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Charlie Parker



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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 double time.

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!
Charlie "Yardbird" Parker - sound clips available
Charlie Parker

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