Personalities | Charlie Parker | Forties | Jazz & Blues

Charlie Parker, also known as ‘Yardbird’ or ‘Bird’, was a largely self-taught musical genius with acute self-destructive tendencies. His career exemplified both the creative power and the destructive social ethos of bebop. His music burned as brightly as any in jazz, but his lifestyle sent out the wrong message to too many young musicians, despite his frequent warnings to stay away from drugs.

Louis Armstrong had begun the evolution of jazz from an ensemble’s to a soloist’s music two decades earlier, but bebop brought that process to fruition and Parker was its supreme exponent. His influence was all-pervasive and continues to be so on contemporary musicians, affecting not only saxophonists, but players on every instrument.

Forging The New Sound

Parker was born in Kansas City on 29 August 1920. His was not a musical family, and no one was ever sure of the provenance of his remarkable gift. As a child he was spoilt by his mother, and this would remain evident in his behaviour throughout his brief adult life. Parker was quick-thinking and intelligent, but had little time for his academic studies, often playing truant from high school. However, it so happened that the study of music was greatly encouraged at his school, and he took up the baritone saxophone, before persuading his mother to scrape enough money together to present him with an alto sax.

Parker preferred the melodic tone and flexibility of the alto, and as his father was barely in the picture and his mother worked long hours, the unsupervised teenaged Charlie began to frequent the Kansas City jazz clubs. He played in the city’s famous jam sessions, picking up basic harmony lessons from local musicians such as pianist Bill Channing and saxophonist Tommy Douglas, and made remarkable progress after suffering some early slights from established players. His lack of musical learning meant that, while technically brilliant, he knew little of the surrounding theory, such as the different keys. Moreover, he was apt to bend the rules of what he did know, so that his approach to chord changes and improvisation did not always find favour with the other musicians. Always ahead of his time musically, Parker found this intensely frustrating. Another source of inspiration was Lester Young and Charlie wore out his records, studying Young’s eccentric rhythmic experimentation and finely crafted melodic phrasing.

Heading For Harlem

At the age of 15, Parker was married, with his wife expecting their first child; he was already playing professionally and the inevitable wanderlust set in. He left Kansas City for New York in 1937 and found work in the kitchen of a Harlem club where pianist Art Tatum performed; from Tatum he assimilated the creative use of musical quotation. It was around this time that the ‘Bird’ moniker began to stick. Summoned back to Kansas City for his father’s funeral the same year, Parker joined Jay McShann’s band, which was basically a blues orchestra, albeit one with vaguely modernist leanings. Continuing to work...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz & Blues, founding editor Howard Mandel


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