Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Parker, Charlie

Saxophonist Charlie Parker was a reckless virtuoso, whose music embodies the contradictions of the man. He demonstrated complete control of his horn, even as his personal life spun out of control. He was an intellectual who seldom talked about music. An addict who would steal or con for a fix, he was beloved by friends and family. The messianic devotion he still inspires is evidence of the enduring value of his achievements.

                                         The Open Door Quartet, artwork by Michael Symonds

Charlie “Bird” Parker was born on August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas. He moved across the state line to the larger metropolis of Kansas City, Missouri, and played the baritone horn in high school before switching to the alto saxophone in late 1933 or 1934. With no formal training, Parker gained skill playing unpaid gigs and jam sessions in Kansas City’s round-the-clock bars and nightclubs. By sixteen he was experimenting with drugs, and at seventeen he used heroin.

Parker spent the summer of 1937 with the band of George E. Lee at a summer resort in the Ozark Mountains. Away from city life, Parker studied harmony with guitarist Efferge Ware, and listened to records by Count Basie, learning Lester Young’s tenor saxophone solos by heart. Returning to Kansas City, pianist Jay McShann introduced Parker to Buster Smith, an older saxophonist who became his mentor and a model for his early style of melodic improvisation.

In 1939, Parker hoboed to New York City to try his luck. After only a few months he returned to Kansas City, where he joined McShann’s band. With McShann, Parker made his first commercial recordings in April of 1941. The band cut several sides in Dallas for Decca, including two tracks—“Swingmatism” and “Hootie Blues”— which include Parker solos.

In January of 1942, McShann’s band made its debut at New York’s Savoy Ballroom. Trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, who first met Parker passing through Kansas City in early 1939, sat in with the band. The two become inseparable companions, and jam together at after-hours sessions in Harlem. Parker makes up his mind to stay in New York after he was conveniently fired by McShann for unreliability and drug use.

Parker and Gillespie were hired to play together with pianist Earl Hines, and later in the band of singer Billy Eckstine. Both Hines and Eckstine are now credited for helping create an ideal environment in which forward-looking young musicians, like Parker and Gillespie, could develop their own style of improvisation. This style soon came to be known as “bebop,” taking its onomatopoeic name from a Gillespie composition.

After leaving Eckstine in August of 1944, Parker returned to New York City, where he worked along 52nd street, first with tenor saxophonist Ben Webster at the Onyx club. Parker and Gillespie continue to jam together whenever possible. In March of 1945, Gillespie assembled a quintet with Parker that held several long engagements at the Three Deuces on 52nd street. This group recorded twice for Guild, cutting sides that laid the foundation for bebop’s new style of linear improvisation: “Dizzy Atmosphere,” “All The Things You Are,” “Shaw ‘Nuff,” “Salt Peanuts,” Groovin’ High” and “Hot House.”

Parker got his own chance to record as a leader in November of 1945. Gillespie joined him to record “Ko Ko,” which becomes one of Parker’s most recognizable and influential recordings. Based on “Cherokee,” a popular tune of the day, “Ko Ko” embodies Parker’s mature style as a soloist, with its long, lightning-fast lines and use of a chord’s higher harmonies in improvisation. This recording has been named one of the 100 most important American musical recordings of the 20th Century by National Public Radio and the Library of Congress.

Parker and Gillespie traveled to California in late 1945 for an eight-week engagement in Los Angeles. Their debut on December 10, 1945 was the first opportunity for many West Coast jazz fans to hear Parker and Gillespie’s music. Parker also performed with Jazz at the Philharmonic, a special concert organized by Norman Granz, who later founded Verve records. Lester Young, Parker’s childhood hero, was among the musicians featured in the jam-session-like performance.

When Gillespie and Parker completed their run at Billy Berg’s nightclub in February of 1946, Gillespie returns to New York, leaving a drug-addled Parker behind. Parker signs an exclusive contract to record for Ross Russell’s new Dial label, and went into the studio on March 28, 1946.

Suffering from withdrawal from heroin, Parker was barely able to play his saxophone during a session for Dial in July. After putting down four unfocussed tracks, Parker leaves the studio. That night, a fire in his hotel room results in his arrest. He is committed to Camarillo State Hospital, where he receives treatment for his drug use and his deteriorated physical condition.

Parker was released from Camarillo in January of 1947, feeling refreshed and renewed. He decides to return to New York in April and begins the most stable and productive period of his musical life. He soon makes records for both Savoy and Dial, with a working quintet that includes trumpeter Miles Davis, drummer Max Roach, bassist Tommy Potter and pianist Duke Jordan. At the end of 1948, Parker makes his last records for Savoy and begins recording almost exclusively for Norman Granz.

In May of 1949, Parker traveled to Paris, where he meets classical saxophonist Marcel Mule and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Parker later tells Downbeat magazine that he would like to return to Paris to study classical composition.

Parker’s interest in classical music was not new. While traveling with Eckstine’s band, he studied scores by Igor Stravinsky, and quoted the opening melody of his The Rite of Spring in solos. Inspired to blur the boundaries between jazz and classical music, Parker records an entire album backed by a full string section. In November 1949, Parker also recorded the single that was his biggest commercial hit, “Just Friends.”

In December of 1949, Parker performed at the opening of Birdland, a new club in New York named in his honor. Soon after, Parker broke up his regular working quintet and began appearing on his own in the US and abroad.

Still plagued by heroin addiction, Parker was arrested for narcotics possession at the end of 1950. Police revoke his “cabaret card,” the era’s all-important permit to play in New York City nightclubs. Parker is left unable to work in jazz capital, even in the club that bears his name, He tours on his own through 1951 and 1952. After several failed attempts, Parker’s cabaret card is finally restored in 1953.

While Parker did achieve a degree of domestic tranquility with his third wife, Chan, this happiness was shattered when their daughter, Pree, died unexpectedly on March 6, 1954. Parker was heartbroken by her death, and swallows iodine in August in an attempt to commit suicide. In poor physical and mental health, Parker appeared for the last time in public on March 5, 1955 at Birdland.

After a life of drug and alcohol abuse, Parker died on March 12, 1955 while watching the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Show on television at the Upper East Side home of jazz patron and longtime friend Baroness Pannonica de Koenig water. The coroner’s report, citing his body’s signs of long-term alcohol and drug abuse, estimated Parker’s age at around sixty. In fact, he was 34.

Despite his brief and disorganized career, Parker remains one of the most inspiring and intriguing musicians in jazz. One can only imagine what he would have achieved if he had escaped his demons. The depth and fluidity of his playing remain nearly unparalleled, and his solos are fresh to the ear over fifty years after his death. In one of the few comments he ever made about his playing, Parker summed up his approach as just “playing clean and looking for the pretty notes.” This simple statement does surprising justice to his music.

Contributor: Darren Mueller