcotics and jazz at the time.
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 for the Dial label from July 29, 1946 provides evidence of his condition. Prior to this session Parker drank about a quart of whiskey. According to the liner notes of Bird on Dial Volume 1, Parker missed most of the first two bars of his first chorus on the track, "Max is Making Wax." When he finally did come in, he swayed wildly and once spun all the way around, going badly off mic. On the next tune, "Lover Man," producer Ross Russell physically supported Parker in front of the microphone. On the final track Parker recorded that evening, he begins a solo with a solid first eight bars. On his second eight bars, however, Parker begins to struggle, and a desperate Howard McGhee, the trumpeter on this session, shouts, "Blow!" at Parker. McGhee's bellow is audible on the recording. Some, including Charles Mingus, consider this version of "Lover Man" to be among his greater recordings despite its flaws. Nevertheless, Bird hated the recording and never forgave 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, problematic attempt).
The night of the "Lover Man" session, Parker was drinking in his hotel room. He went down to the hotel lobby stark naked and asked to use the phone, several times. He was refused on each attempt and the hotel manager eventually locked him in his room. At some point in the night, 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 Mental 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").
Charlie Parker with strings
One of Parker's longstanding desires was to perform with a string section
as he was a keen student of classical music
. Contemporaries reported that he was most interested in the music and formal innovations of Igor Stravinsky
, and longed to engage in a project akin to what later became known as "Third Stream
Music;" a new kind of music, incorporating both jazz and classical elements as opposed to merely incorporating a string section into performance of jazz standards. On November 30
, Norman Granz
arranged for Parker to record an album of ballads with a mixed group of jazz and chamber orchestra
musicians. The players were Parker on alto saxophone; Mitch Miller
and English horn
; Bronislav Gimpel
, Max Hollander, and Milton Lamask on violin
; Frank Brieff on viola
; Frank Miller
; Meyer Rosen on harp
; Stan Freeman
on piano; Ray Brown
; Buddy Rich
on drums; and Jimmy Carroll as arranger
. Six master takes from this session comprised the album Bird With Strings
: "Just Friends," "Everything Happens to Me," "April in Paris," "Summertime," "I Didn't Know What Time It Was," and "If I Should Lose You." The sound of these recordings is unique in Bird's catalog. The lush string arrangements recall Tchaikovsky
in their dramatic sweep, and the rhythm section provides a delicate swing under Bird's improvisation, blending perfectly with the orchestra. Parker's improvisations are, relative to his usual work, more distilled and economical. His tone is darker and softer than on his small-group recordings, and the majority of his lines are beautiful embellishments on the original melodies rather than harmonically based improvisations. He is always tasteful and brimming with eloquent expression. These are among the few recordings Parker made during a brief period when he was able to control his heroin habit, and his sobriety and clarity of mind are evident in his playing. Parker stated that, of his own records, Bird With Strings
was his favorite. While using classical music instrumentation with jazz musicians was not entirely original, this was the first major work where a composer of bebop was matched with a string orchestra.
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 that date.
By 1950, much of the jazz world had fallen under Parker's influence. Many musicians transcribed and copied his solos. Legions of saxophonists imitated his playing note-for-note. In response to these pretenders, Parker's admirer, the bass player Charles Mingus
, titled a tune "Gunslinging Bird" (meaning "If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there would 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 few escaped their influence.
In 1953, Parker performed at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, joined by Gillespie, 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, 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, with the saxophonist credited as "Charley Chan" for contractual reasons.
At this concert, he played a plastic Grafton saxophone (serial number 10265); later, saxophonist Ornette Coleman used this brand of plastic sax in his early career. Parker had sold his alto saxophone to buy drugs, and at the last minute, he, Dizzy Gillespie and other members of Charlie's entourage went running around Toronto trying to find Parker a saxophone. After scouring all the downtown pawnshops open at the time, they were only able to find a Grafton, which Parker proceeded to use at the concert that night.
Parker was known for often showing up to performances without an instrument and borrowing someone else's at the last moment. A number of photos show him holding a Conn 6M saxophone, a model which was noted for having a very fast action together with a unique and highly distinctive "underslung" octave key.Some of the photographs showing Parker playing a Conn 6M were taken on separate occasions because Parker can be seen wearing different clothing. However, there are also photos showing Parker holding other alto saxophones with a more conventional octave key arrangement, i.e. mounted above the crook of the saxophone. Parker is known to have owned and played a King 'Super 20' alto saxophone (with a semi-underslung octave key which bears some resemblance to those fitted on modern Yanagisawa instruments) which was made specially for him in 1947. There are at least two photographs showing Parker playing a King Super 20 saxophone.
Parker died in a suite at the Stanhope Hotel occupied by his friend and patroness Nica de Koenigswarter while watching Tommy Dorsey on television. Though the official cause of death was (lobar) pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, his death was hastened by his drug and alcohol abuse. The coroner mistakenly estimated Parker's 34-year-old body to be between 50 and 60 years old. He is buried at Lincoln Cemetery (8604 E. Truman Road) in Kansas City, Missouri.
Parker left a widow, Chan Parker, a stepdaughter, Kim Parker, who is also a musician, and a son, Baird Parker; their later lives are chronicled in Chan Parker's autobiography, My Life in E Flat (1998).
Parker's style of composition involved interpolation
of original melodies over pre-existing Jazz forms and standards, a practice still common in Jazz today. Examples include "Ornithology" (How High The Moon), "Yardbird Suite" (What Price Love) and "Donna Lee" (Indiana). The practice was not uncommon prior to bebop, however, became a signature of the movement as artists began to move away from arranging popular standards and began to compose their own material . While tunes such as "Now's The Time", "Billie's Bounce" and "Cool Blues" were based on conventional 12 bar blues changes, Parker also created a unique version of the 12 bar blues for his tune "Blues for Alice". These unique chords are known popularly as "Bird Changes" Like his solos, some of his compositions are characterised by long, complex melodic lines and a minimum of repetition although he did employ the use of repetitive (yet relatively rhythmically complex) motifs in many other tunes as well, most notably "Now's The Time". Parker also contributed a vast rhythmic vocabulary to the modern Jazz solo, one in which triplets and pick-up notes were used in (then) unorthodox ways to lead into chord tones, affording the soloist with more freedom to use passing tones which soloists would have previously avoided. Within this context, Parker was admired for his unique style of phrasing and innovative use of rhythm. Via his recordings and the popularity of the posthumously published "Charlie Parker Omnibook", Parker's uniquely identifiable vocabulary of "licks" and "riffs" dominated Jazz for many years to come. Today his concepts and ideas are transcribed, studied and analyzed by a great deal of Jazz students and are part of any player's basic Jazz vocabulary.
Awards and recognitions
| Charlie Parker Grammy Award History
|| Result |
|| Best Performance By A Soloist
|| First Recordings!
|| Winner |
Grammy Hall of Fame
Recordings of Charlie Parker were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame
, which is a special Grammy award established in 1973 to honor recordings that are at least twenty-five years old, and that have "qualitative or historical significance."
| Charlie Parker: Grammy Hall of Fame Awards
| Year Recorded
|| Year Inducted |
|| "Billie's Bounce"
|| Jazz (Single)
|| 2002 |
|| Jazz At Massey Hall
|| Jazz (Album)
|| 1995 |
|| Jazz (Single)
|| 1989 |
|| Charlie Parker with Strings
|| Jazz (Album)
|| 1988 |
National Recording Registry
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored his recording "Koko" (1945) by adding it to the National Recording Registry.
U.S. Postage Stamp
| Year Issued
|| Note |
|| 32 cents Commemorative stamp
|| U.S. Postal Stamps
|| Photo (Scott #2987) |
Memorials and tributes
- In 1949, the New York night club Birdland was named in his honor. Three years later, George Shearing wrote "Lullaby of Birdland," named for both Parker and the nightclub.
- 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.
- A memorial to Parker was dedicated in 1999 in Kansas City at 17th Terrace and The Paseo, near the American Jazz Museum located at 18th and Vine, featuring a tall bronze head sculpted by Robert Graham.
- In New York City, Avenue B between 7th and 10th Streets was renamed Charlie Parker Place in 1992. The townhouse in which Parker had lived with Chan and their children, on Avenue B between 9th and 10th streets, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.
- Every August, the Tribes Gallery in New York's Lower East Side sponsors a Charlie Parker Festival that includes musical performances, art exhibits, poetry readings, and culminates with a street festival and outdoor concert on August 29 (Parker's birthday) in Tompkins Square Park, which is located on Charlie Parker Place (see above).
- Every weekday morning, disc jockey Phil Schaap plays Parker's music on WKCR in New York. His show, called Birdflight, is devoted to Parker's music and has been running since 1981.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Weather Report's jazz fusion track and highly acclaimed big band standard "Birdland", from the Heavy Weather album (1977), was a dedication by bandleader Joe Zawinul to both Charlie Parker and the New York 52nd Street club itself. The piece featured Jaco Pastorius playing electric fretless bass. (Pastorius had made a name for himself when he included on his debut solo album an astounding rendition of the Charlie Parker and Miles Davis standard "Donna Lee".) The Manhattan Transfer made a vocalese cover version of the composition set to lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
- In one of his most famous short-story collection, Las armas secretas (The Secret Weapons), Julio Cortazar dedicated El perseguidor (The Persecutor) in memory of Charlie Parker. This piece examines the last days of Johnny, a drug-addict saxophonist, through the eyes of Bruno, his biographer. Some qualify this story as one of Cortazar's masterpieces in the genre.
- A biographical film called Bird, starring Forest Whitaker as Parker and directed by Clint Eastwood, was released in 1988.
- 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.
- In 2005, the Selmer Paris saxophone manufacturer commissioned a special "Tribute to Bird" alto saxophone, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the death of Charlie Parker (1955-2005). This saxophone will be built until 2010, each one featuring a unique engraving and an original design.
- 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 greatest works of American art produced in the 20th century.
- The Oris Watch Company created a limited edition timepiece in Charlie Parker's name. The watch features the word "bird" at the 4 o'clock hour, in honor of Parker's nickname and signifying "Jazz, until 4 in the morning".
- Jean-Michel Basquiat created many pieces to honour Charlie Parker, including Charles the First, CPRKR and Discography I.
Charlie Parker in popular culture
- A biographical song entitled "Parker's Band" was recorded by Steely Dan on their 1974 album Pretzel Logic.
- 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.
- TISM's The White Albun (2004) contains a song titled "Tonight Harry's Practice Visits The Home Of Charlie "Bird" Parker". The song focuses on celebrity resentment and the possibility that taking drugs, like Parker did, will make the otherwise dull celebrities more interesting. The title of the song refers to Australian television show Harry's Practice and, more specifically, the segment where Dr. Harry Cooper would visit a celebrity, in this case, the visit is to Charlie "Bird" Parker's house.
- Sparks released a song entitled "(When I Kiss You) I Hear Charlie Parker Playing" on their 1994 album Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, which prominently features Charlie Parker's name in the lyrics and makes references to his Saxophone playing.
- Duane Allman devised a unique slide guitar technique that enabled him to mimic the sounds of chirping birds, stating in at least one interview that this was his tribute to Bird. This can be heard in numerous live recordings, most notably "Mountain Jam" on The Allman Brothers Band's CDs Eat a Peach and The Fillmore Concerts (shortly before the drum interlude). Another, more delicate, version is in the song "Finding Her" on Boz Scaggs' self-titled debut album, first released in 1969.
- The Only World by poet Lynda Hull includes a poem titled "Ornithology" about Charlie Parker.
- The poem "Song for Bird and Myself" by Jack Spicer was written in memory of Charlie Parker.
- In the song "Can't Stop" by Red Hot Chili Peppers, the lyrics refer to Parker with the line "birds that blow the meaning into bebop."
- Richard Thompson references Charlie Parker in his song "Outside of the Inside" on the album "The Old Kit Bag" (2005)
- A Far Side cartoon entitled "Charlie Parker's private hell" shows him locked in a recording booth, screaming, while a whistling devil pipes in nothing but new age music.
- Charley Parker, the real name of comic book character Golden Eagle, is a reference to Parker.
- In an episode of Cowboy Bebop Jet Black dreams that Parker tells him, "Only hands can wash hands. If you want to receive, you must first give."
- In an episode of Metalocolypse William Murderface of the band Dethklok is heard to be singing his own tribute to Charlie Parker while drunk in a bar in the opening minutes of an episode. The lyrics included "Stand up U.S.A, stand up like Charlie Parker stood up, stand up Charlie Parker style..."
- Owen Dodson wrote a poem whose title itself indicates the tribute. It is called "Yardbird's Skull".
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, first released in 2005)
- Bird and Diz Carnegie Hall (1947)
- Bird on 52nd Street (1948)
- Jazz at the Philharmonic (1949)
- Charlie Parker All Stars Live at the Royal Roost (1949)
- Charlie Parker with Strings (1950, first released in 1981)
- One Night in Birdland (1950)
- Bird at the High Hat (1953)
- Charlie Parker at Storyville (1953)
- Jazz at Massey Hall (1953)
Special mention should be made of the legendary Dean Benedetti recordings, a huge trove of live material recorded by an obsessive fan. Long thought lost or merely mythical, these eventually resurfaced and were released as a set by Mosaic Records.
- Aebersold, Jamey, editor (1978). Charlie Parker Omnibook. New York: Michael H. Goldsen.
- Giddins, Gary (1987). Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker. New York: Beech Tree Books, William Morrow. ISBN 0-688-05950-3.
- Koch, Lawrence (1999). Yardbird Suite: A Compendium of the Music and Life of Charlie Parker. Boston, Northeastern University Press. ISBN 1-55555-384-1.
- Reisner, George (1962). Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker. New York, Bonanza Books.
- Russell, Ross (1973). Bird Lives! The High Life & Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker. New York: Charterhouse. ISBN 0-306-80679-7.
- Woideck, Carl (1998). Charlie Parker: His Music and Life. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-08555-7.
- Woideck, Carl, editor (1998). The Charlie Parker Companion: Six Decades of Commentary. New York: Schirmer Books. ISBN 0-02-864714-9.
- Yamaguchi, Masaya, editor (1955). Yardbird Originals. New York: Charles Colin, 2005. Originally published in 1955.