A Bird’s Life: How Charlie Parker Changed The Course Of Jazz History

·8 min read

Charlie Parker was one of the most important figures in the development of jazz and in particular Bop. He was a troubled man, with drugs and drink at the heart of his problems. He was also a genius, a man of which it can be said, without fear of contradiction, that changed the course of jazz history and created masterful songs like "Billie's Bounce."

Charles Parker Jr hailed from the jazz well that was Kansas City, Missouri, right about the same time that jazz was catching fire, in part thanks to the Harlem Renaissance in New York City. Born on August 29, 1920, to a teenage mother, Charlie by all accounts had a decent childhood, despite his father being more interested in gambling than parenting. By the time he was 14, Parker was living in the ‘jazz district’ of Kansas City and his father had left, leaving his doting mother to bring up Charlie. He was besotted with music and the life of the musicians he saw around 12th Street and Vine. Eventually, his mother scraped together enough to buy Parker a beaten up second-hand alto sax.

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A love for improvisation

By the time he was 16, Parker had withdrawn from high school and was married and playing around Kansas City wherever and whenever he could. Even this early in his career, his love of improvisation drove him. On one occasion, he tried jamming with some of Count Basie’s band. The jam session ended in humiliation when Jo Jones, Basie’s drummer, dropped his cymbal on the floor to denote that the session was over and young Charlie was rubbish. Charlie held a grudge against the Basie band forevermore.

It was probably in the summer of 1937 that he got a permanent job at a holiday resort in the Ozark Mountains where he, at last, began to master the rudiments of proper playing. The pianist with the band taught him about harmony, and Charlie listened endlessly to records to dissect the solos. Having got inside the music’s DNA, he was able to break free and become a brilliant improviser.

Sometime around the end of 1938, Parker went to Chicago. The 65 Club, like many of the clubs, had a breakfast dance at which musicians from all over town came to hang out. According to Billy Eckstine, “A guy comes up that looks like he just got off a freight car; the raggedest guy. He asks Goon Gardner. ‘Say, man, can I come up and blow your horn.’” Goon was more interested in a woman at the bar, so he just handed over his sax. According to Eckstine, “He blew the hell out of that thing. It was Charlie Parker, just come in from Kansas City.” Parker was 18 years old.

By 1940, Parker separated from his wife and joined pianist Jay McShann’s Band, writing arrangements as well as leading the sax section, thanks to his skills as an alto saxophonist. The first time that anyone outside of a club heard Charlie blow his horn was in November 1940 when the McShann Combo was heard on a Wichita radio station.

Six months later, Parker was in Dallas recording with McShann for a Decca session; as well as playing alto, Charlie arranged “Hootie Blues.” In November 1941 the McShann Quartet recorded more sides, and it was during his time with McShann that he picked up the nickname Yardbird. No one can remember quite why, and before long everyone just called him Bird.

At the Savoy Ballroom in January 1942, Charlie began to get serious recognition from other musicians, especially at some after hours sessions at Monroe’s Uptown House. Not that everyone “got” what Parker was up to. There was none of the smoothness of regular swing bands in what Charlie played; many just heard it as notes in some random order.

In 1943, Parker played in Earl Hines’s band along with Dizzy Gillespie. Hines recalls how conscientious they were. “They would carry exercise books with them and would go through the books in the dressing rooms when we played theaters.” It was with Hines that Parker began playing the tenor sax. Necessity being the mother of invention, Budd Johnson had left the Hines band and so a tenor player was required. At first, Parker couldn’t get used to his new sax. “Man, this thing is too big.” According to Charlie, he couldn’t “feel” it.

Eventually, the Hines band broke up, and Parker played with both Andy Kirk and Noble Sissle’s bands for brief spells, before moving to Chicago, which is where Billy Eckstine recruited him for his band. It didn’t last long, and by late 1944 Bird was on his own, although he spent most of his time playing with Dizzy Gillespie in 52nd Street clubs. Recording was impossible, as there was a musician’s union ban in force until September 1944. It was around this time that Parker first met Miles Davis. It was an uneasy, though very fruitful, relationship. Along with Dizzy, these men created what’s come to be called bebop.

Parker let his sax do the talking

By 1945 Parker and Gillespie’s band were much in demand, and in early 1946 they toured California, but Bird would frequently disappear when they had gigs. Dizzy managed around the problem by taking vibraphonist Milt Jackson with them to sub in for when Charlie went AWOL. As well as the six-week booking at Billy Berg’s, they played Jazz at the Philharmonic along with Lester Young. In true Parker fashion, he even arrived late for the gig at the Philharmonic Auditorium, walking on stage during a piano solo. Gillespie asked, “Where you been?” Parker let his sax do the talking.

When the booking in Los Angeles finished, Dizzy headed back east while Parker stayed in California. Ross Russell, a hip Hollywood record shop owner and former pulp fiction writer, approached Parker with an offer of a recording contract with the label he proposed to set up. The first Dial Records session was in February 1946 and, despite Charlie’s heroin problems, it went well.

At a session in March with a septet that included Miles Davis, Lucky Thompson, and Dodo Marmarosa, Parker cut “Yardbird Suite” and “A Night in Tunisia.” It was a pivotal moment in modern jazz. By the next session in July, Charlie’s heroin supplier had been arrested and Parker had moved on to gin. He then spent six months at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, but by February 1947 he was back in the studio sounding better than ever. He recorded “Relaxing at Camarillo,” “Stupendous,” “Cool Blues” – with Erroll Garner on piano – and “Bird’s Nest”; these sides are arguably the cornerstones of the Parker legend.

As well as sounding great, Parker was looking great and after he finished in Los Angeles, he went back to New York. Back on the East Coast, he formed a new quintet with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach. Parker lost no time in getting back into the studio and recording more great sides in the autumn of 1947. What followed were a string of brilliant recordings, augmented by performances around town, including a concert at Carnegie Hall with Dizzy.

At the beginning of 1949 Bird recorded for the first time for the Mercury label with Machito And His Orchestra and Norman Granz producing. More sessions followed and an appearance at the JATP at Carnegie Hall in February and, again, in September. In November he recorded with the Jimmy Carroll Orchestra for what became Charlie Parker With Strings. The following month a new club opened in New York; it was named Birdland in the saxophonist's honor.

The following year in June, he recorded with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist, Thelonious Monk, Curly Russell on bass, and Buddy Rich. These sides made up the classic recording Bird & Diz. In late 1950 there was a visit to Europe and Parker, at last, seemed to be getting his life under control, even if the drugs and booze were never entirely absent. Parker’s band was great around this time, featuring a young John Coltrane and wowing audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

In 1950 he began living with a dancer named Chan Richardson, despite having married his long-term girlfriend Doris two years earlier. Charlie and Chan had a daughter in 1951 and a son in 1952. Sadly Charlie’s daughter died from pneumonia in 1954, an event that brought on the final decline for a man whose mind was fragile from self-abuse. There were recording sessions, but they were not his best, barring a few highlights. Perhaps the best of this era is Jazz at Massey Hall.

Things got so bad that he was even banned from Birdland. By September 1954, Bird had a breakdown; he even attempted suicide. After a spell in another hospital, he did get back on his feet and was booked to appear at Birdland in March 1955. Before he could fulfill his engagement, however, he died at the home of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter on March 12, 1955. Bird was 34 when he died.

Even though his life was tragically cut short, Charlie Parker helped make modern jazz sound the way it does today. It’s hard to overstate his influence on the way that the genre developed and the jazz musicians who followed him. Luckily, all you have to do is listen to find out how the bird lives on through his music.

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