Charlie "Bird" Parker is one of
the most important figures in jazz history and also one of its greatest tragic
heroes. He got his nickname (also known as "Yardbird") from his love of
chicken. He came from Kansas City and was a self-taught Alto Saxophonist who didn't
realize that many jazz songs of the day were only played in a few keys, so he learned them
all. He quit school at the age of 15 to become a musician. His education was
brutal: once he tried playing Body and Soul in double-time and was laughed
off of the stage. Another time, he was playing with Count
Basie's orchestra in a jam session. They were playing I got rhythm and
Bird lost the key and couldn't find it. Basie's drummer, Jo Jones completed his
humiliation by throwing his cymbal at Bird's feet. Bird continued practicing and got
the point where he could play Lester Young's solos in
Bird then joined Jay McShann's band and Billy Eckstine's band, and during this time, Bird
experienced what he called "an epiphany" and he finally figured out how to
play the music he had been hearing in his head. He joined Dizzy
Gillespie, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke and Thelonious
Monk at the after-hours jam sessions at Minton's Uptown House in Harlem, and there
BeBop was born. Parker's style revolutionized jazz and he became the messiah of
modern jazz. Parker and Gillespie formed a legendary small group during this time
that played some of the greatest jazz ever. It almost seemed like divine forces
brought all these people at the same place at the same time in history.
However, Parker had a self-destructive streak in him and did anything for a thrill.
He lived an amoral life and lived for any "high" he could get. His heroin
habit caused him to miss many gigs and caused Dizzie to leave the group and it eventually
was a cause of a nervous breakdown that landed Bird in a mental hospital. He came
back and reformed his quintet with Miles Davis taking
Gillespie's place and continued making great music.
In one of his more unique ventures, Bird made the first "with strings" album, in
which he was backed by a stringed orchestra. It was the first of a popular series of
recordings of this type that many other artists made, and in my book, it's still the best
one. Most sources I have checked out agree that his recordings with Dial and Savoy remain his best work.
Bird's self-destructive life style finally
caught up with him in 1955 and he died at the age of 34. He had so badly abused his
body that the doctor who examined him estimated his age at 60. Besides his often
imitated, but never matched style, he left behind a terrible legacy with other jazz
musicians, who also did drugs, thinking if they used like Bird, they could play like Bird.
The stories of Bird's musical genius are too
lengthy to list. Miles Davis said the only time you were surprised with Bird was
when he didn't do something amazing on the bandstand. He could literally walk
in off the street and start playing, and never make a mistake. His playing was fast,
perky, and very bluesy, all wrapped up into one. He can make you bounce around one
moment and feel his pain the next. His music is rooted in the Kansas City blues and
every song he played had a blues twist to it.
For more, Charlie
Parker information, check out these sites:
Bird and Diz - one
of the very best pages I've ever seen!
"Yardbird" Parker - sound clips available