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Birth name Charles Parker, Jr.
Also known as
Zoizeau (in France)
August 29, 1920
Kansas City, Kansas, USA
Origin Kansas City, Missouri, USA
March 12, 1955 (aged 34)
New York City, New York, USA
Genres Jazz, bebop
Occupations Saxophonist, composer
Instruments Alto saxophone, tenor saxophone
Years active 1937–1955
Labels Savoy, Dial, Verve
Website Official Site
Buescher, Conn, King and Grafton alto saxophones.
Charles Parker, Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955), famously called Bird, or Yardbird
was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.
Parker, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, is widely considered one of the most
influential of jazz musicians. Parker acquired the nickname "Yardbird" early in his career, and
the shortened form "Bird" remained Parker's sobriquet for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles
of a number of Parker compositions, such as "Yardbird Suite", "Ornithology" and "Bird of
Parker played a leading role in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast
tempos, virtuoso technique, and improvisation based on harmonic structure. Parker's innovative
approaches to melody, rhythm, and harmony exercised enormous influence on his
contemporaries. Several of Parker's songs have become standards, including "Billie's Bounce",
"Anthropology", "Ornithology", and "Confirmation". He introduced revolutionary harmonic
ideas including a tonal vocabulary employing 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords, rapidly implied
passing chords, and new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean
and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. Although many Parker recordings
demonstrate dazzling virtuosic technique and complex melodic lines – such as "Ko-Ko", "Kim",
and "Leap Frog" – he was also one of the great blues players. His themeless blues improvisation
"Parker's Mood" represents one of the most deeply affecting recordings in jazz. At various times,
Parker fused jazz with other musical styles, from classical to Latin music, blazing paths followed
later by others.
Parker was an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat generation, personifying the
conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than just a
popular entertainer. His style – from a rhythmic, harmonic and soloing perspective – influenced
countless peers on every instrument.
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, the only
child of Charles and Addie Parker. Charles, an alcoholic, was often absent. Parker attended
Lincoln High School. He enrolled in September 1934 and withdrew in December 1935 about
the time he joined the local Musicians Union.
Parker displayed no sign of musical talent as a child. His father presumably provided some
musical influence; he was a pianist, dancer and singer on the T.O.B.A. circuit, although he later
became a Pullman waiter or chef on the railways. His mother worked nights at the local Western
Union. His biggest influence however was a young trombone player who taught him the basics
Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11 and at age 14 joined his school's band using a
rented school instrument. One story holds that, without formal training, he was terrible, and
thrown out of the band. Experiencing periodic setbacks of this sort, at one point he
broke off from his constant practicing.
 Early career
It has been said that, in early 1936, Parker participated in a 'cutting contest' that included Jo
Jones on drums, who tossed a cymbal at Parker's feet in impatience with his playing. However,
in the numerous interviews throughout his life, Jones made no mention of this incident.
Exasperated and determined, in any case, at this time Parker improved the quality of practicing,
learning the blues, "Cherokee" and "rhythm changes" in all twelve keys. In this wood-shedding
period, Parker mastered improvisation and developed some of the ideas of be-bop. In an
interview with Paul Desmond, he said he spent 3–4 years practicing up to 15 hours a day.
Rumor has it that he used to play many other tunes in all twelve keys. The story, though
undocumented, would help to explain the fact that he often played in unconventional concert
pitch key signatures, like E (which transposes to C# for the alto sax).
Groups led by Count Basie and Bennie Moten were the leading Kansas City ensembles, and
undoubtedly influenced Parker. He continued to play with local bands in jazz clubs around
Kansas City, Missouri, where he perfected his technique with the assistance of Buster Smith,
whose dynamic transitions to double and triple time certainly influenced Parker's developing
In 1938, Parker joined pianist Jay McShann's territory band. The band toured nightclubs and
other venues of the southwest, as well as Chicago and New York City. Parker made his
professional recording debut with McShann's band. It was said at one point in McShann's band
that he "sounded like a machine", owing to his highly virtuosic yet nonetheless musical
As a teenager, Parker developed a morphine addiction while in hospital after an automobile
accident, and subsequently became addicted to heroin. Heroin would haunt him throughout his
life and ultimately contribute to his death.
 New York City
In 1939, Parker moved to New York City. There he pursued a career in music, but held several
other jobs as well. He worked for $9 a week as a dishwasher at Jimmie's Chicken Shack where
pianist Art Tatum performed. Parker's later style in some ways recalled Tatum's, with dazzling,
high-speed arpeggios and sophisticated use of harmony.
In 1942, Parker left McShann's band and played with Earl Hines for one year. Also in the band
was trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, which is where the soon to be famous duo met for the first
time. Unfortunately, this period is virtually undocumented because of the strike of 1942–1943 by
the American Federation of Musicians, during which no official recordings were made.
Nevertheless, we know that Parker joined a group of young musicians in after-hours clubs in
Harlem such as Clark Monroe's Uptown House and (to a much lesser extent) Minton's
Playhouse. These young iconoclasts included Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, guitarist
Charlie Christian, and drummer Kenny Clarke. The beboppers' attitude was summed up in a
famous quotation attributed to Monk by Mary Lou Williams: "We wanted a music that they
couldn't play" – "they" being the (white) bandleaders who had taken over and profited
from swing music. The group played in venues on 52nd Street including the Three Deuces and
The Onyx. In his time in New York City, Parker also learned much from notable music teacher
Portrait of Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, and Max Roach, Three Deuces, New
York, NY. Photography by William P. Gottlieb.
According to an interview Parker gave in the 1950s, one night in 1939, he was playing
"Cherokee" in a jam session with guitarist William 'Biddy' Fleet when he hit upon a method for
developing his solos that enabled him to play what he had been hearing in his head for some
time, by building on the chords' extended intervals, such as ninths, elevenths, and
thirteenths. Still with McShann's orchestra, Parker at this time realized that the twelve
tones of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key, breaking some of the confines of
simpler jazz soloing.
Early in its development, this new type of jazz was rejected by many of the established,
traditional jazz musicians who disdained their younger counterparts with comments like Eddie
Condon's putdown: "They flat their fifths, we drink ours." The beboppers, in response, called
these traditionalists "moldy figs". However, some musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins and
Benny Goodman, were more positive about its development, and participated in jam sessions and
recording dates in the new approach with its adherents.
Because of the 2-year Musicians' Union recording ban on all commercial recordings from 1942
to 1944 (part of a struggle to get royalties from record sales for a union fund for out-of-work
musicians), much of bebop's early development was not captured for posterity. As a result, the
new musical concepts only gained limited radio exposure. Bebop musicians had a difficult time
gaining widespread recognition. It was not until 1945, when the recording ban was lifted, that
Parker's collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and others had a
substantial effect on the jazz world. One of their first (and greatest) small-group performances
together was rediscovered and issued in 2005: a concert in New York's Town Hall on June 22,
1945. Bebop began to grab hold and gain wider appeal among musicians and fans alike.
On November 26, 1945, Parker led a record date for the Savoy label, marketed as the "greatest
Jazz session ever." The tracks recorded during this session include "Ko-Ko" (based on the chords
of "Cherokee"), "Now's the Time" (a twelve bar blues incorporating a riff later used in the late
1949 R&B dance hit "The Hucklebuck"), "Billie's Bounce", and "Thriving on a Riff".
Shortly afterwards, the Parker/Gillespie band traveled to an unsuccessful engagement at Billy
Berg's club in Los Angeles. Most of the group returned to New York, but Parker remained in
California, cashing in his return ticket to buy heroin. He experienced great hardship in
California, eventually being committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital for a six month
Parker's addiction to heroin, which began in his late teens, caused him to miss gigs and to be
fired for being high. To satisfy his habit, he frequently resorted to busking on the streets for drug
money, receiving loans from fellow musicians/admirers, pawning his own horn and borrowing
other sax players' instruments as a result. Parker's situation was typical of the strong connection
between drug abuse and jazz at the time.
Although he produced many brilliant recordings during this period, Parker's behavior became
increasingly erratic due to his habit. Heroin was difficult to obtain after he moved to California
for a short time where the drug was less abundant, and Parker began to drink heavily to
compensate for this. A recording for the Dial label from July 29, 1946, provides evidence of his
condition. Prior to this session, Parker drank about a quart of whiskey. According to the liner
notes of Charlie Parker on Dial Volume 1, Parker missed most of the first two bars of his first
chorus on the track, "Max Making Wax." When he finally did come in, he swayed wildly and
once spun all the way around, going badly off mic. On the next tune, "Lover Man", producer
Ross Russell physically supported Parker in front of the microphone. On "Bebop" (the final track
Parker recorded that evening) he begins a solo with a solid first eight bars. On his second eight
bars, however, Parker begins to struggle, and a desperate Howard McGhee, the trumpeter on this
session, shouts, "Blow!" at Parker. McGhee's bellow is audible on the recording. Charles Mingus
considered this version of "Lover Man" to be among Parker's greatest recordings despite its
flaws. Nevertheless, Parker hated the recording and never forgave Ross Russell for releasing
the sub-par performance (and re-recorded the tune in 1951 for Verve, this time in stellar form,
but perhaps lacking some of the passionate emotion in the earlier, problematic attempt).
During the night following the "Lover Man" session, Parker was drinking in his hotel room. He
entered the hotel lobby stark naked on several occasions and asked to use the phone, but was
refused on each attempt. The hotel manager eventually locked him in his room. At some point
during the night, he set fire to his mattress with a cigarette, then ran through the hotel lobby
wearing only his socks. He was arrested and committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital,
where he remained for six months.
Coming out of the hospital, Parker was initially clean and healthy, and proceeded to do some of
the best playing and recording of his career. Before leaving California, he recorded "Relaxin' at
Camarillo", in reference to his hospital stay. He returned to New York – and his addiction – and
recorded dozens of sides for the Savoy and Dial labels that remain some of the high points of his
recorded output. Many of these were with his so-called "classic quintet" including trumpeter
Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach. The highlights of these sessions include a series of
slower-tempo performances of American popular songs including "Embraceable You" and "Bird
of Paradise" (based on "All the Things You Are").
 Charlie Parker with strings
A longstanding desire of Parker's was to perform with a string section. He was a keen student of
classical music, and contemporaries reported he was most interested in the music and formal
innovations of Igor Stravinsky, and longed to engage in a project akin to what later became
known as 'Third Stream Music', a new kind of music, incorporating both jazz and classical
elements as opposed to merely incorporating a string section into performance of jazz standards.
On November 30, 1949, Norman Granz arranged for Parker to record an album of ballads with a
mixed group of jazz and chamber orchestra musicians. Six master takes from this session
comprised the album Bird With Strings: "Just Friends", "Everything Happens to Me", "April in
Paris", "Summertime", "I Didn't Know What Time It Was", and "If I Should Lose You". The
sound of these recordings is rare in Parker's catalog. Parker's improvisations are, relative to his
usual work, more distilled and economical. His tone is darker and softer than on his small-group
recordings, and the majority of his lines are beautiful embellishments on the original melodies
rather than harmonically based improvisations. These are among the few recordings Parker made
during a brief period when he was able to control his heroin habit, and his sobriety and clarity of
mind are evident in his playing. Parker stated that, of his own records, Bird With Strings was his
favorite. Although using classical music instrumentation with jazz musicians was not entirely
original, this was the first major work where a composer of bebop was matched with a string
Some fans thought it was a "sell out" and a pandering to popular tastes. Time demonstrated
Parker's move a wise one: Charlie Parker with Strings sold better than his other releases, and his
version of "Just Friends" is seen[by whom?] as one of his best performances. In an interview, he
considered it to be his best recording to that date.
Right side view of a Conn 6M "Lady Face" alto sax with highly distinctive underslung octave
key, a model that Parker is known to have used.  
By 1950, much of the jazz world had fallen under Parker's spell. Many musicians transcribed and
copied his solos. Legions of saxophonists imitated his playing note-for-note. In response to these
pretenders, Parker's admirer, the bass player Charles Mingus, titled a tune "Gunslinging Bird"
(meaning "If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there would be a whole lot of dead copycats")
featured on the album Mingus Dynasty. In this regard, he is perhaps only comparable to Louis
Armstrong: both men set the standard for their instruments for decades, and few escaped their
In 1953, Parker performed at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, joined by Gillespie, Mingus, Bud
Powell and Max Roach. Unfortunately, the concert clashed with a televised heavyweight boxing
match between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott and as a result was poorly attended.
Thankfully, Mingus recorded the concert, and the album Jazz at Massey Hall is often cited[by
as one of the finest recordings of a live jazz performance, with the saxophonist credited as
"Charlie Chan" for contractual reasons.
At this concert, he played a plastic Grafton saxophone (serial number 10265);[unreliable source?]
later, saxophonist Ornette Coleman used this brand of plastic sax in his early career. Parker had
sold his alto saxophone to buy drugs, and at the last minute, he, Dizzy Gillespie and other
members of Charlie's entourage went running around Toronto trying to find Parker a saxophone.
After scouring all the downtown pawnshops open at the time, they were only able to find a
Grafton, which Parker proceeded to use at the concert that night.
Parker was known for often showing up to performances without an instrument, necessitating a
loan at the last moment. There are various photos that show him playing a Conn 6M saxophone,
a high quality instrument that was noted for having a very fast action[unreliable source?]and a
unique "underslung" octave key.[unreliable source?]
Some of the photographs showing Parker with a Conn 6M were taken on separate occasions.
[unreliable source?] [unreliable source?]
because Parker can be seen wearing different clothing and
there are different backgrounds. However, other photos exist that show Parker holding alto
saxophones with a more conventional octave key arrangement, i.e. mounted above the crook of
the saxophone [unreliable source?] e.g. the Martin Handicraft[unreliable source?] and Selmer Model
22[unreliable source?] saxophones, among others. Parker is also known to have performed with a
King 'Super 20' saxophone, with a semi-underslung octave key that bears some resemblance to
those fitted on modern Yanagisawa instruments. Parker's King Super 20 saxophone was made
specially for him in 1947.
Parker's grave at Lincoln Cemetery.
Parker died in the suite of his friend and patron Nica de Koenigswarter at the Stanhope Hotel in
New York City while watching The Dorsey Brothers' Stage Show on television. The official
causes of death were lobar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer but Parker also had an advanced case
of cirrhosis of the liver and had had a heart attack. Any one of the four ailments could have killed
him. The coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker's 34-year-old body
to be between 50 and 60 years of age.
It was well known that Parker never wanted to return to Kansas City, even in death.
Parker had told his common-law wife, Chan, that he didn’t want to be buried in the city of his
birth; that New York was his home and he didn’t want any fuss or memorials when he died. At
the time of his death, though, he hadn’t divorced his previous wife Doris, nor had he officially
married Chan, which left Parker in the rather awkward post-mortem situation of having two
widows, a scenario that muddied the issue of next of kin and would ultimately serve to frustrate
his wish to be quietly interred in his adopted hometown. Dizzy Gillespie was able to co-opt the
funeral arrangements that Chan had been putting together and coordinated a ‘lying-in-state’, a
Harlem procession officiated by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and a memorial concert before flying
Parker's body back to Missouri to be buried there per his mother's wishes. Parker was buried at
Lincoln Cemetery, 8604 E. Truman Road, Kansas City, Missouri.
Charlie Parker was survived by both his legal wife, Doris Parker (née Doris June Snyder, August
16, 1922 – January 17, 2000), and his partner, Chan; a stepdaughter, Kim Parker, who is also a
musician; and a son, Baird Parker; their later lives are chronicled in Chan Parker's
autobiography, My Life in E Flat.
 Musical approach
Parker's style of composition involved interpolation of original melodies over pre-existing jazz
forms and standards, a practice still common in jazz today. Examples include "Ornithology"
("How High The Moon") and "Yardbird Suite" ("What Price Love"). The practice was not
uncommon prior to bebop; however, it became a signature of the movement as artists began to
move away from arranging popular standards and began to compose their own material.
While tunes such as "Now's The Time", "Billie's Bounce", and "Cool Blues" were based on
conventional 12-bar blues changes, Parker also created a unique version of the 12-bar blues for
his tune "Blues for Alice". These unique chords are known popularly as "Bird Changes".[citation
Like his solos, some of his compositions are characterized by long, complex melodic lines
and a minimum of repetition although he did employ the use of repetitive (yet relatively
rhythmically complex) motifs in many other tunes as well, most notably "Now's The Time".
Parker also contributed a vast rhythmic vocabulary to the modern jazz solo, one in which triplets
and pick-up notes were used in (then) unorthodox ways to lead into chord tones, affording the
soloist with more freedom to use passing tones, which soloists would have previously avoided.
Within this context, Parker was admired for his unique style of phrasing and innovative use of
rhythm. Via his recordings and the popularity of the posthumously published Charlie Parker
Omnibook, Parker's uniquely identifiable vocabulary of "licks" and "riffs" dominated jazz for
many years to come. Today his concepts and ideas are transcribed, studied, and analyzed by a
great deal of jazz students and are part of any player's basic jazz vocabulary.