October 19th, 2003
Charlie Parker
About Charlie Parker

“There was one thing he wanted to do. He didn’t worry about anything else — as long as he could play that horn.”

- Jay McShann

At age eleven, he had just begun to play the saxophone. At age twenty he was leading a revolution in modern jazz music. At thirty-four, he was dead from years of drug and alcohol use. Today, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker is considered one of the great musical innovators of the 20th century. A father of bebop, he influenced generations of musicians, and sparked the fire of one of the most important and successful American artistic movements.

Born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas, Charlie Parker grew up just across the river in Kansas City, Missouri. By age twelve he was playing in the high school marching band and in local dance hall combos. It was then that he first heard the new sounds of jazz. Hanging around the Kansas City clubs, the young Parker went to hear every new musician to pass through. Some of his earliest idols were Jimmy Dorsey, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Ben Webster, and Louis Armstrong.

As a teenager he married his childhood sweetheart, Rebecca Parker Davis. Living in Kansas City, they had a child, but as Kansas City declined as a center for jazz, Parker longed to leave his hometown for New York. So, just around age twenty, Parker sold his horn, left his family, and hopped on a train to New York, where he was destined to change the face of American music forever.

In New York, Parker had difficulty finding work at first, but playing with Jay McShann’s band he began to develop his fiercely original solo style. Within a short while he was the talk of the town and Dizzy Gillespie and other members of the Earl Hines band convinced Hines to hire him. Gillespie and Parker became close friends and collaborators. Of the time Gillespie recalled, “New York is the place, and both of us blossomed.” Leaving Hines, the two moved on to Billy Eckstine’s band, where they were able to expand their range of experimentation.

The seeds of modern jazz, or “bebop,” as the new style came to be called, were also being sown by now legendary pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, drummers Kenny Clark and Max Roach, and trumpeter Miles Davis. All were frequent Parker collaborators on recordings and in the lively 52nd Street clubs that were the jazz center of the mid-1940s. Beyond his amazing technical capacity, Parker was able to invent a more complex and individual music by disregarding the four- and eight-bar standards of jazz and creating solos that were both fluid and harsh.

Though the experiments of jazz were being heard worldwide, in the United States much of the popular media ignored the music and concentrated on the culture — the berets, horn-rimmed glasses, goatees, and language that characterized the bebop style. Jazz critic Leonard Feather noted, “There was no serious attention paid to Charlie Parker as a great creative musician … in any of the media. It was just horrifying how really miserably he was treated. And this goes for the way Dizzy Gillespie was treated — and everybody.” Due in part to dissatisfaction with the amount of critical attention he was receiving and in part to his years of on and off drug use, Parker slipped into serious addiction. On a two-year tour of California, his drinking and drug addiction worsened, and for six months he was in a Los Angeles rehabilitation center.

It was not until his tour of Europe that Parker began to receive the attention he deserved. Visiting Paris in 1949, Parker was greeted with an almost cult status. His European trips also encouraged him to expand his musical arrangements, including backing strings for both touring and recording. However, as continuing personal and creative pressures mounted, he went into a tailspin: drinking, behaving erratically, and even being banned from “Birdland,” the legendary 52nd Street club named in his honor. Throughout this time, however, one thing remained intact — Parker’s playing continued to exhibit the same technical genius and emotional investment that had made him great.

In 1954, while working again in California, Parker learned of the death of his two-year-old daughter, and went into further decline. He separated from his then common-law wife, Chan Parker, and was reduced to playing in dives. The cheap red wine he had become addicted to was exacerbating his stomach ulcers, and he even once attempted suicide. On March 9, 1955, while visiting his friend, the “jazz baroness” Nica de Koenigswarter, Charlie Parker died. The coroner cited pneumonia as the cause, and estimated Parker’s age at fifty-five or sixty. He was only thirty-four. Though Parker was a titan among jazz musicians of the time, it would take the country at large years to learn that for a short while in the 1940s and 1950s one of the most profoundly original American musicians had walked among them virtually unrecognized.

  • Cassie

    Charlie Parker is da bom

  • najponk

    BIRD LIVES!!!!

  • nikaoe

    Charlie parker was cool.. and he’s choice in drugs were bad.. hugs not drugs

  • roi deich

    his music is good

  • foke lard

    Does anyone know when Bird married Rebecca Parker

  • roi deich

    they got merried in 1935

  • Marianne

    Although he was a great musician, a role model hardly. Dropped out of school, left his wife and son for New York. Drugs and alcohol abuse. Great talent gone too soon.

  • college student

    he was 15 when he got married. was adamant against drug use despite his abuse of substances. there are stories of him nearly smacking guys who were shooting up heroin so they could play like him. he stressed that it wasnt the drugs that made him play. he started on heroin as something a doctor prescribed to help him with pain.and that was 1937 i believe. its ironic that, that is actually what alot of musicians did after his death.

  • nerdy kid

    Thats awsome

  • WWGT

    I saw the story Bird , and found it quite interesting and somewhat sad.
    I never knew people were doing so much heroin back in those days.
    I guess Charlie was his own worst enemy .
    well RIP and may the music live on

  • smart dude

    Parker was a great musician.

  • Bebop Musician

    Here’s a link to some of his improv licks: http://www.learning-charlie-parker.com/licks.php

  • TIM

    This guy was a great musician, but he always got high and drank wat too much

  • Steve Turney

    My father used to talk about him to us when we were kids. I am now in my late fities, and before I knew how to throw or catch a ball, my father had us listen to Parker and many of these amzing individuals. My father was an aspiring young jazz musician who knew some of these individuals. He said one time that Parker used to come up to him and asked him for some money…but to all of us, he had a “bitch of a sound” and blazingly original…a genius!!

  • Sam

    Dear Mr. Parker, Thank you from the bottom of my soul for raising the bar for so many of us. Sincerely, Sam

  • jamaica1959

    its such a shame that racism,hate bigotry can carry a person to the depths of hell being a minority in those times was hard enough im not blaming it all on that times are hard even now its just so sad sometimes when u see a video clip of him you can see the hurt behind his eyes even though hes smiling drugs and liquar are a deadly killer sometimes things that rule you fool you he was a man before his time and a real artist long live true jazz and swing swing kids a good movie also round midnight awesome movie

  • Monk

    I’m learning to play the alto sax and I wish there where more musician like him still alive. He was a amazing man that is other then the drugs and gin.

  • djmorgan331

    I am doing my report on him and it was really helpful to me but it sucks that he took drugs if he didn’t he wouldn’t of died so early.

  • Wolf

    does any one know where he lived

  • JD

    So sad that he died so young, but he had awesome music

  • JOHNNY

    WHAT SCHOOL DID HE ATTEND ?

  • CK

    He went to Lincoln High School in Kansas City, MO.

  • robert camacho

    Just such talent, died Broke and today is the Rich LEGEND “BIRD”. Your the MAN…..

  • Robert camacho

    The MAN, DIED POOR BUT TODAY HE IS AND ALWAYS WILL BE THE RICHEST LEGEND…

  • Clark Mxyzpltk

    To Wolf, once Bird moved to New York, after a brief move back to the midwest to get his chops together, Bird spent the remainder of his brief life living all over New York City, midtown (7 West 52nd St.), Greenwich Village (Barrow Street) the Lower East Side (151 Avenue B, what became the “East Village”) and various other addresses.

Inside This Episode

  • About Charlie Parker

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