The Robinson Library
The Robinson Library >> Musics >> Biography: Musicians
Charlie "Bird" Parker

alto saxophonist who played with many of the top jazz bands of the 1930's and 40s

Charlie 'Bird' Parker

Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920. His family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1927, and Charlie had his first music lessons in the local public schools there. He began playing alto saxophone in 1933 and worked occasionally in semi-professional groups before leaving school in 1935 to become a full-time musician. Early in his career he was dubbed "Yardbird," which was later shortened to "Bird," and which remained his nickname for the rest of his life.

Between 1935 and 1939, Parker worked primarily in Kansas City with a variety of local blues and jazz groups. He then went to New York City, where he spent almost a year working sporadically as a professional musician and participating in jam sessions.

Parker's name first appeared in the music press in 1940, when he joined Jay McShann's band, with which he toured the Southwest, Chicago, and New York, and took part in his first recording sessions in Dallas. In 1942, he joined Earl Hines' big band, which then included several other young musicians destined to later fame -- including Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonius Monk, Charlie Christian, Max Roach, and Kenny "Klook" Clarke. In May 1944, several of those musicians, along with Parker, formed Billy Eckstine's band.

During this period Parker regularly participated in after-hours sessions at such noted Harlem clubs such as Minton's Playhouse and Monroe's Uptown House. He also trained with notable music teacher Maury Deutsch.

In 1945, Parker led his own group for the first time and worked extensively with Gillespie in small ensembles. On November 26, he led a record date for the Savoy label. Among the tracks recorded this session were: "Ko-Ko," "Now's the Time," "Billie's Bounce," and "Thriving on a Riff."

In December, he and Gillespie went to Los Angeles, where they fulfilled a six-week engagement at Billy Berg's club. Although most of the band returned to New York after the gig, Parker continued to record and perform in concerts and nightclubs until June 29, 1946, when a nervous breakdown and addiction to heroin and alcohol led to his being confined to the Camarillo State Hospital. He was released in January 1947 and resumed work in Los Angeles.

Returning to New York in April 1947, Parker formed a quintet with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter, and Max Roach that recorded many of his most famous pieces, including: "Embracable You" and "Bird of Paradise." The next several years would prove to be Parker's most fertile period. He worked in a wide variety of settings (nightclubs, concerts, radio, and recording studios) with a wide variety of groups (small ensembles, a string group, and even with Afro-Cuban bands). He also worked as a soloist with local muscians when traveling without his own band.

In July 1951, Parker's New York cabaret license was revoked because of his involvement with narcotics, preventing him from working in nightclubs in the city. Although the license was eventually reinstated in 1953, the lack of steady work left him deeply in debt; he also used this period of semi-unemployment to "justify" his continuing drug and alcohol abuse. After twice attempting suicide in 1954 he voluntarily committed himself to Bellevue Hospital. His last public engagement was on March 5, 1955, at Birdland, a nightclub named in his honor. He died seven days later (March 12, 1955) in the apartment of his friend and patroness Nica de Koenigswarter.

Charlie Parker left a widow, Chan Parker, a daughter, Kim Parker, who is also a musician, and a son, Baird Parker, who died in the Vietnam War.

A founding figure of bebop, Parker's innovative approach to melody, rhythm and harmony has been a tremendous influence on jazz. Many of his songs have become standards of the genre, and numerous musicians have studied his music and adopted elements of his style. Parker also liked to fuse jazz with other musical styles, from classical to Latin.

Partial Discography

Parker made extensive "single" recordings for three labels: Savoy (1944-1949), Dial (1945-1947), and Verve (1946-1954).

Live recordings include:
Live at Townhall w. Dizzy (1945)
Bird and Diz at Carnegie Hall (1947)
Bird on 52nd Street (1948)
Jazz at the Philharmonic
Charlie Parker All Stars Live at the Royal Roost (1949)
One Night in Birdland (1950)
Bird at the High Hat (1953)
Charlie Parker at Storyville (1953)


Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> Musics >> Biography: Musicians

This page was last updated on 09/23/2017.