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 Charlie “Bird” Parker

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Charlie “Bird” Parker

Jazz Musician. Regarded by many as the most influential figure in modern jazz, he began his career playing alto saxophone (as well as clarinet, which he disliked intensely and would not continue with after he became prominent) for various bands in his native Kansas City territory during the late 1930s and early 1940s, most notably the group led by pianist Jay McShann. While traveling to an engagement in Lincoln, Nebraska, McShann's bus hit and killed a chicken, prompting Parker to scream at the bus driver to "go back there and pick up that yardbird," intending to eat the fowl for dinner; from that point on, Parker acquired the nickname "Yardbird", often shortened to "Bird". Unfortunately, following an auto accident while traveling with another band, he acquired something else that would be with him for the rest of his life: an addiction to narcotics. In 1942, he decided to seek greater success in the larger New York City market, leaving behind his Kansas City wife, Addie, whom he never legally divorced. Ironically, Charlie Parker's first employment in New York was as a dishwasher, albeit in a restaurant where the legendary pianist Art Tatum played, influencing Parker to move from the cliché-ridden "head arrangement" forms of the Kansas City swing style to a more virtuosic mode. By the end of 1942, he had a regular position with jazz great Earl "Fatha" Hines, and in 1943 he joined Billy Eckstine's popular band. It was during this period, while working with trumpet player and bandmate Dizzy Gillespie and, perhaps not coincidentally, doing no recording because of a musicians union strike, that Parker, Gillespie, and other musicians like pianist Bud Powell and drummer Max Roach began to carve out the signature features of the new jazz style that would come to be known as "bebop". Though jazz had always been an improvisational style, he and his collaborators, who often met for informal jam sessions at Minton's, an after-hours club in Harlem, took the music's individualistic aspects to new levels, demanding technical excellence of each other that was not typical of even the best swing bands. Perhaps the most defining characteristic of the new style, and the innovation most associated with Charlie Parker, was the expansion of jazz harmony away from basic "triads" to more expanded forms using the upper extensions of chords. Among the best known of his recordings were his own composition "Koko" (the first bebop piece to garner widespread critical attention for its harmonic innovations), the Dizzy Gillespie piece "A Night in Tunisia" (featuring an alto saxophone break that exemplified Parker's amazing technique), as well as the ballads "Embraceable You" (whose melody was rendered beautifully unrecognizable by Parker's improvisations), "Parker's Mood", and "Lover Man". Though his work was generally held in high regard by jazz aficionados and fellow musicians, with the exception of some conservative bandleaders like Cab Calloway and Eddie Condon, his commercial appeal was limited by the complexity of his work which the average listener had a hard time following. Also limiting his material success was his growing unreliability precipitated by an increasing dependence on heroin. In 1946, following a crackdown on the narcotics traffic in Los Angeles while he was in residence there, Parker had a psychotic break and was hospitalized in Camarillo State Hospital for six months. Though he would recover from this incident, recording the great piece "Relaxing at Camarillo" to commemorate the period and doing well-regarded work with a classically oriented string section (including a memorable performance of "Just Friends"), impresarios became increasingly reluctant to employ him, and he suffered the dubious distinction of being an unqualified living legend who had difficulty getting work for the bulk of his career and was often reduced to playing on a cheap plastic saxophone, albeit often to great effect. Upon his death in 1955 (which saw a coroner estimate his age at 60 instead of his actual age of 34), his body was interred in Kansas City's segregated Lincoln Cemetery over the objections of Chan Parker who had been living as the saxophonist's wife. His amazing influence over the jazz small groups of the 1940s and 1950s is perhaps best summed up by the title of a piece by Charles Mingus: "If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats".

Bio by: Stuthehistoryguy


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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Added: 31 Dec 2000
  • Find A Grave Memorial 1426
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for Charlie “Bird” Parker (29 Aug 1920–12 Mar 1955), Find A Grave Memorial no. 1426, citing Lincoln Cemetery, Kansas City, Jackson County, Missouri, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .