100 Jazz Profiles
1920 - 1955
Alto saxophonist. Nicknamed 'Bird' or 'Yardbird', Parker was one of the most significant and widely imitated improvisers in jazz history. He was one of the main contributors to the development of bebop in the 1940s, having grown up in Kansas City, and begun playing professionally as a teenager.
His far-reaching developments to saxophone playing did not begin to occur until after he had been playing for some years, and spent part of 1939 in New York. On his return to the Midwest, after much practice, he joined Jay McShann's orchestra, and his first discs with that band, made in 1941, show the beginnings of his mature style.
He created long, loping lines of melody, stringing together many short themes or motifs, and using notes that related to the higher intervals, (ninths, elevenths and thirteenths,) of the underlying chords. He came to New York with McShann, and soon became renowned around the city for his improvising, especially on the blues, or on the chord sequence of Ray Noble's tune Cherokee.
He remained in the city, sitting in at after hours clubs, and gaining a reputation as a formidable jam-session player. Then he joined Earl Hines's band in the spring of 1943, in which he played alongside Dizzy Gillespie, and they worked together again the following year in Billy Eckstine's band. In 1945, they worked together in a small group in New York and on record, travelling to the West at the end of the year.
In California, Parker's health broke down. After years of drug and alcohol abuse, he checked into a hospital for a cure. He only worked with Gillespie sporadically after that, but his new trumpet partnerships were equally fulfilling, and he shared the front line of his subseuqent quintets with Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis, Fats Navarro and the young white trumpeter Red Rodney.
In the meantime he established himself as a soloist, appearing on Jazz At The Philharmonic concerts, on tour with Stan Kenton, and also fronting a string orchestra in some highly commercially successful discs and gigs called 'Bird With Strings'. However, from the late 1940s onwards, Parker was always fighting a battle with his inner demons and the pull of drugs and alcohol.
He mixed moments of pure genius with unreliability, and when he died at just 34, the doctor signing his death certificate assumed he was almost twice that age, from his fast-lane lifestyle. Nevertheless, his legacy lives on through the enormous influence he exerted on the majority of saxophonists in the second half of the 20th century.
Ross Russell: Bird Lives (London, Quartet, 1973)
Brian Priestley: Chasin' The Bird (London, Equinox, 2006)
Bird, the Complete Recordings of Charlie Parker on Verve (Verve)
The Complete Savoy and Dial Studio sessions (Savoy)
The Dial Masters, Original Choice Takes (Spotlite)
And for a budget guide to Parker's studio recordings: Boss Bird (Proper Box)
Jazz at Massey Hall (Original Jazz Classics)
Town Hall New York City: 22 June 1945 (Uptown)
Bird on 52nd Street (Original Jazz Classics)
Chasin' The Bird (Proper Box)
With bio, audio, and links to Ken Burns' film Jazz
on radio 3
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