Full name, Charles Christopher Parker; born August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Mo.; died of lobar pneumonia complicated by chronic alcoholism, March 12, 1955, in New York, N.Y.; son of Charles (a traveling entertainer and Pullman chef) and Addie (a maid-charwoman for Western Union) Parker; married Rebecca Ruffin, July 25, 1936; married Geraldine Scott (a dancer), April 10, 1943; married Doris Snyder (a hat-check girl), 1948; married Chan Richardson (a model and dancer), July 1950; children: (first marriage) Francis Leon; (fourth marriage) Pree (daughter), Baird; Parker also adopted Chan's daughter, Kim. Religion: Roman Catholic.

Proclaimed the "Mozart of Jazz" by prominent jazz critic Barry Ulanov, Charles "Yardbird" Parker represents one of the most influential figures in the history of American music. Like the great classical composer, Parker was a musical genius who died in his mid-thirties without widespread acclaim or national recognition. Despite his lack of popular audience, Yardbird--or Bird as he was more affectionately called--was idolized by many musicians, intellectuals, and enthusiasts. It was from these elite circles of disciples that Parker ascended to the height of deification after his death. "Music is your own experience, if you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn," he lamented. Ironically, Parker's life became a struggle to balance his often reckless and self-destructive personal experiences with the gift of musical vision.

Charlie Parker was born on August 29, 1920, to Addie and Charles Parker in Kansas City, Kansas. At the age of seven he moved with his family to Kansas City, Missouri, a short distance from the nightclubs and dance halls where a new style of jazz was flourishing. Although Parker played baritone horn in the high school band, it wasn't until he was fifteen that he displayed a strong interest in music and passion for the alto saxophone. Not long afterward he joined the Deans of Swing led by pianist Lawrence Keyes.

Parker received his early musical tutelage in Kansas City nightclubs, listening to such saxophone giants as Lester Young, Johnny Hoges, and Leon "Chu" Berry. Around 1935 he decided to leave school in search of a full-time musical apprenticeship. In the year that followed, Parker faced humiliation at a jam session at the Reno Club, where Count Basie performed. After blowing a couple of faltering choruses, drummer Jo Jones signaled the end of the amateur performance by hurling his cymbal at Parker's feet. (This incident was vividly portrayed in the 1988 Warner Bros. film Bird .) It was also in this period that the young altoist began to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Commenting years later, Parker attributed his later heroin addiction to "being introduced too early to nightclub life."

Between the years 1936 and 1937, Parker traveled to the Ozarks to work with the bands of Ernie Daniels, George E. Lee and "Professor" Buster Smith. In the Ozarks, Parker spent long hours woodshedding--memorizing two saxophone solos of Lester Young from phonograph records. It was from Lee's rhythm guitarist, Efferge Ware, that he learned the cycle of fifths and advanced chord patterns.

Returning to Kansas City, Parker re-emerged a much more confident, or in his words, "coordinated" musician. In 1938, he joined pianist Jay McShann's band for a few months before his drug habit led to his dismissal. A year later, he made his way to Chicago, where he astounded listeners with his fiery alto solos. At a club located on 55th Street, the bedraggled Parker sat in at a breakfast dance where Billy Eckstine was in attendance. "He blew so much," recalled Eckstine, "until he upset everybody in the place."

Parker's next destination was New York. Failing to find work with his horn, he washed dishes at Jimmy's Chicken Shack, where the brilliant pianist Art Tatum performed in the front room. He befriended guitarist Biddy Fleet, whose musical instruction expanded Parker's knowledge of harmonic theory. One evening while performing at the Chili House, he experienced a revelation. "I found by using high intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes. I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive."

Shortly after Parker returned to Kansas City to attend the funeral of his father, he joined Harlan Leonard's Rockets. During his five months with Leonard, he was introduced to the band's extremely talented pianist and arranger, Tadd Dameron. He rejoined McShann in 1939, and was put in charge of the reed section. While not performing with McShann's blues-based ensemble, Parker rehearsed and organized jam sessions. In his four years with McShann, he was a featured soloist on several recordings, including "Hootie Blues," "Sepian Bounce" and the 1941 rhythm-and-blues hit, "Confessin' the Blues." "Bird had crying soul," recalled McShann, who later designated the year's alto saxophonist as the "greatest blues player in the world."

While on tour with McShann in New York in 1942, Parker performed at jam sessions held at Monroe's and Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where he attracted the notice of such modernists as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk. That same year his worsening drug addiction led to his final break with McShann. In December, Parker began an eight-month stint blowing tenor with Earl Hines--providing him with the opportunity to appear with he progressive talents of Gillespie, Benny Harris and singer Sarah Vaughan. Although he greatly admired Parker's musicianship, Hines possessed little tolerance for his erratic lifestyle. "He was a fine boy and there was nothing wrong with him when it came to character," commented Hines, "all the harm he did he did to himself."

In 1944, Billy Eckstine brought together many of the veterans of the Hines ensemble to form one of the most innovative big bands of the period. Eckstine sent for Parker, who was in Chicago performing with Noble Sissle. Eckstine, like Hines, was astounded by Parker's genius for improvisation and "photographic memory" for learning arrangements. "Bird was so full of spontaneity," exclaimed Eckstine, "it just . . . Boom! . . . came out!" After his short stay with Eckstine, Parker performed at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street with Dizzy and saxophonist Ben Webber as well as a group including nineteen-year-old Miles Davis. According to Gillespie, the Dizzy-Parker collaboration was a "meeting of the minds." Their powerful unison work laid the foundation for modern jazz--or "be-bop" (a label that Parker greatly despised).

Throughout 1945 Parker recorded with Clyde Hart and guitarist Tiny Grimes. Leading his own group on the Savoy label, Parker also recorded the compositions "Billie's Bounce," "Thriving from a Riff," "Now's the Time" and the furiously executed "Ko Ko." A few weeks later, he appeared at Billy Berg's in Hollywood. Save for a few devoted followers, their be-bop invasion of the west received a harsh reception from patrons and critics. Parker's increasing absences prompted Gillespie to hire a replacement (Dizzy admitted years later that his decision did not effect his relationship with Parker).

Soon afterward, Parker toured with Norman Granz's Jazz at the Philharmonic series--an engagement that put him on the same bandstand with Gillespie and Lester Young. In March 1946, Parker recorded for Ross Russel's newly founded Dial label, which included the arrangements "Yardbird Suite," "Ornithology," "Mouse the Mooche" and Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." On the West Coast Parker's life took a serious downturn. Years of drug abuse, artistic disillusionment and failed marriages drove him to near-collapse. Following the session of "Lover Man," he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to Camarillo State Hospital, where he underwent psychiatric treatment for six months.

Returning east in 1947, Parker began his most innovative, or "classic" period. For the next few years he retained a level of stability--touring the U.S. and Europe with his own quintet (that most often included Miles Davis, bassist Tommy Potter, drummer Max Roach and pianist Duke Jordan). His unique sense of melody and rhythmic accents had a immense impact on all the instruments of modern jazz. Max Roach explained that he began using new variations on the drums to keep up with Parker's breakneck tempos. Although critics still scoffed at him, Parker emerged in the late 1940s as the most influential jazz musician in the country.

Parker first traveled abroad in 1949 to perform at the Paris Jazz Festival, where he was hailed by crowds of enthusiastic followers. During the course of the year, he recorded "Bird with Strings"--an effort that fused his deep admiration for classical and modern composers with his blues and swing background. Although it became his biggest seller, it was not without its critics. "Some of my friends said ... Bird is getting commercial. That wasn't it at all," asserted Parker, "I was looking for new sound combinations." Between 1948 and 1950, his artistic search for new forms of expression inspired him to record several Afro-Cuban sides with Machito's orchestra.

Parker's life, like his music, became unpredictable, often lacking the effusive spirit of his earlier work. In order to control his drug addiction he drank to excess--causing a severe ulcer attack that hospitalized him. Disputes, debts, absences and inconsistent performances often forced club owners to hire him to play one show or a single set. In 1953, Parker led his last significant recording session, which contained "Chi Chi," "I Remember You," "Now's the Time" and "Confirmation."

Throughout the remainder of his career, Parker worked without a regular group--often performing with sidemen of varying talent as well as pick-up bands that often failed to provide him with adequate accompaniment. Following a disastrous performance with strings at Birdland (the club named in his honor) in 1954, he attempted suicide and was admitted to Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital. In October of that year, Parker recaptured a glimpse of his earlier prowess by performing brilliantly at the Town Hall Concert. In his final months, Parker lived in Greenwich Village, appearing occasionally at a club called the Open Door. Jazz writer Leonard Feather, who encountered Parker around this time, described him as "bloated" and "raggedly dressed," possessing "desperately sad eyes."

In his last public appearance, on March 4, 1955, Parker took the stage with Charles Mingus, Bud Powell, Kenny Dorham and Art Blakey. After a bitter verbal exchange with Powell, Parker got drunk and left the club. On Wednesday of the following week he died in the apartment of jazz disciple Baroness Pannonica "Nica" de Koenigswarter. In his thirty-four years, Parker not only brought the art of improvisation to a new height, but helped found an entire modern school of jazz. His life became a model for a postwar subculture that envisaged him as a god-like figure who broke with social and artistic tradition. "As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker's life make little sense because they fail to explain his music," wrote Gary Giddings.

But Parker knew no boundaries in art or life--for Parker they were synonymous in his search for new avenues of expression and escape. His saxophone became the voice that delivered him from torment. "I was amazed how Bird changed the minute he put his horn in his mouth," observed Miles Davis. "He went from looking real down and out to having all this power and beauty just bursting out of him." Despite his personal travails, the power and beauty of his music remains.

by John Cohassey

Charlie Parker's Career

Performer (alto saxophone), arranger, composer. Left school to enter full-time musical apprenticeship at age 15; during late 1930s, played with numerous musical groups, member of musical group fronted by Jay McShann, 1938, and 1939-42; also played with Harlan Leonard's Rockets, 1938; played with Earl Hines's band, 1942-43; played with Billy Eckstine's band, 1944-46; fronted his own quintet, 1947-53; performed with numerous musicians in a variety of groups, 1953-55; last public performance, March 4, 1955.

Charlie Parker's Awards

Recipient of New Star Award, 1946; elected to down beat Hall of Fame, 1955.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

September 30, 2004: Parker was inducted into the inaugural class of Lincoln Center's Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Source: "Jazz At Lincoln Center To Induct Inaugural Class of Musicians into The Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame" (Press Release), September 30, 2004.

Further Reading


Periodicals Liner Notes

Visitor Comments Add a comment…

over 13 years ago

I have visited "Bird's" grave several times, located in the small "Lincoln Cemetery" in Kansas City, MO.....just a few miles from my home in Blue Springs, MO