Charlie Parker

Biography

Alto saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker (1920–1955), arguably the greatest of all jazz soloists, one of the founders of bebop, was born in Kansas City, and it was there that he began his musical career. In his teens he played locally with the bands of Lawrence "88" Keyes, George E. Lee, Harlan Leonard, and Jay McShann. His major influences at that time were altoist Buster Smith and the great, innovative tenor man, Lester Young.

Parker left Kansas City and showed up in New York in 1938 or ’39. For some months he played in a group at Monroe’s Uptown House in Harlem, exchanging ideas with the progressive young musicians he worked or jammed with. In 1940 he landed another job with McShann, and his first recorded solos with the Kansas City-based bandleader were fully evolved bop, though his playing was to become even more complex in the future. After leaving McShann, Parker continued to work with big bands, including Earl Hines’s in 1943 and Billy Eckstine’s in 1944. Eckstine’s band was the first to feature bop solos, vocals, and arrangements.

In 1945 Bird and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, the other major founder of the bop movement, cut some small-group records which were quite influential in turning on jazz musicians and fans to bop. They exhibited enormous drive and dazzling technical prowess. Harmonically and rhythmically their playing was more complex and advanced than jazz solos had ever been. In addition, Parker unveiled a unique, hard tone, sometimes bittersweet at slow tempos, which contrasted strikingly with the lush sounds of established alto greats Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.

In late ’45 Parker went to California, where he played with Gillespie at a club named Billy Berg’s. From all accounts, Parker’s stay on the West Coast was an unhappy one. The jazz audience was not as quick to catch on to his innovations as they had been in New York, and Bird took refuge in alcohol and narcotics. As a result, on July 29, 1946, Parker collapsed during a recording date for the Dial label and had to spend six months in Camarillo State Hospital.

Parker recorded a good deal with quintets, featuring trumpeters Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, or Red Rodney, in the late Forties and early Fifties for Dial, Verve, and Savoy Records. He played in a variety of settings for Verve: with a string orchestra, with a vocal chorus, in small combos (including a wonderful reunion date with Gillespie), as a member of all-star groups, and in Afro-Cuban contexts.

During the Fifties, Parker continued his top-notch playing but his health steadily deteriorated. Finally, in March 1955, he collapsed and died while watching a television show featuring the Dorsey brothers playing big-band themes.

Bird’s influence on other musicians was enormous. Among the outstanding jazzmen he marked were altoist Cannonball Adderley, Sonny Criss, Jackie McLean, and Sonny Stitt; tenormen Dexter Gordon, Wardell Gray, and Sonny Rollins; baritonists Serge Chaloff and Leo Parker; and trumpeters Davis, Dorham, and Rodney. Pianists Al Haig and Bud Powell and vibraphonist Milt Jackson also employed ideas taken from Parker’s vocabulary.

Pianist Lennie Tristano said decades ago that if Parker wanted to invoke plagiarism laws "he could sue almost everybody who has made a record in the past ten years." Perhaps that’s an exaggeration, but it gives an idea how pervasive Bird’s innovations are.

Harvey Pekar

Excerpted from The Essential Charlie Parker