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Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker: Hatch to Flap, and Still Flying
In the United States, the Second World War was raging from 1941 to 1945 (“World War II”). The nation was experiencing tense and trying times. Amid this turbulence, one musician emerged as a maverick: His name is Charlie Parker. Basking in the postwar urban economic boom, several Americans took an apathetic stand in life. Parker rebelled against this complacent attitude, creating a music that was widely viewed as radical and risqué (Brueggemeyer “Career”). Renowned saxophonist John Coltrane commented on this style, saying, “The first time I heard Bird play, it hit me right between the eyes” (qtd. in “Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). He was not the only one awestruck by Parker. Charlie Parker’s eccentric life, vast talent, and revolutionary invention of bebop make him one of the greatest and most enigmatic musicians to ever live.
The only child to Adelaide and Charles Parker, Senior, Charles Christopher Parker, Junior, was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29th, 1920 (“Charlie Parker” Biographies; “Charlie Parker” infoplease). Parker’s childhood was an extremely difficult one. He was abandoned by his father at the age of ten, shortly after moving across the Kow River to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1927. Here, Parker was single-handedly raised by his mother (Brueggemeyer “History”; “Charlie Parker” Biographies; “Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). Even at this young age, he did not fit in well with society (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). There was one place he did belong, though, and that was with music.
Parker’s mother said, regarding her son, “When he was only a child, he wanted to be a music maker” (qtd. in Brueggemeyer “History”). From a very young age, Parker demonstrated an interest in music. He played baritone horn in the Lincoln High School band. Around age thirteen, he convinced his mother to buy him a used alto saxophone; however, he lost interest and lent it to a friend for two years; incredibly ironic considering the legendary career that would eventually take off for Parker (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi).
In 1935, Parker dropped out of high school to pursue a career as a full-time musician, yet that plan would not be free of detours (“Charlie Parker” Biographies; Brueggemeyer “History”). Despite having no formal education in music, Parker developed his talent by playing with various groups in Kansas City clubs. By working with experienced local players and emulating their sound, Parker honed his musical skills. At the meager age of sixteen, he married his neighbor, Rebecca Ruffin in 1936, and the couple lived with Parker’s mother (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). The following year, they had a son together (Brueggemeyer “History”). Zealous about his music, Parker would not be fit to raise a family.
This was a pivotal point in his career. While drummer Joe Jones was performing, he reportedly hurled a cymbal at Parker to shoo him off the stage. This rejection sparked a serious practice regimen for Parker. Escaping the city life, he intensely studied advanced harmony and saxophone technique. This state of persistently working alone is known by jazz musicians as “taking to the woodshed” (“Woodshed”). While practicing like this, Parker learned the solos of Lester Young, a prominent musician at the time, note for note by listening to Count Basie records. When he emerged in the public eye again, the jazz community was astonished (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). One colleague proclaimed, “After Parker came back… no one could believe it was the same guy blowing” (qtd. in Charlie Parker Nesuhi). Parker then worked with Buster Smith, whom he modeled his musical style after. Smith said of his associate, Parker, “After a while, anything I could play on the horn, he could make something better of it” (qtd. in “Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). Through tremendous commitment, Parker overcame his struggles and started rising his way to the top.
This growing success was tainted by vice, though. In 1937, Parker’s wife, Rebecca, caught him using heroin. He claimed to have started because of stress from a night-life career. At a young age, the strains of public performance were already taking a toll on him. Substance abuse was a habit Parker would never break; nonetheless, his professional career thrived (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). Parker joined the band of renowned pianist Jay McShann in 1938, touring with him in New York City and Southwest Chicago. At the age of eighteen, Parker had a position in a prominent professional group for the first time.
His career continued to blossom. During 1939, Parker spent a year in New York City, participating regularly in jam sessions and growing as a musician. While in New York, the city’s culture fused with his style, and he gained a much deeper sense for instrumental harmony (Brueggemeyer “Career”). Although he was succeeding as a musician, Parker led a troubled life off the stage. In New York, he moved from marriage to marriage and continued abusing drugs and alcohol (Brueggemeyer “History”).
For the moment, he remained unfazed by these problems and continued a strong career. In New York City, he started experimenting with the higher intervals of chords, thus achieving what he is best known for today—the creation of bebop. With his new style of music, Parker could play songs he had envisioned yet never before been able to fabricate (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). On this breakthrough, he quite simply stated, “I came alive” (qtd. in “Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). In this manner, Charlie Parker was an innovator and true leader. With bebop, he broke free from the constraints the swing style put on him (Brueggemeyer “Career”).Parker embodied a fresh spirit in music by using it for what it was originally intended, a means of expressing feelings. Gene Ramy, a bassist in a band with Parker, testified to this; “Bird kept everyone on the stand happy, because he was a wizard at transmitting messages” (qtd in “Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). When a dog barked, Parker said it was talking. Every time he had something to express, he would do so with his saxophone, and his colleagues would guess what he was thinking about (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). Once his style became grounded, Parker created phenomenal melodies and improvisations like nothing anybody had heard (“Charlie Parker” infoplease).
Around this same time, Charlie Parker received a name much more famous. While playing with Jay McShann in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1940, their vehicle hit a chicken—colloquially known as a ‘yardbird.’ Parker convinced his colleagues to fry it for dinner, and he was dubbed “Yardbird”. This name, particularly its abbreviated version, “Bird,” would stay with him for eternity (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi).
Bearing his new name, Parker’s career flourished. With the Savoy label in 1945, Parker recorded his first album as a bandleader. Among those songs was one of his widest-known hits, “Koko” (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). The same year, Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie founded a quintet that officially instigated the bebop era. While others developed new ways of toying with melody and harmony, Parker pioneered ideas on the method in which such things should be played. Gillespie insisted, “He had just what we needed. He had…the rhythm. We heard him and knew the music had to go his way” (qtd. in Brueggemery “History”).
Parker would soon begin to destroy the success he achieved. While playing for ruthless crowds in California, he accelerated his drug use and eventually attempted suicide. Following seven months in Camarillo State Hospital, he recovered adequately (Brueggemeyer “Career”). This began a downward spiral in Parker’s career. For the following offenses, Charlie Parker was arrested in July of 1946: indecent exposure, resisting arrest, and suspected arson (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi). In 1951, Bird’s cabaret license was revoked, forcing him to go on tour rather than performing at one preferred location (Brueggemeyer “Career”).
His scenario exacerbated considerably. Parker’s two-year-old daughter died in March 1954. Stressed to a breaking point, he attempted suicide again by ingesting iodine and was admitted to Bellevue Hospital in extremely poor health. One year later, at Birdland, a jazz club in his namesake, Parker played the last gig of his life. The following week, he died of heart failure at the age of thirty-four in a Manhattan hotel suite on the twelfth of March, 1955 (Brueggemeyer “History”; “Charlie Parker” Nesuhi).
New York City mourned the tragic loss of “the most polished, relaxed, creative, original soloist in bop” (qtd. in Kernfeld 453). The composing of Charlie Parker rivaled that of Bach’s (Kernfeld 452). His work altered the way melodies, harmonies, and rhythms—the entire system of jazz—is written and performed today. Bird is and will continue to be remembered. In 1992, New York City’s Avenue B between 7th and 10th Street was renamed “Charlie Parker Place.” Two years later, a periodic festival commemorating him began in Tompkins Square Park. Disc jockey Phil Schaap launched a radio show in 1973 dedicated to Charlie Parker; it was later penned “Birdflight” and still airs on weekday mornings (“Charlie Parker” Nesuhi).
In addition, Charlie Parker has been recognized with a barrage of posthumous accolades, including numerous Grammy awards. In 1974, the Grammy “Best Jazz Performance by a Soloist” was bestowed upon him (“Past Winners”). The Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, a prestigious distinction given for outstanding contributions to the field of recording, was conferred on him in 1984 (“Lifetime”). Four of Parker’s albums have also been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. The albums are the following: Charlie Parker With Strings, inducted in 1988; Ornithology, inducted in 1989; Jazz at Massey Hall, inducted in 1995, and Billie’s Bounce, inducted in 2002 (“Grammy”). Additionally, in 2002, a radio station commissioned by NPR (National Public Radio) ranked Charlie Parker number one on their list of 30 Greatest Jazz Saxophonists (“The 30”).
Fifty-seven years after his death, Charlie Parker is still regarded as one of the greatest saxophonists that ever—perhaps will ever—live. His rhythmic sense was so acute that he spontaneously sped up or slowed down pieces without getting lost. He had “the aural equivalent of photographic memory”; Parker could play anything he heard and instantly apply it in a bebop context. Thorough examinations of hundreds of his recordings attest to the brilliance of his imagination: Never did he play the same improvisation twice. Musically and intellectually, Charlie Parker was an absolute genius (Kernfeld 453). For historians and musicians alike, he remains an invaluable and outlandish part of Americana. The next time Uncle Sam takes a drive down memory lane, maybe he will spot a Bird soaring in the rearview mirror.
Brueggemeyer, Adrienne. Career. Duke University, 2000. Web. 19 Apr. 2012. <http://www.duke.edu/~akb6/career.html>.
Brueggemeyer, Adrienne. History. Duke University, 2000. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. http://www.duke.edu/~akb6/history.html.
“Charlie Parker.” Biographies Life and times of the greats. Public Broadcasting Service, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. http://www.pbs.org/jazz/biography/artist_id_parker_charlie.htm.
“Charlie Parker.” infoplease. Pearson Education, 2007. Web. 16 Apr. 2012. http://www.infoplease.com/biography/var/charlieparker.html.
“Charlie Parker.” Nesuhi Ertegun Jazz Hall of Fame. Jazz at the Lincoln Center, n.d. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://www.jalc.org/halloffame/>.
“Grammy Hall of Fame.” Grammy.com. The Recording Academy, 2012. Web. 23 Apr. 2012. <http://www.grammy.org/recording-academy/awards/hall-of-fame>.
Kernfeld, Barry. "Parker, Charlie." Collier's Encyclopedia. Ed. Lauren S Bahr, et al. 1997 ed. Vol. 18. N.p.: P.F. COLLIER, n.d. 452-53. Print. 24 vols.
"Lifetime Achievement Award." Grammy.com. The Recording Academy, 2012. Web. 22 Apr. 2012. <http://www.grammy.org/recording-academy/awards/lifetime-awards>.
“Past Winners Search.” Grammy.com. The Recording Academy, 2012. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. http://www.grammy.com/nominees/search?artist=Charlie+Parker&title=First+Recordings & year=1974&genre=16.
“The 30 Greatest Jazz Saxophonists!”WAER. National Public Radio, 2006. Web. 24 Apr. 2012. <http://waer.org/30sax.html>.
"Woodshed." Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. 06 May. 2012. <Dictionary.com<http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/woodshed>.
"World War II." History.com. A&E Television Networks, LLC, 2012. Web. 1 May 2012. <http://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/page2>.