Biography of Charlie Parker
One of a handful of musicians who can be said to have permanently
changed jazz, Charlie Parker was arguably the greatest saxophonist of
all time. He could play remarkably fast lines that, if slowed down to
half speed, would reveal that every note made sense.
Charles Christopher Parker was born on 29 August 1920, in Kansas City,
USA. Although he was born on the Kansas side of the state line, Parker
was actually raised across the Kaw River in Kansas City, Missouri.
Kansas City was where jazz and other forms of black music were
flourishing.His nickname was originally "Yardbird" due to his
propensity for eating fried chicken - later this was shortened to the
more poetic "Bird". Musicians talk of first hearing his alto saxophone
as if it were a religious conversion. Charlie Parker changed the face
of jazz and shaped the course of twentieth-century music.
Kansas City saxophonists were a competitive bunch. Ben Webster and
Herschel Evans both came from Kansas. Before they became national
celebrities they would challenge visiting sax stars to "blowing
matches". It is this artistically fruitful sense of competition that
provided Charlie Parker with his look. Live music could be heard at
all hours of the night, a situation resulting from lax application of
He first played baritone horn before switching to alto. Parker was so
infatuated with the rich Kansas City music scene that he dropped out
of school when he was 14 even though his musicianship at that point
was questionable (with his ideas coming out faster than his fingers
could play them). A premature appearance at the High Hat Club - when
he dried up mid-solo on "Body & Soul" - led to him abandoning the
instrument for three months; the humiliation was repeated in 1937 when
veteran drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal at his feet to indicate he was
to leave the stage (this time Parker just went on practising harder).
Playing in bands led by Tommy Douglas (1936-37) and Buster Smith
(1937-38) gave him necessary experience. A tour with George E. Lee and
instructions in harmony from the pianist Carrie Powell were helpful.
His first real professional break was with the Jay McShann band in
1938, a sizzling swing unit (with whom Parker made his first
recordings in 1941). Parker's solos on "Sepian Bounce", "Jumpin'
Blues" and "Lonely Boy Blues" made people sit up and take notice: he
was taking hip liberties with the chords.Charlie Parker was influenced
early on by Lester Young and the sound of Buster Smith, and he visited
New York for the first time in 1939, working as a dishwasher at one
point so he could hear Art Tatum play on a nightly basis.
Parker, who met and jammed with Dizzy Gillespie for the first time in
1940, had a short stint with Noble Sissle's band in 1942, played tenor