Charlie Parker - Biography

By Stuart Kremsky


            Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, known to many fans simply as “Bird,” has been variously described as “amazingly talented” (Orrin Keepnews), “above all, a great improviser” (James Patrick), as having “supernatural abilities” (Gary Giddins), and “simply the best” (Ira Gitler). Parker, with invaluable assistance from key associates like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Bud Powell, changed the sound of jazz forever with the innovative music of the forties that came to be known as bebop. Not since Louis Armstrong came on the scene in the twenties had one man’s sound caused so much reexamination and realignment of the fundamentals of jazz. The effects and influence of Parker and bebop are still very much with us, many decades after they represented the newest sound on the block.


            Cultural critic Gary Giddins, author of a well-regarded book about Parker, has remarked that "As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker's life make little sense because they fail to explain his music." Even geniuses start somewhere, though. Although Charles Christopher Parker, Jr. entered the world on August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Kansas; he grew up across the river in Kansas City, Missouri. With his father frequently absent, he was raised primarily by his mother. Reports vary on when he started playing music. Some sources say he showed some talent at a young age, even singing in church, while others flatly note that he showed no musical aptitude as a child. The contradictions befit the biography of a seemingly larger-than-life individual whose myths and legends obscure the truth. Indeed, after declaring Parker “a landmark innovator” in The Oxford Companion to Jazz, jazz scholar James Patrick ruefully notes that “virtually any tale about the man could be true.” One thing most sources agree on is the amount of practicing that the largely self-taught Parker did once he dedicated himself to the alto saxophone. Violinist Claude Williams has recalled that the teenaged Parker was always carrying his instrument as well as an exercise book. Parker himself claimed in a 1954 radio interview that he’d “put quite a bit of study into the horn, that's true...I used to put in at least eleven, eleven to fifteen hours a day.”


            By the age of fifteen, Parker felt he was proficient enough to drop out of school to pursue a career in music, lying about his age to get a union card. He got his education in the nightspots of Kansas City, listening to the big bands, especially tenor saxophonist Lester Young with Count Basie’s band and alto saxophonist Buster Smith. He had a burning desire to improve his playing, especially after being summarily laughed off the bandstand one night in a jam session. An insurance settlement from a 1937 automobile accident enabled Parker to buy a new horn. Unfortunately, the hospital stay associated with the accident gave him a taste for opiates that would occupy an important place in his life and legend.


            Parker is acknowledged to have made great strides in his playing during a four-month tour with George E. Lee’s band. In 1938, he joined a new band being started by pianist Jay “Hootie” McShann. The band, originally based in Missouri, moved to New York in 1939. It was while playing with McShann’s band in New York the following year (possibly the same trip during which he first met Dizzy Gillespie) that Parker had a major breakthrough. As he later described it in Down Beat, “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it.” Working on “Cherokee” one night, Parker realized that the sound he was searching for could be brought into being by using the higher intervals of a song’s chords as a melody line, effectively rewriting the melody. This epiphany, combined with Parker’s deep exploration of the blues, led to his creation of bebop just a few years later. Parker was the featured alto soloist with McShann and made his first official recordings with the group for Decca in April 1941 – although earlier airchecks exist. He acquired his nickname “Yardbird” during this time, due to his voracious appetite for fried chicken. Later it was usually shortened to Bird.


            In December 1942, Parker moved on to the Earl Hines band where he played tenor until the following April. In May 1944, he decided to join Gillespie and other Hines alumni in a new group led by vocalist and trombonist Billy Eckstine. He didn’t stay long, leaving by August. During the early forties, Parker was also a key participant in jam sessions held at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, where the small groups and intimate atmosphere promoted the development of new musical styles. A recording ban instituted by the musicians union stopped most studio activity after August 1942. The ban lasted a couple of years, with the sad consequence that this crucial period in the evolution of bebop remains largely undocumented. When the ban ended, Parker made his first small group recordings as featured soloist with guitarist Tiny Grimes in September 1944.


            1945 would prove to be pivotal in the growth of bebop. Parker and Gillespie worked together intensely that year, starting with a Clyde Hart session in January, continuing with Gillespie dates for Guild, then with Red Norvo’s sextet for Dial, and culminating in November with Parker’s first session as a leader. This Savoy date produced two of Parker’s most famous performances, “Now’s The Time” and “Ko-Ko.” At the end of the year, Parker and Gillespie decided to take the new music out to California, where they opened a two-month engagement at Billy Berg’s Lighthouse Café on Vine and DeLongpre. Although musicians loved the band, most of the Hollywood audience was mystified by the new sound from New York. When Gillespie returned to the East Coast at the end of the gig, Parker cashed in his return ticket for heroin.  In Los Angeles, Parker freelanced in clubs, performed in concerts and recorded classics like “Moose the Mooche,” “Yardbird Suite,” and Ornithology” for Dial. Parker’s addiction began to make him less and less reliable. His problems came to a head in July 1946 when he set fire to the mattress in his hotel room and ran through the lobby dressed in nothing but socks. Following his arrest, he was committed to Camarillo State Hospital, where he remained until January 1947.


            Parker was quick to return to the studio. After recording more tunes for Dial in February (including “Relaxin’ at Camarillo,” “Cool Blues,” and “Carvin’ the Bird” with bands including guitarist Barney Kessel and saxophonist Wardell Gray) as well as playing club dates with trumpeter Howard McGhee, he returned to New York in April. There he quickly put together his classic quartet with trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Duke Jordan, bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Max Roach. With Bud Powell at the piano, “Donna Lee” and “Chasin’ the Bird” were waxed by the quintet that May for Savoy. There was no mistaking that Charlie Parker was back on the scene in a big way.


            Bird kept this band together for nineteen months, a period of relative stability in his frenetic career. In addition to regular work in clubs, between May 1947 and September 1948, Parker recorded records like “Milestones,” “Bongo Bop,” “The Hymn,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” and many more. In 1949, Parker began to record exclusively for jazz entrepreneur Norman Granz’s Clef label, precursor to Verve Records. Granz figured on expanding Bird’s audience by having him play “pretty tunes written by good song writers,” an ambition which dovetailed nicely with Parker’s growing interest in orchestral music, especially that of Igor Stravinsky. Charlie Parker with Strings (1950 Verve) was a controversial departure for Parker, largely condemned by jazz fans while become one of his best-selling releases. While the Verve period (which featured Parker in a variety of contexts including small bands, as guest soloist with Machito’s orchestra, and with woodwind and vocal groups) is not generally regarded as the best of Bird, the label’s excellent distribution helped make these recordings among his best known.


            Despite his popular and critical success, Parker’s personal life disintegrated in the early fifties. An arrest on a narcotics violation resulted in the loss of his “cabaret card,” without which he was not allowed to perform in Manhattan. There were also various problems with night club owners, the musicians union and his booking agency. Deeply in debt and only working sporadically, Parker made two suicide attempts in 1954 and ended up being admitted to Bellevue Hospital. Parker’s final public appearance was at Birdland, a club named after him, on March 5, 1955. It was an embarrassing and tumultuous evening that included Parker being taunted from the bandstand by Bud Powell. A week later, on March 12, 1955, Parker died in the hotel suite of his friend Nica de Koenigswarter, while watching Tommy Dorsey on television. The official causes were listed as lobar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, no doubt exacerbated by his heavy use of drugs. It has been said that at the moment of Parker’s death, there was a massive thunderclap, and Ira Gitler has noted that “the heavens poured down vats of rain” on the day of his funeral.


            Charlie Parker the bebop innovator rapidly gave rise to Charlie Parker the recording phenomenon, whose every last scrap seems to have been issued somewhere. The practice started during Bird’s first contract with Savoy Records between 1944 and 1949, with the issuing of alternate takes, false starts and incomplete versions alongside the master takes. Parker signed with Dial Records in 1945 and they too took to releasing multiple versions of some songs. In the case of the notorious “Lover Man,” from July, 1946, they released an entire session that Parker thought represented him at his worst. Verve Records, Bird’s home for the last five years of his career from 1949 to 1954, was considerably more respectful of Parker’s work. Most of the alternate takes of this material that have seen the light of day didn’t come out until many years after the fact. Verve’s stricter policy was offset for hardcore fans by the vast proliferation of pirated material derived from airchecks, concert recordings and private performances – often captured by fans whose interest began and ended with Bird’s solos. The most obsessive of these fans was probably the legendary Dean Benedetti, whose huge collection of Parker recordings from 1947 and 1948 was finally discovered and released in a 7-CD, Mosaic Records box set, The Complete Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker (1990). Discoveries are still being made: a previously unknown and important small group recording with Gillespie in 1945 appeared for the first time in 2005 as Town Hall, New York City, June 22, 1945 (Uptown). Parker’s output has been collected in a number of box sets over the years. The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings (Savoy) came out in 2000, and Bird: the Complete Charlie Parker on Verve appeared on CD in 1988. Charlie Parker: Bird in Time, 1940-1947, a remarkable four disc set (2008-ESP-Disk), compiles rare interviews, historic recordings, live material and an illustrated chronology of Bird’s life. The best introduction to Parker’s music is Yardbird Suite (1997 Rhino), which collects 38 tracks from all phases of his career.


            Parker’s life and music have been the subject of numerous books, including Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, a collection of oral histories recorded and edited by Robert Reisner (1977), Chasin' the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker by Brian Priestley (1984), Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker by Gary Giddins (1987), and Charlie Parker: His Music and Life by Carl Woideck (1998). Parker was also portrayed by Forest Whitaker in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biopic, Bird.


            Parker himself might have summed up his remarkable contribution best when he commented that "Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn. They teach you there's a boundary line to music. But, man, there's no boundary line to art."

Steve Earle and the Dukes
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