Charles Christopher Parker Jr, known to friends and colleagues as Charlie, was the god of the alto saxophone. His musical innovations, coupled with those of colleague and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, gave birth to a new style of music known as 'bebop' and a whole new outlook on the possibilities inherent in jazz music.
Charlie Parker, commonly called 'Bird' or 'Yardbird'1, was born in Kansas City, Kansas on 29 August, 1920. He moved, at the age of seven, to Kansas, Missouri and soon showed an interest in music. He received no formal musical education, however, and learnt to play by imitating old jazz musicians. His first instrument was the baritone horn but he soon moved on to the alto saxophone. By 1935 he was regularly performing with local jazz and blues bands; leaving school in 1936, he lied about his age and joined 'Local 627', a musician's union. In 1937 he and his first wife, Rebecca, had a son. He joined the band of pianist Jay McShann and toured extensively around Southwest Chicago and New York. Two years later he met the legendary Dizzy Gillespie and, by late 1939, had relocated to New York.
This move signalled the start of a self-destructive pattern of behaviour. He bounced from marriage to marriage (Rebecca Ruffin, 1936; Geraldine Scott, 1943; Doris Snyder, 1948; Chan Richardson, 1950), producing five children. He graduated from alcohol to drugs and became more and more dependant on both. In July 1946 he attempted his first suicide bid and was committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital for rehabilitation, remaining there until January 1947.
He bounced back into the music scene and, by 1949, had formed his own group and opened Birdland in New York. Despite the huge successes he enjoyed, his fast-track lifestyle caught up with him again and a further suicide attempt in 1954 saw him placed in Bellevue Hospital for more rehabilitation. He managed one more appearance at Birdland after this but died the following week of heart failure, pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver on 12 March, 1955. The coroner reported that he had the body of a 64-year-old man rather than that of his true age - just 34!
During his early days in New York Parker washed dishes at a local food place. Here he met guitarist Biddy Fleet who proceeded to teach him instrumental harmony. He played tenor and alto sax, doubled on clarinet and experimented on practically every brass and woodwind instrument known. He was soon put in charge of the reed section by McShann and given the opportunity to perform solos on several recording sessions, most notably Hootie Blues, Sepian Bounce and, in 1941, Confessing the Blues.
In 1942, while on tour with McShann and joining jam sessions held at 'Munroe's' and 'Minton's Playhouse' in Harlem, he caught the eye of such jazz greats as Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk. Later that year he left McShann and, with Dizzy Gillespie, joined Earl Hines.
By 1945 he was well-established on the jazz circuit, recording the first, true, bebop commercial record in May alongside Dizzy which featured Sarah Vaughan on vocals2. By October of that year The Charlie Parker Combo with Miles Davis (trumpet), Dexter Gordon (tenor sax), Sir Charles Thompson (piano), Leonard Gaskin (bass), and Stan Levey (drums) opened at the Spotlite Club on 52nd Street. In December he went on a six-week tour of nightclubs in Hollywood, regularly changing the line-up of the band and refining his personal skills.
After his breakdown and suicide attempt he re-appeared to perform at the Hi-De-Ho Club, Los Angeles on 1 March, 1947, and crowned his comeback by playing with The Dizzy Gillespie Quintet at Carnegie Hall, New York, albeit performing in only one set. A definitive recording made at this time features the Charlie Parker Quintet with Miles Davis (trumpet), Duke Jordan (piano), Tommy Potter (bass) and Max Roach (drums)3. In early October the American Federation of Musicians announced that a second recording ban on Charlie Parker would begin on 1 January, 1948, which led to an unprecedented amount of commercial recordings appearing during the latter half of 1947.
Parker left New York in late December and returned in March 1948. He returned to the recording studio in September to cut the successful Charlie Parker All-Stars session with Miles Davis (trumpet), John Lewis (piano), Curley Russell (bass) and Max Roach (drums)4. The Parker Quintet then embarked on a four-month engagement at the Royal Roost, NY although without Davis who had left the band complaining that 'Bird makes you feel about one foot high'.
1949 saw more triumphs with the opening of Bird Land and Parker's first flirtation with the use of strings in studio recordings and his act. He continued to enjoy the high-life, touring through Europe to a rapturous reception and playing at Bird Land. In 1951 his cabaret license was revoked in New York making it difficult for him to play in clubs. He became far more unreliable but still managed to perform and record although with varying levels of skill.
His health rapidly deteriorated and he was diagnosed as suffering from a peptic ulcer in November, 1950. He still managed to perform all the old favourites by such composers as Cole Porter ('Love for Sale'), George Gershwin ('Embraceable You') and Thomas Waller ('Honeysuckle Rose') as well as playing his own hits such as 'Now's the Time', 'Anthropology', 'Ornithology', 'Ko Ko', 'Cool Blues', 'Relaxin' At Camarillo' and 'The Bird'. By this time modern jazz or bebop was firmly established, owing its clever use of harmonically advanced phrases all to Parker. His workload and public appearances tailed off significantly, culminating in his last studio recording on 10 December, 1954. He played for the last time at Birdland on 5 March, 1955 and died a week later.
Besides revolutionising the shape of jazz music, Bird helped shape another image, that of the jazz musician drug addict. Bird consumed a lot of heroin. His vein-swelling antics caused many a young talent to pick up the needle when they put down the horn, Miles Davis among them.
Charlie Parker was an inspirational musical genius, despite his leisure-time shortcomings. His revolutionary musical ideas have lived on to influence every generation of jazz talent after him, and that is why he is the 'god of the alto saxophone'. In 1988 Clint Eastwood was inspired to direct the film Bird, based on Parker's life and starring Forest Whitaker. Charlie Parker was also awarded the honour of appearing on a 32¢ stamp as part of the 'Black History' theme.