Charles Parker, Jr. (August 29, 1920 March 12, 1955), also known as Yardbird and Bird, was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.
Charlie Parker is widely considered one of the most influential jazz musicians of his time. He acquired the nickname "Yardbird" early in his career and the shortened form, "Bird", which continued to be used for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles of a number of Parker compositions, such as "Yardbird Suite", "Ornithology", "Bird Gets the Worm" and "Bird of Paradise."
Parker was a leading figure in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, virtuoso technique, and improvisation. His innovative approach to music exercised enormous influence on his contemporaries. Parker introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas, including rapidly passing chords, new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone ranged from clean and penetrating to sweet and somber. Many Parker recordings demonstrate virtuosic technique and complex melodic lines, combining jazz with other musical genres, including blues, Latin and classical.
Parker was an icon for the hipster subculture and later, the Beat Generation, personifying the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than an entertainer.
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, the only child of Charles and Addie Parker. Parker attended Lincoln High School. He enrolled in September 1934 and withdrew in December 1935, just before joining the local Musicians Union.
Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11, and at age 14 joined his school's band using a rented school instrument. His father, Charles, was often absent but provided some musical influence; he was a pianist, dancer and singer on the T.O.B.A. circuit. He later became a Pullman waiter or chef on the railways. Parker's mother Addie worked nights at the local Western Union office. His biggest influence at that time was a young trombone player who taught him the basics of improvisation.
In the late thirties Parker began to practice diligently. During this period he mastered improvisation and developed some of the ideas that led to bebop. In an interview with Paul Desmond, he said that he spent 3 4 years practicing up to 15 hours a day.
Bands led by Count Basie and Bennie Moten undoubtedly influenced Parker. He played 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 influenced Parker's developing style.
In 1938, 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.
As a teenager, Parker developed a morphine addiction while in the hospital, after an automobile accident, and subsequently became addicted to heroin. He continued using heroin throughout his life, which ultimately contributed to his death.
New York City
In 1939 Parker moved to New York City, to pursue a career in music. He held several other jobs as well. He worked for nine dollars a week as a dishwasher at Jimmie's Chicken Shack, where pianist Art Tatum performed
In 1942 Parker left McShann's band and played with Earl Hines for one year, whose band included Dizzy Gillespie, who later played with Parker as a duo. Unfortunately, this period is virtually undocumented, due to the strike of 1942 1943 by the American Federation of Musicians, during which time few recordings were made. Parker joined a group of young musicians, and played in after-hours clubs in Harlem, such as Clark Monroe's Uptown House and 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 usurped and profited from swing music. The group played in venues on 52nd Street, including Three Deuces and The Onyx. While in New York City, Parker studied with his 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 one of his main musical innovations. He realized that the twelve tones of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key, breaking some of the confines of simpler jazz soloing.
Early in its development, this new type of jazz was rejected by many of the established, traditional jazz musicians who disdained their younger counterparts. The beboppers responded by calling these traditionalists "moldy figs". However, some musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman, were more positive about its development, and participated in jam sessions and recording dates in the new approach with its adherents.
Because of the two-year Musicians' Union ban of all commercial recordings from 1942 to 1944, much of bebop's early development was not captured for posterity. As a result, it gained limited radio exposure. Bebop musicians had a difficult time gaining widespread recognition. It was not until 1945, when the recording ban was lifted, that Parker's collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and others had a substantial effect on the jazz world. One of their first (and greatest) small-group performances together was rediscovered and issued in 2005: a concert in New York's Town Hall on June 22, 1945. Bebop soon gained wider appeal among musicians and fans alike.
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 "Ko-Ko" and "Now's the Time".
Shortly afterwards, the Parker/Gillespie band traveled to an unsuccessful engagement at Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles. Most of the group returned to New York, but Parker remained in California, cashing in his return ticket to buy heroin. He experienced great hardship in California, eventually being committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital for a six-month period.
Parker's chronic addiction to heroin caused him to miss gigs and lose work. He frequently resorted to busking on the streets, receiving loans from fellow musicians and admirers, and pawning his saxophones, for drug money. Heroin use was rampant in the jazz scene and the drug could be acquired easily.
Although he produced many brilliant recordings during this period, Parker's behavior became increasingly erratic. Heroin was difficult to obtain when he moved to California, where the drug was less abundant, and Parker began to drink heavily to compensate for it. A recording for the Dial label from July 29, 1946, provides evidence of his condition. Prior to this session, Parker drank a quart of whiskey. According to the liner notes of Charlie Parker on Dial Volume 1, Parker missed most of the first two bars of his first chorus on the track, "Max Making Wax." When he finally did come in, he swayed wildly and once spun all the way around, away from his microphone. On the next tune, "Lover Man", producer Ross Russell physically supported Parker. On "Bebop" (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. Charles Mingus considered this version of "Lover Man" to be among Parker's greatest recordings, despite its flaws. Nevertheless, Parker hated the recording and never forgave Ross Russell for releasing it. He re-recorded the tune in 1951 for Verve.
When Parker was released from the hospital, he was clean and healthy, and proceeded to do some of the best playing and recording of his career. He converted to Islam in the manner of the Ahmadiyya movement in the US. Before leaving California, he recorded "Relaxin' at Camarillo", in reference to his hospital stay. He returned to New York, resumed his addiction to heroin and recorded dozens of sides for the Savoy and Dial labels, which remain some of the high points of his recorded output. Many of these were with his so-called "classic quintet" including trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach.
Charlie Parker with Strings
A longstanding desire of Parker's was to perform with a string section. He was a keen student of classical music, and contemporaries reported 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, 1949, Norman Granz arranged for Parker to record an album of ballads with a mixed group of jazz and chamber orchestra musicians. Six master takes from this session comprised the album Charlie Parker 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 rare in Parker's catalog. Parker's improvisations are, in comparison 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. 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. Although 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 this record was a sellout and a pandering to popular tastes. It is now seen to have been artistically as well as commercially successful. While Charlie Parker with Strings sold better than his other releases, Parker's version of "Just Friends" is regarded as one of his best performances. In an interview, Parker said he considered it to be his best recording to that date.
Jazz at Massey Hall
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, so was poorly attended. Mingus recorded the concert, resulting in the album Jazz at Massey Hall. At this concert, he played a plastic Grafton saxophone. At this point in his career he was experimenting with new sounds and materials. Parker himself explained the purpose of the plastic saxophone in a May 9, 1953 broadcast from Birdland and does so again in subsequent May 1953 broadcast.
Parker is known to have played several saxophones, including the Conn 6M, The Martin Handicraft and Selmer Model 22. Parker is also known to have performed with a King "Super 20" saxophone. Parker's King Super 20 saxophone was made specially for him in 1947.
Parker's grave at Lincoln Cemetery.
Parker died in the suite of his friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City while watching The Dorsey Brothers' Stage Show on television. The official causes of death were lobar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer but Parker also had an advanced case of cirrhosis and had suffered a heart attack. The coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker's 34-year-old body to be between 50 or 60 years of age.
It was well known that Parker never wanted to return to Kansas City, even in death. Parker had told his partner, Chan, that he did not want to be buried in the city of his birth; that New York was his home. However, he had not divorced his wife, Doris, nor had he married Chan. This complicated the settling of Parker's inheritance and would ultimately serve to frustrate his wish to be quietly interred in his adopted hometown. Dizzy Gillespie was able to pay for the funeral arrangements and organized a lying-in-state, a Harlem procession officiated by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., as well as a memorial concert, before Parker's body was flown back to Missouri, in accordance with his mother's wishes. Parker was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Missouri, in a hamlet known as Blue Summit.
Parker's estate is managed by CMG Worldwide.
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") and "Yardbird Suite", the vocal version of which is called "What Price Love", with lyrics by Parker. The practice was not uncommon prior to bebop; however, it became a signature of the movement as artists began to move away from arranging popular standards and compose their own material.
While tunes such as "Now's The Time", "Billie's Bounce", and "Cool Blues" were based on conventional twelve-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 characterized by long, complex melodic lines and a minimum of repetition although he did employ the use of repetition in some tunes, most notably "Now's The Time".
Parker contributed greatly to the modern jazz solo, one in which triplets and pick-up notes were used in unorthodox ways to lead into chord tones, affording the soloist with more freedom to use passing tones, which soloists previously avoided. 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 style dominated jazz for many years to come.
Awards and recognitions
Robert Graham]] in Kansas City, Missouri
- Grammy Award
Charlie Parker Grammy Award History
||Best Performance By A Soloist
- 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
||Jazz at Massey Hall
||Charlie Parker with Strings
||Jazz at Lincoln Center: Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame
||Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
||Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame
- National Recording Registry
In 2002, the Library of Congress honored his recording "Ko-Ko" (1945) by adding it to the National Recording Registry.
- U.S. Postage Stamp
||32 cents Commemorative stamp
||U.S. Postal Stamps
||Photo (Scott #2987)
- 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, street musician 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 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 with lyrics by Jon Hendricks.
- References to Charlie Parker was made and a remix of the song "Birdland" appeared on the songs "Jazz Corner of the World/Birdland" from Quincy Jones' album Back on the Block.
- In 2003 various artists including Serj Tankian and Dan the Automator put out Bird Up: The Charlie Parker Remix Project. This album created new songs by remixing Charlie Parker's originals.
- The biographical song "Parker's Band" was recorded by Steely Dan on its 1974 album Pretzel Logic.
- British jazz-rock band If paid tribute to Parker in the title track of their last album, Tea Break Over, Back on Your 'Eads (1975), including a Parker-styled saxophone solo and the lyrics "The Bird was the man to be heard" and "The music was the word".
- The avant-garde trombonist George Lewis recorded Homage to Charles Parker (1979), an album that offers a unique combination of electronic music and the blues.
- TISM's The White Albun (2004) contains the song "Tonight Harry's Practice Visits the Home of Charlie 'Bird' Parker". The song focuses on celebrity resentment and the possibility that taking drugs 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 the song "(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 Parker. 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. This technique can also be heard at the end of Derek & the Dominos 1970 hit "Layla" on which Allman played.
The Only World by poet Lynda Hull includes the poem "Ornithology" about Charlie Parker.
- The poem "Song for Bird and Myself" by Jack Spicer was written in memory of Charlie Parker.
- The song "Jack & Neal/California, Here I Come," on the album Foreign Affairs by Tom Waits has a line that goes: "...with Charlie Parker on the bandstand not a worry in the world".
- The lyrics of the song "Can't Stop" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers reference 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).
- Charlie Parker is referenced in the song "Rothko Chapel" by David Dondero on the album Simple Love (2007).
- Harry Chapin references Charlie Parker in the song "There Only Was One Choice" from the 1977 Dance Band On The Titanic album.
- Refused included live recordings of Parker at the end of the song "Liberation Frequency" and transitioned it into "The Deadly Rhythm" on the album The Shape of Punk to Come.
- Spanish rock band Saratoga wrote a song "Charlie se fue" ("Charlie is Gone") as a tribute to Parker. It is included in its 1999 album Vientos de Guerra. The song's lyrics begin: "Antes que Malcom y King, que Lennon, en Kansas City surgio la estrella." ("Before Malcolm and King, before Lennon, in Kansas City arose the Star".)
Charlie Parker Residence
From 1950 to 1954, Parker and his common-law wife, Chan Richardson, lived in the ground floor of the townhouse at 151 Avenue B, across from Tompkins Square Park in Manhattan's East Village. The Gothic Revival building, which was built c.1849, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, and was designated a New York City landmark in 1999. Avenue B, between East 7th and 10th Streets, was renamed Charlie Parker Place in 1992.
- The 1985 film Round Midnight included a character who was the daughter of the main character (played by Dexter Gordon) whose name was "Chan", and the end theme was entitled "Chan's Song", written by Herbie Hancock. Chan was the name of Parker's common-law wife when he died.
- 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.
- 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.
- The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival is a free two-day music festival that takes place every summer on the last weekend of August in Manhattan, New York City, at Marcus Garvey Park in Harlem and Tompkins Square Park in the Lower East Side, sponsored by the non-profit organization City Parks Foundation. The festival marked its 17th anniversary in 2009.
- 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.
- 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.
- In one of his most famous short story collections, Las armas secretas (The Secret Weapons), Julio Cort zar dedicated "El perseguidor" ("The Pursuer") to the 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 the piece 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" (recorded for the Savoy label in 1948, with the Charlie Parker All Stars, comprising Parker on alto sax, Miles Davis on trumpet, John Lewis on piano, Curley Russell on bass, and Max Roach on drums) were selected by Harold Bloom for inclusion on his shortlist of the "twentieth-century American Sublime", the greatest works of American art produced in the 20th century. A vocalese version of "Parker's Mood" was a popular success for King Pleasure.
- Parker is referenced in Jack Kerouac's On the Road as being a major influence of the Bop movement; at the time, Kerouac's character watches a performance of Parker at a club in downtown Chicago.
- 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.
- In 1995, Live Bird, a one-man play about Charlie Parker, written and performed by actor/saxophonist Jeff Robinson, made its premier at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, Massachusetts.
- A Far Side cartoon published on Parker's birthday in 1990 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 have to give."
- In an episode of Metalocalypse 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".
- On the Del Close recording How to Speak Hip, John Brent's character, Geets Romo, says it is "uncool to claim you used to run with Bird, or that you have Bird's ax, and you know, it's even less cool to ask, 'Who is Bird?'" This is also sampled in the 1994 Hans Dulfer song "Jazz Disaster (Cool)".
- Parker plays at a night club in The Subterraneans by Jack Kerouac. He appears in other works by Kerouac as well.
- In episode 16 of The Mighty Boosh, Charlie Parker's rare "Yardbird" LP can be seen on one of the racks in the Nabootique.
- The protagonist in John Connolly's series of crime novels is named Charlie Parker and even shares the nickname "Bird."
- Charlie Watts, drummer for the Rolling Stones, wrote a children's book entitled Ode to a High Flying Bird as a tribute to Parker. Watts has cited Parker as a major influence in his life as a young man learning to play jazz.
- 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
- Parker, Chan (1999). My Life In E-Flat. University Of South Carolina Press. ISBN 1-57003-245-9
- 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, reprinted 2005.
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