1920 - 1955
Charlie "Bird Parker was one of the founders of post-war jazz and one of its pre-eminent innovators. What Parker did for alto saxophone improvisation not only influenced countless sax players, but other instrumentalists as a whole. The leader of the bebop revolution played with pure velocity - focused, forceful, and cutting, exemplifying a free form of expression. A cult following worshipped his every note and even interpreted his notoriously self-destructive lifestyle as hip. Parker more than anyone represents the true complexity and inspiration of bebop jazz.
Few have been able to explain the genius of Parker's sound. There seemed to be a direct and instinctive connection between his thought processes and his manipulation of the instrument, perfectly augmented by his imagination. His solos were based on chordal improvisations which spawned continual streams of new melodies avoiding reference to the original melodies. The spontaneity of his song was fed by superior technique and ability to tap into an extensive musical vocabulary at an astounding speed. His sound was hard, his tempo lightning fast, and his rhythms irregular. Nothing Parker played was typical and variation was the norm.
Charlie Parker was born Charles Parker Jr. on August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas. He was a lonely child and therefore spoiled. His musical aptitude came late, more from zeal than apparent talent and he didn't even pick up an instrument until his mid-teens. At first progress was slow, but Charlie possessed the resolve to see it through, with many hours of practice, sometimes 11 to 15 hours a day.
In the 1930s, Kansas City had a thriving jazz and blues scene. Local bands and jam sessions were plentiful and young Charlie was quick to immerse himself in the trends. He studied jazz musicians firsthand or on recordings, picking up on fundamental improvising and harmony. When he was fifteen Charlie boldly quit school to play music full time. Shortly thereafter he married and started using heroin. The next four years became Charlie's music schooling, playing in local bands and shaping his sound. His diligence paid off when he came to the attention of veteran saxophonist Buster Smith. Smith hired him to play second alto sax in his band and along with the recordings of Lester Young would influence Parker's early style.
In a bout of restlessness, Parker headed to New York in 1939. It was during this visit that he had a major musical epiphany. While jamming with guitarist Biddy Fleet, Parker began hearing complicated note changes in his head. They worked out a melody line of high chord intervals backed by corresponding changes and thus captured what Parker had been hearing internally. It was an exploration into advanced harmony that would help spark jazz improvisation and the bebop movement.
Certain of his destiny to be a great musician Parker became obstinate in his will to make an impact. The early 40s were spent in various jazz combos under Jay McShann, Earl Hines, and Billy Eckstine. Parker was already showing a flourish for improvisation within the swing style, yet very few recordings from this period exist due to the ban on recording during World War II. It was also at this time that Parker gained the nickname Yardbird, or Bird, though no conclusive reasoning has become evident.
Parker stepped up in 1945. Back in New York, he was heading his own band and working extensively with Dizzy Gillespie. The two men literally created a modern jazz idiom called bebop with a series of recordings, including gems like "Popity Pop, "KoKo, and "Salt Peanuts. Parker and Gillespie decided to take their new jazz gospel on the road to California for a series of night club dates. But Parker's erratic behavior and narcotics usage was beginning to impinge on his public life. He was already known for arriving late to gigs or missing them completely.
Once the California engagement was a wrap Gillespie returned to New York while Parker missed his flight and stayed in Los Angeles. The next 15 months were spent making some of his most inspired music in clubs and recording studios, while his drug and alcohol consumption took a physical toll. Due to an inevitable nervous breakdown he was confined to a state hospital for six months.
Parker was released from hospital renewed and headed back to New York where he put together his definitive quintet including a young Miles Davis on trumpet, Bud Powell on piano, and Max Roach on drums. The jazz scene in New York had shifted from swing to bebop and with Parker at the height of his improvisational powers and a new trumpeter whose reflective sound perfectly contrasted his firepower the new quintet established themselves at the fore of the bebop movement.
By 1950 jazz critics and fans alike were lauding Parker as the hero of modern jazz. Attempts were made to market him to larger audiences. He recorded an album called Charlie Parker With Strings in 1949 that confounded some jazz purists, but remained popular. Yet his best sides from this period were recorded with smaller outfits. His status was now world renowned, touring Europe, opening his own nightclub, and enjoying financial success.
Yet Parker's other seamier life was catching up with him. Heroin and alcohol dependency, a narcotics arrest leading to a revoking of his New York City cabaret license, unprofessional behavior, and mental health issues saw Parker slipping into a morass. He tried to commit suicide twice in 1954 and dissipation continued until his death on March 5, 1955. The attending physician had guessed Parker's age to be 60 years old, yet he was only 34.
William P. Gottlieb