Charlie Parker Biography

Charles Christopher Parker, 29 August 1920, Kansas City, Kansas, USA, d. 12 March 1955, New York City, New York, USA. Although he was born on the Kansas side of the state line, Parker was actually raised across the Kaw River in Kansas City, Missouri. His nickname was originally ‘Yardbird’ due to his propensity for eating fried chicken - later this was shortened to the more poetic ‘Bird’. Musicians talk of first hearing his alto saxophone as if it were a religious conversion. Charlie Parker changed the face of jazz and shaped the course of twentieth-century music.

Kansas City saxophonists were a competitive bunch. Ben Webster and Herschel Evans both came from Kansas. Before they became national celebrities they would challenge visiting sax stars to ‘blowing matches’. It is this artistically fruitful sense of competition that provided Charlie Parker with his aesthetic. Live music could be heard at all hours of the night, a situation resulting from lax application of prohibition laws by the Democrat Tom Pendergast (city boss from 1928-39). While in the Crispus Attucks high school Parker took up the baritone. His mother gave him an alto in 1931. He dropped out of school at the age of 14 and devoted himself to the instrument. A premature appearance at the High Hat Club - when he dried up mid-solo on ‘Body & Soul’ - led to him abandoning the instrument for three months; the humiliation was repeated in 1937 when veteran drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his feet to indicate he was to leave the stage (this time Parker just went on practising harder). Playing in bands led by Tommy Douglas (1936-37) and Buster Smith (1937-38) gave him necessary experience. A tour with George E. Lee and instructions in harmony from the pianist Carrie Powell were helpful. His first real professional break was with the Jay McShann band in 1938, a sizzling swing unit (with whom Parker made his first recordings in 1941). Parker’s solos on ‘Sepian Bounce’, ‘Jumpin’ Blues’ and ‘Lonely Boy Blues’ made people sit up and take notice: he was taking hip liberties with the chords.

Brief spells in the Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines (1942-43) and Billy Eckstine (1944) big bands introduced him to Dizzy Gillespie, another young black player with innovative musical ideas and a rebellious stance. Wartime austerities, though, meant that the days of the big bands were numbered. Parker took his experience of big band saxophone sections with him to Harlem, New York. There he found the equivalent of the Kansas City ‘cutting contests’ in the clubs of 52nd Street, especially in the ‘afterhours’ sessions at Minton’s Playhouse. Together with Gillespie and drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach, and with the essential harmonic contributions of Charlie Christian and Thelonious Monk, he pioneered a new music. Furious tempos and intricate heads played in unison inhibited lesser talents from joining in. Instead of keeping time with bass and snare drums, Clarke and Roach kept up a beat on the cymbal, using bass and snare for accents, whipping up soloists to greater heights. And Parker played high : That is, he created his solo lines from the top notes of the underlying chord sequences - 9ths, 11ths, 13ths - so extending the previous harmonic language of jazz.

Parker made his recording debut as a small combo player in Tiny Grimes’ band in September 1944. In 1945, Savoy Records - and some more obscure labels including Guild, Manor and Comet - began releasing 78s of this music, which the press called ‘bebop’. It became a national fad, Gillespie’s trademark goatee and beret supplying the visual element. It was a proud declaration of bohemian recklessness from a black community that, due to wartime full employment, was feeling especially confident. Charlie Parker’s astonishing alto - so fluent and abrupt, bluesy and joyous - was the definition of everything that was modern and hip. ‘Koko’, ‘Shaw Nuff’, ‘Now’s The Time’: the very titles announced the dawning of a new era. A trip to the west coast and a residency at Billy Berg’s helped to spread the message.

There were problems, however. Parker’s addiction to heroin was causing erratic behaviour and the proprietor was not impressed at the small audiences of hipsters the music attracted (apart from a historic opening night). In January 1946 Norman Granz promoted Parker at the LA Philharmonic and the same year saw him begin a series of famous recordings for Ross Russell’s Dial Records, with a variety of players that included Howard McGhee, Lucky Thompson, Wardell Gray and Dodo Marmarosa. However, Parker’s heroin-related health problems came to a head following the notorious ‘Loverman’ session of July 1946 when, after setting his hotel-room on fire, the saxophonist was incarcerated in the psychiatric wing of the LA County Jail and then spent six months in a rehabilitation centre (commemorated in ‘Relaxin’ At Camarillo’, 1947). When he emerged he recorded two superb sessions for Dial, one of them featuring Erroll Garner. On returning to New York he formed a band with Miles Davis and Max Roach and cut some classic sides in November 1947, including ‘Scrapple From The Apple’ and ‘Klactoveedsedstene’.

Parker toured abroad for the first time in 1949, when he played at a jazz festival in Paris. In November 1950 he visited Scandinavia. He felt that his music would be taken more seriously if he was associated with classical instrumentation. The ‘With Strings’ albums, although pleasant, now sound hopelessly dated, but they were commercially successful at the time. Fans reported that Parker’s playing, though consummate, needed the spark of improvisers of his stature to really lift off on the bandstand. A more fruitful direction was suggested by his interest in the music of Edgard Varèse, whom he saw on the streets of Manhattan, but Parker’s untimely death ruled out any collaborations with the avant garde composer. His health had continued to give him problems: ulcers and cirrhosis of the liver. According to Leonard Feather, his playing at the Town Hall months before his death in March 1955 was ‘as great as any period in his career’. His last public appearance was on 4 March 1955, at Birdland, the club named after him: it was a fiasco - Parker and pianist Bud Powell rowed onstage, the latter storming off followed shortly by bass player Charles Mingus. Disillusioned, obese and racked by illness, Parker died eight days later in the hotel suite of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a wealthy aristocrat and stalwart bebop fan.

Parker’s influence on jazz was immense. Lennie Tristano said, ‘If Charlie wanted to invoke plagiarism laws, he could sue almost everybody who’s made a record in the last ten years.’ In pursuing his art with such disregard for reward and security, Charlie Parker was black music’s first existential hero. After him, jazz could not avoid the trials and tribulations that beset the avant garde.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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