Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


PARKER, Charlie

(b Charles Christopher Parker Jr, 29 August 1920, Kansas City KS; d 12 March 1955, NYC) Alto sax, composer, bandleader. Grew up in Kansas City MO; later nicknamed 'Yardbird' (for chicken), then 'Bird'. His father was an entertainer in small-time black vaudeville, a romantic father figure of the imagination but rarely present, later a cook on the railway; his mother effectively spoiled him. He began on alto c.1931, played baritone horn in school band, left school at 15 and soon became a drug addict. Treated with derision by older musicians (on one occasion Jo Jones was said to have thrown a cymbal on the floor) he practiced until he could modulate from any key to any other key (perhaps not knowing that he only needed a few chords to play in a band), and returned from an out-of-town gig with his technique suddenly greatly improved. First influenced by local musicians Buster Smith and Lester Young, he later became a key creator of modern jazz; though the musical ideas were in the air and others including Dizzy Gillespie were doing much the same thing, his technique and unique musical ideas (his 'conceptual stick', in George Russell's phrase) combined to make Parker one of the great troubadours, able to improvise endlessly, continuously inventing melody, the most influential and imitated soloist in 20th-century music after Louis Armstrong.

He worked for Jay McShann and Harlan Leonard '37-9, meeting Tadd Dameron in Leonard's band, also acquiring a reputation for unreliability; he first went to NYC '39 and is said to have washed dishes for three months at a club where Art Tatum was playing: whether this was a coincidence or not, he could not have been uninfluenced by Tatum's mastery. Playing 'Cherokee' during a gig in Harlem, he said, he first improvised on the upper notes and intervals of the chords instead of the lower, and he could play the music he'd been hearing in his head. (This was a paraphrase from a '49 interview, and doesn't quite make sense in purely musical terms -- 'Cherokee' already employs chordal extensions -- but it makes some kind of sense to the lay listener.) He found a way to make new use of what was already in the melodic structure of the tunes; the music was not at all atonal, but required different harmonic resolutions, and it sounded utterly astonishing at the time (see Bop). He returned to KC for his father's funeral, allegedly a harrowing experience; the father of his fantasies had gone downhill until he was slashed to death by a prostitute. Back in NYC he recorded in the studio with McShann's band '41 (but recordings made at a radio station in Wichita, Kansas '40 were issued as Early Bird on Spotlite UK). He left McShann and stayed in NYC, jamming at Minton's, playing in the bands of Noble Sissle (on clarinet as well as alto), Earl Hines (on tenor, the band also including Gillespie), Cootie Williams, Andy Kirk and Billy Eckstine. He made his first small-group sides late '44 with Tiny Grimes, early '45 in a quintet with Gillespie. Parker was already a hero among musicians, but the critics' record of opposition to anything new in jazz was not spoiled. He recorded for Dial mid-'45 in an interesting Red Norvo octet (see Norvo's entry), went to Billy Berg's club in L.A. late that year with a combo including Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Al Haig, Ray Brown and drummer Stan Levey (b 5 April 1925, Philadelphia; d 19 April 2005, Van Nuys CA): club and group were integrated and Parker's and Gillespie's reputations had preceded them, but the West Coast audience for the new music was small.

He recorded for Dial in L.A., had a complete breakdown, was arrested and sent to Camarillo State Hospital for six months from July '46: a soft regime and decent food restored him and he made excellent sides for Dial early '47, one session including Erroll Garner and vocalist Earl Coleman, another Howard McGhee and Wardell Gray. Back in NYC he led a racially integrated quintet, sidemen variously including Red Rodney, Kenny Dorham, Miles Davis on trumpets; pianists Haig, Duke Jordan; Tommy Potter on bass (b 21 September 1918, Philadelphia; worked in civil service '70s, continued freelancing; d March 1988); drummers Max Roach, Roy Haynes. Lucky Thompson was often a guest on both coasts, perhaps as a safeguard in case Parker didn't show up (though Ray Brown told Phil Schaap that it was simply because the tenor sax was 'in' at the time). Parker recorded in NYC '47 for both Dial and Savoy with a quintet including Davis and Roach, among the finest of all his recordings.

Worshipful sometime musician Dean Benedetti followed Parker around, recording him on a primitive machine and switching it off whenever Parker wasn't soloing; the legendary albums Bird On 52nd Street '48 and Bird At St Nicks '50 from this source were issued on Fantasy, and Benedetti's trove was discovered, purchased and released by Mosaic in a seven-CD set The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings Of Charlie Parker '90, the only Mosaic set that is not a limited edition: not easy listening but priceless for students and aficionados. The complete Dial recordings were on Spotlite UK or Stash USA, either the originally released masters on two CDs or complete with alternative takes and other bits on four. On CD the complete Savoy studio sessions were available in a bootleg set on a Definitive Classics label; there were sets on Savoy Jazz of the complete issued takes on both Savoy and Dial, and the complete studio performances from both labels including alternative takes on eight CDs: tough luck for those who already had the Dials. The Complete Live Performances on Savoy was a four-CD set including material from Carnegie Hall '47, the Royal Roost '48-9, and Chicago '50.

Parker played with Norman Granz's Jazz At The Philharmonic, recorded for Mercury and Verve including Afro-Cuban jazz with Machito (though Gillespie was more attuned to this music than Parker), and with strings and woodwinds from '50: he was proud of the records with strings, as though they lent legitimacy to his music. Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker On Verve is a ten-CD set. But the album with strings is disappointing because Jimmy Carroll's arrangements are hack work; in fact much of the accompaniment Granz provided (including a vocal group on a few tracks) had nothing to do with what Parker was doing, and only a minority of the Verve tracks rank anywhere near Parker's best recorded work. Other sessions included a Miles Davis date at Prestige early '53, Bird playing tenor (as 'Charlie Chan' because of the Mercury contract); this was a shambolic, incomplete date, but it is interesting to compare Parker's playing (on a new tenor sax, allegedly, which he hadn't played until the session) with that of the 23-year-old Sonny Rollins, who was also there: Rollins is fine, but Parker's first solo on 'The Serpent's Tooth' has his familiar, bolder interval leaps, and the feeling that he is about to soar into uncharted territory. The justly famous Jazz At Massey Hall concert made in Toronto in May '53 with Gillespie, Roach, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell was issued on Mingus and Roach's Debut label, then on Fantasy; it had everybody playing near their peak despite the fact that both Parker and Powell were exhibiting bizarre behaviour (see Powell's and Mingus's entries). One Night In Washington DC was a remarkable big-band set '53 not issued for 25 years, then briefly on Elektra. Every scrap and alternate take of Parker has been issued on record; Charlie Parker: The Complete 'Birth Of The Bebop' on Stash included private recordings made '40 and '42 in KC, playing tenor in a hotel room '43 with Gillespie and Eckstine on trumpets (made by Bob Redcross on a portable recorder), and from the Armed Forces radio Service's Jubilee programme with a Gillespie sextet '45: Parker's development was captured, including during a long musicians' union strike when no records were being made, from increasing confidence to the cusp of greatness. Air checks include five LPs' worth from NYC's Royal Roost '48-9 (with announcer Sidney Torin, aka Symphony Sid, b 25 Nov. '09 NYC, d 14 Sep. '84 Florida: a champion of bop for whom 'Jumpin' With Symphony Sid' was written). Charlie Parker, Boston 1952 on Uptown (unusually good sound for this kind of source) also had Torin at two gigs from the Hi Hat, one with Mingus, Haynes, Dick Twardzik on piano, the other with good local musicians including young Jimmy Woode on bass (the booklet included a rundown on Bird's Boston gigs and air checks); Charlie Parker, Montreal 1953 is also on Uptown; Charlie Parker At Storyville '53 from that Boston club on Blue Note had Haynes, Red Garland, Kenny Clarke, Sir Charles Thompson, Herb Pomeroy and others; there were two volumess of Bird In Boston on Fresh Sound. The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace Concert '52 on Jazz Classics, quintet with Mundell Lowe plus live Parker with strings, had 31 tracks newly remastered with pitch corrections. A series of studio and location compilations on Saga '97 is for completists only; the first five would have fit on three discs and the transfers are not good.

The tunes Parker originated, such as 'Now's The Time' (aka R&B hit 'The Hucklebuck'), 'Confirmation', 'Yardbird Suite', 'Relaxin' At Camarillo', 'Billie's Bounce', 'Ornithology', 'Scrapple From The Apple', 'Parker's Mood', 'Marmaduke', 'Steeplechase' and many more, became modern jazz standards. Towards the end of his life Parker may have felt that he was beginning to repeat himself, and, like Lester Young, he heard more and more of his acolytes imitating him. In his last few months Parker's health and his mental condition were such that he could hardly work at all; a few years later, Mingus said that the full title of his 'Gunslinging Bird' was 'If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats'. Some so-called jazz fans never accepted the new music, which Parker represented more than any other individual, but Parker himself was not doctrinaire: 'It's either one thing or the other -- either good music or otherwise. Call it swing, bebop or dixieland. If it's good music, it will be heard.'

He begged his imitators not to imitate him in his drug habit; some of them didn't listen, but the heroin plague that hit Harlem in those years was not the fault of a man who picked up the habit as an obscure teenager in the Midwest. He was also a heavy drinker for years, especially when he was trying to stay off drugs, yet his bad habits rarely affected his playing. When he died at the age of 34 in the Hotel Stanhope apartment of jazz patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, he was in such poor condition that an attending doctor estimated his age as between 50 and 60. There was some mystery surrounding his death; his body was taken to Bellevue Hospital under an alias and the news was broken in the New York Post by Murray Kempton and William Dufty, who was ghost-writing Billie Holiday's biography at the time. The mystery may have been because the baroness, a Rothschild, knew perfectly well what would happen; sure enough, the gossip tabloids had a field day. 

It is all very well to write, as one jazz historian has, that Parker had less 'character' than Gillespie, on the grounds that they were the same age, both black and both geniuses on their respective instruments, yet Parker was difficult, unreliable and died young, while Gillespie was active for decades longer. But Gillespie had a firm but loving father until he was ten years old. The fractured family life of too many African-Americans follows 300 years of slavery and racism, and the importance of two parents in the family is too well documented to be so easily ignored. As Gary Giddins wrote, 'Racist and philistine societies are all alike; every artist is unique.' Parker knew his own worth, and by the time he was earning a good living his influence was complete, despite opposition from many critics; his personal life and physical condition were already hopeless, yet when he visited Scandinavia '50, greeted by jazz fans as a conquering hero and with a complete absence of racism, he was the soul of generosity, submitting to adulation and requests for interviews with humility and graciousness. His weird personal act at home may have been self-protection, costly but successful; but it was also an uncontrollable iconoclasm (at a Communist party benefit in 1952 when Paul Robeson sang 'Water Boy', Parker brought him a glass of water on stage). At any rate, he survived long enough to do what he had come to do; his friends valued his sense of humour and did not give up on him despite his difficult behaviour, knowing that such rare genius is not to be be measured in terms of manners. Within days of his death the graffito 'Bird lives!' appeared in New York.

Max Harrison wrote the first book on Parker '60; Robert Reisner's Bird: The Legend Of Charlie Parker '62 is a valuable oral history, but controversial, because each participant in the events of Parker's life had a different version. Ross Russell (who ran Dial Records) published Bird Lives! '72, the first proper biography, but hopelessly unreliable (Russell d 31 January 2000 in Palm Springs CA aged 90). Giddins's Celebrating Bird: The Triumph Of Charlie Parker '87 is well illustrated and a good read until a more comprehensive book comes along. Lawrence Koch's Yardbird Suite: A Compendium Of The Music And Life Of Charlie Parker '88 is also recommended. After decades we are still coming to terms with the contribution of an unschooled self-taught musician whose short life was a mess. Thomas Owens's Charlie Parker: Techniques Of Improvisation (UCLA dissertation '74) isolated about 100 phrases that recur in Parker's solos, suggesting that there was a large formulaic element; Henry Martin's Charlie Parker And Thematic Improvisation '96 attempted to refute this, using an analytical approach to show that the solos were related to the themes in unexpected and sometimes ingenious ways. The Charlie Parker Companion '98 edited by Carl Woideck included essays by Harrison, Giddins and many others, as well as transcribed interviews. There are good essays in André Hodeir's Jazz: Its Evolution And Essence, Martin Williams's The Jazz Tradition and Michael James's Ten Modern Jazzmen; James's essay on the Dial recordings has been published unbutchered only in Italian (in Musica Jazz). Jazz Style In Kansas City And The Southwest '71, also by Ross Russell, has valuable background and basic information on Parker (see the later, corrected edition); Jazz Masters Of The 40s '66 and Swing To Bop '85 by Ira Gitler are oral histories with many recollections of Parker; Jazz West Coast '86 by Robert Gordon has an account of the Dial sessions and the late-'40s scene. Clint Eastwood's biopic Bird '88 was a failure; even the soundtrack missed the point, using Parker's solos but erasing the sidemen, replaced with newly recorded revivalists. See also entries for Bop, Jazz, Cubop, Kansas City.