Charlie Parker Biography

American jazz saxophonist and composer Parker's brilliant approach to rhythm, phrasing, melodic lines, and chord progressions irrevocably changed the nature of modern jazz and made him a leader in the bebop, or bop, revolution. His virtuosity on the saxophone enabled him to express the new harmonies of bop while infusing his music with a blues edge that recalled jazz's roots.

Born: August 29, 1920; Kansas City, Kansas

Died: March 12, 1955; New York, New York

The Life

Charles Parker, Jr., was born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas. His father, Charles, held various jobs, including vaudeville musician. His mother, Adelaide (Addie) Bailey, pampered Parker, her only child. In 1927 the familymovedto Kansas City, Missouri, where Parker attended Crispus Attucks Elementary School. About this time, Parker's parents separated. In Lincoln Junior High School, Parker played several instruments, eventually settling on alto saxophone. Deciding to become a professional musician, Parker dropped out of high school and began visiting the flourishing blues and jazz haunts of Kansas City. At fifteen he began using heroin, his childhood physician predicting Parker's early death as a consequence. On July 25, 1936, Parker, then sixteen, married Rebecca Ruffin; their child, Francis, was born the following year. Parker was humiliated when he attempted to play with professional musicians at competitive cutting sessions, during which an instrumentalist could be cut, or forced out, because he did not have the training to keep up with the other musicians.

Secluding himself with his saxophone (what jazz musicians call woodshedding, working solo until they get the sound right), Parker practiced "eleven to fifteen hours a day", as he recalled in a 1954 interview with Paul Desmond. He also acquired the nickname Yardbird, usually shortened to Bird. (One story goes that while driving to a gig, Parker's car hit a chicken. He picked up the "yardbird" and prepared it for dinner.) In 1939 Parker traveled to New York City, where he eagerly joined the jam sessions that were giving rise to bop. Returning to Kansas City in 1940, Parker ended his marriage and joined the Jay McShann big band. In 1942 Parker moved to New York City and joined the Earl "Fatha" Hines big band, where bop ally Dizzy Gillespie played trumpet. On April 10, 1943, Parker married Geraldine Scott, although they would be separated within a year. In 1945 Parker began recording extensively and leading a band with Gillespie, becoming acknowledged as a master of his instrument and of bop. In 1946 Parker traveled to California with Gillespie's band. Unable to secure a steady supply of heroin, he suffered a collapse. He was arrested for setting fire to his hotel room and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital for eight months.

Returning to New York in 1947, Parker formed his classic quintet, withwhomhe made his most celebrated recordings. In 1948, in Tijuana, Mexico, he married Doris Sydnor. Parker was acclaimed in a 1949 tour of France. Upon returning to the United States, he separated from Sydnor and began living with Chan Richardson, who took his name. In 1951 their daughter Pree was born and in 1952 their son Baird. Despite his fame, Parker's personal life was roiled with troubles, much of his own making. In 1951 he was convicted of narcotics possession and lost his license to play in New York nightclubs. When he regained his license after two years, his unreliability made it difficult for him to get engagements. In 1954 his daughter Pree died of pneumonia; shortly afterward, Parker attempted suicide and was treated at Bellevue Hospital. Although his family found respite in rural Pennsylvania, Parker suffered from stomach ulcers, cirrhosis of the liver, and heart problems. In March, 1955, he was traveling to Boston for an engagement when he stopped by the apartment of a friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter.

Collapsing upon arrival, he died a few days later, on March 12, of lobar pneumonia because of visceral congestion. His death was a shock to the jazz world: "Bird Lives" graffiti appeared throughout New York City. The Music When Parker arrived in New York City in 1939, he was poised for a musical breakthrough, and so was jazz. He achieved an unprecedented mastery over the alto saxophone, rooted in the Kansas City blues tradition with its infectious beat. His hero was the tenor saxophonist of the Count Basie band, Lester Young,whoimpressed other musicians with his relaxed, languorous sense of rhythm. From Young, Parker was inspired to play with little vibrato and to strive, as he put it, for the "clean" and "pretty" articulation of notes. Playing the Imagination. Parker recounted his musical epiphany in New York in a September 9, 1949, Down Beat interview.Hewas playing the song "Cherokee" in Dan Wall's Chili House in Harlem in December, 1939, when he realized that by using the higher intervals of a chord as the melody line, and backing them with related chord progressions, he could "play this thing he'd been hearing" in his imagination.

Alyn Shipton in A New History of Jazz explains that Parker learned to employ melodic lines emphasizing notes from the upper triads of such extended chords as ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths, combining them with dissonant intervals obtained from substituting chords such as augmented fourths and major sevenths. At the time, big band musicians such as Gillespie, Coleman Hawkins, Kenny Clarke, Charlie Christian, Thelonious Monk, Jimmy Blanton, and Art Tatum were experimenting with similar ideas in after-hours jam sessions in Harlem's music clubs, such as Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House. Not performing for a swing audience, they were free to veer from a danceable melody to explore the chord progressions underlying the song. They practiced in small units in which the rhythm section of drum, piano, and bass could freely interact with the front-line horn section. They sped up tempi, introduced angular melodies and novel harmonies, and experimented with intervals that created dissonant sounds, which bop musicians called flattened fifths. Parker synthesized these disparate elements and brought them to a new level with his impeccable phrasing and overwhelming rhythmic drive. He could play any note within the chord change and with his blues feel achieve a soaring, free harmonic.

With his lightning-quick technique, Parker defined the rapid-fire, heavily accented rhythms that gave rise to the onomatopoeic name bebop. Classic Quintets. Parker and Gillespie exploded onto the jazz scene in 1945. Playing in the jazz clubs of New York's legendary Fifty-second Street, such as the Three Deuces, the Parker-Gillespie Quintet dazzled audiences with high-speed unison playing of the complex, linear melodies of bop. From 1945 to 1947, they recorded such bop classics as the highly syncopated and unpredictable "Shaw 'Nuff", the intricate "Salt Peanuts", the twelve-bar blues "Now's the Time", and the dizzyingly fast "Ko Ko". In other quintessential bop recordings, such as "Hot House", "Confirmation", "Billie's Bounce", "Ornithology", "Yardbird Suite", and a live version of "Lady Be Good", Parker's improvised solos show an almost endless variety of melodic and harmonic inventiveness. Parker often played the tempo in double time, occasionally quadruple time, his improvisations brimming with clearly articulated sixteenth, thirty-second, and even sixty-fourth notes. Returning in 1947 toNew York from his troubled stay in California, Parker formed his classic quintet with Miles Davis on trumpet, Duke Jordan on piano, Tommy Potter on bass, and Max Roach on drums.

The Parker Quintet recorded some of Parker's most lyrical and imaginative music for the Dial and Savoy labels, such as "Parker's Mood", an expressive blues ballad; "Scrapple from the Apple", in which Parker creatively interprets the chord changes; and "Embraceable You", in which he improvises his own six-note motive, which he recasts in astonishing variations in eight wellintegrated measures. In 1949 Parker recorded some of his best live sessions at Birdland, the club named for him, spurred on by the young trumpeter Fats Navarro,whodueled with Parker in high-speed exchanges. Jazz at Massey Hall. On May 15, 1953, Parker's appearance for a live concert at Toronto's Massey Hall, with fellow bop founders Gillespie, drummer Roach, bassist Charles Mingus, and pianist Bud Powell, had an inauspicious beginning. Parker needed to borrow a plastic saxophone. He played under the name Charlie Chan because of contractual obligations to the Verve label. The auditorium was only a quarter full. Nevertheless, Parker and the quintet played some of the most sensational music of their illustrious careers. The Massey Hall concert epitomizes Parker's career in the 1950's. Feeling constrained by the parameters of the bop music he had pioneered, he spoke of studying classical music and of collaborating with Igor Stravinsky and B?la Bart?k.

His abilities declining, his life made chaotic by his addictions, banned at times from playing at Birdland, he was yet able to produce some of his most engaging and enticing music. Recording almost exclusively with producer Norman Granz, Parker was featured on albums with big bands playing string, Latin American, Afro- Cuban, and Cole Porter music. Parker elevated any setting with his passionate, singing saxophone. "Just Friends". His recording of the popular standard "Just Friends", from the album Charlie Parker with Strings, was his best-selling recording. After a lush string introduction, Parker lays down a double-time flurry of seemingly unrelated notes that quickly resolves into a poignant, syncopated variation of the melody, followed by an ornamented and flowing improvisation. Musical Legacy As Martin Williams explains in The Jazz Tradition, Armstrong and Parker influenced jazz history because of the rhythmic changes they introduced. Armstrong's rhythmic ideas revolved around a quarter note, Parker's around an eighth note. Armstrong's original rhythms can be heard, for example, in his 1927 Hot Five recording of "Twelfth Street Rag", in which his free, accented, and floating rhythms transcend the conventions of the rag. In a sense, Parker picked up where Armstrong left off, as can be heard on the Massey Hall recording of "Night in Tunisia".

Parker and Gillespie begin with rhythmically varied ensemble playing. After an explosive four-bar bridge, Parker plays a threechorus solo that begins with a torrent of quick notes before settling into sustained longer notes with a bluesy feel. Parker's rhythmic originality is evident from his shifting pattern of accents on the strong and weak beats of the measure. Just as Armstrong transformed the polyphonic music of New Orleans into the well-constructed, improvised solos of twentieth century jazz, Parker supplied the rhythmic phrasing for the chord substitutions jazzmen had been developing for decades, opening new harmonic territories for bop, cool jazz, and free jazz. Just as Armstrong's career was best understood in light of his exuberant New Orleans roots, Parker's legacy recalled the dynamism of the 1930's Kansas City blues tradition. Although bop opened jazz to new chord substitutions, intervals, and dissonances, Parker infused all of his music-his compositions, his ensemble playing, his solos-with a blues-based lyricism. Parker was the leader of the bop movement, not for his managerial ability but for his astounding ability on saxophone and his fertile rhythmic and harmonic imagination. Dying from exhaustion brought on by a frenetic lifestyle and addictions to narcotics and alcohol, Parker would pass not only into jazz mythology but also into popular culture, as an icon who sacrificed all for his music.