Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker

Charlie Parker was one of the most influential improvising soloists in jazz, and a central figure in the development of bop in the 1940s. A legendary figure in his own lifetime, he was idolized by those who worked with him, and he inspired a generation of jazz performers and composers.

Parker was the only child of Charles and Addle Parker. In 1927, the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, an important center of African-American music in the 1920s and 1930s. Parker had his first music lessons in the local public schools; he began playing alto saxophone in 1933 and worked occasionally in semi-professional groups before leaving school in 1935 to become a full-time musician. 

From 1935 to 1939, he worked mainly in Kansas City with a wide variety of local blues and jazz groups. Like most jazz musicians of his time, he developed his craft largely through practical experience: listening to older local jazz masters, acquiring a traditional repertory, and learning through the process of trial and error in the competitive Kansas City bands and jam sessions.

Photograph by Herman Leonard
In 1939 Parker first visited New York (then the principal center of jazz musical and business activity), staying for nearly a year. Although he worked only sporadically as a professional musician, he often participated in jam sessions. By his own later account, he was bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used then. He said, “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else…. I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.” While working over at the Cherokee in a jam session with the guitarist Biddy Fleet, Parker suddenly found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes he could play what he had been “hearing.” Yet, it was not until 1944-5 that his conceptions of rhythm and phrasing had evolved sufficiently to form his mature style.

Parker’s name first appeared in the music press in 1940, and from this date his career is more fully documented. From 1940 to 1942 he played in Jay McShann’s band, with which he toured the Southwest, Chicago, and New York, and took part in his first recording sessions in Dallas (1941). These recordings, and several made for broadcasting from the same period, document his early, swing-based style, and at the same time reveal his extraordinary gift for improvisation. In December 1942, he joined Earl Hines’ big band, which then included several other young modernists such as Dizzy Gillespie. By May 1944 they, with Parker, formed the nucleus of Billy Eckstine’s band.

During these years, Parker regularly participated in after-hours jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House in New York, where the informal atmosphere and small groups favored the development of his personal style and of the new bop music generally. Unfortunately, a strike by the American Federation of Musicians silenced most of the recording industry from August 1942, causing this crucial stage in Parker’s musical evolution to remain virtually undocumented. Though there are some obscure acetate recordings of him playing tenor saxophone dating from early 1943. When the recording ban ended, Parker recorded as a sideman (from September 15, 1944) and as a leader (from November 26, 1945), which introduced his music to a wider public and to other musicians.

The year 1945 marked a turning point in Parker’s career: in New York he led his own group for the first time and worked extensively with Gillespie in small ensembles. In December 1945, he and Gillespie took the new jazz style to Hollywood, where they fulfilled a six-week nightclub engagement. Parker continued to work in Los Angeles, recording and performing in concerts and nightclubs, until June 29, 1946, when a nervous breakdown and addiction to heroin and alcohol caused his confinement at the Camarillo State Hospital. He was released in January 1947 and resumed work in Los Angeles.

Parker returned to New York in April 1947. He formed a quintet (withMiles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach) that recorded many of his most famous pieces. The years from 1941 to 1951 were Parker’s most fertile period. He worked in a wide variety of settings (nightclubs, concerts, radio, and recording studios) with his own small ensembles, a string group, and Afro-Cuban bands, and as a guest soloist with local musicians when traveling without his own group. He visited Europe (1949 and 1950) and recorded slightly over half his surviving work. Though still beset by problems associated with drugs and alcohol, he attracted a very large following in the jazz world and enjoyed a measure of financial success.

In July 1951, Parker’s New York cabaret license was revoked at the request of the narcotics squad. This banned him from nightclub employment in the city and forced him to adopt a more peripatetic life until the license was reinstated (probably in autumn 1953). Sporadically employed, badly in debt, and in failing physical and mental health, he twice attempted suicide in 1954 and voluntarily committed himself to Bellevue Hospital in New York. His last public engagement was on March 5, 1955 at Birdland, a New York nightclub named in his honor. He died seven days later in the Manhattan apartment of his friend the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, sister of Lord Rothschild.