Charlie Parker radically reshaped jazz, changing the way musicians, fans and critics approached it. If Dizzy Gillespie was bop’s patron saint, Parker was its founding elder. He was an amazing improviser, who used a slow, thin vibrato, astonishing harmonic knowledge and total technical command to recast songs via his solos. He usually ignored the melody and instead went to the harmonic structure. Through breaking the pulse, varying the rhythm, experimenting with pitch, in short, doing any and everything possible, Parker created solos that were fresh, radical and totally distinctive, yet were related to the original and didn’t destroy its organization. He knew thousands of tunes, and freely incorporated snatches of Tin Pan Alley, blues, hillbilly, and classical into other tunes. But these weren’t randomly inserted; they were included in ways that fit the moment.
These snippets were both humorous and relevant. Parker did this while playing at either rapid fire tempos or doing slow, agonizing 12-bar wailers. He emerged as the most imitated, admired saxophonist of his day, and though his influence eventually waned, his impact remains substantial. There aren’t many alto saxophonists, especially those playing bebop or related styles, that haven’t closely studied his work and committed many Parker solos to memory. He’s responsible for numerous American music classics, among them “Confirmation,” “Yardbird Suite,” “Relaxin’ At Camarillo,” “Ornithology,” “Scrapple From The Apple,” “Parker’s Mood,” and “Now’s The Time,” which was later reworked into an R&B sensation “The Hucklebuck.” Parker got his first music lessons in Kansas City public schools. His father was a vaudevillian. He began playing alto sax in 1931, and worked infrequently before dropping out in 1935 to become a full-time player. Sadly, his involvement with drugs started almost as soon as he began playing professionally.
He worked mainly in Kansas City until 1939, playing with jazz and blues groups, and honing his craft in legendary Kansas City jam sessions. One incident during this period stands out; Jo Jones reportedly fired a cymbal at Parker one night in a rage over his playing. His astonishing harmonic skills were developed during this time; Parker eventually was able to modulate from any key to any other key. Local musicians Buster Smith and the great Lester Young were major influences on Parker’s early style. Parker initially played with Jay McShann in 1937, and also Harlan Leonard. While in Leonard’s band he met Tadd Dameron, a superb arranger. He began developing his lifelong reputation for unpredictability. Parker visited New York in 1939, staying until 1940. He participated in some jam sessions, and was a dishwasher for three months at a club where Art Tatum was playing.
He started his harmonic experiments one night at a Harlem club, improvising on the chords upper intervals for “Cherokee” rather than its lower ones. But his first visit to New York didn’t make much impact. Parker met Gillespie in 1940, when he came through on tour. He joined McShann’s big band in 1940, and remained until 1942. They toured the Southwest, Midwest and in New York, recording in 1941 in Dallas. These were Parker’s first sessions. He was beginning to become famous for brillant solos, though still working in strict swing style. There was a short stint with Noble Sissle’s band, then he joined Earl Hines in 1942, reuniting with Gillespie. By 1944, he, Gillespie and many other top young players were in Billy Eckstine’s big band. Parker had been participating nightly in after hours jam sessions since 1942. These sessions were held at various locations, among them Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House. He began recording after the ban ended in 1944 (though there are some acetates from ’43 with Parker on tenor), cutting songs with Tiny Grimes. He began heading his own band in 1945, while working with Gillespie in combos.
The two took their group to Hollywood in December of that year, playing a six-week engagement at various clubs. These were historic gigs, with both club audiences and musical lineups a good mix of blacks and whites. Parker remained in Los Angeles, recording for Ross Russell’s Dial label and performing until he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1946. His mental and physical (suffering from heroin and alcohol addiction) condition caused him to be confined at the Camarillo State Hospital. After his release in 1947, Parker continued working in Los Angeles, making more fine records for Dial. He came back to New York in April of 1947, forming a quintet with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach and cutting several seminal dates. Roy Haynes and Lucky Thompson also worked with this band occasionally, as did Red Rodney and Kenny Dorham. Parker became a larger-than-life celebrity from 1947 to 1951.
He played in clubs, did concerts and broadcast performances, toured with Jazz At The Philharmonic, worked in Afro-Latin bands with Gillespie, and visited Europe in 1949 and 1950. He did a controversial session with strings in 1950 that became as popular as anything he ever recorded. At the same time, in the midst of this celebrity status, Parker’s drug addiction worsened. He became just as famous for no-shows, pawnshop incidents with his saxophone and irrational behavior as the matchless tone and soaring solos. Parker’s cabaret license was revoked in 1951 at the behest of the city’s narcotics squad. It was reinstated two years later, but by that time the damage had been done. Parker did appear at the 1953 Massey Hall concert in Canada with Gillespie, Roach, Charles Mingus and Bud Powell, and cut both a wonderful big band release in Washington, D.C. and a combo session at Storyville in Boston that same year. But the end was nearing. Prevented from working in nightclubs, Parker’s health steadily declined while his habit grew worse. He twice attemped suicide before committing himself to Bellvue in 1954.
His last public appearance came at Birdland, the club named in his honor, in March of 1955. Parker died seven days later, at the Manhattan apartment of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, the same place Thelonious Monk would eventually die. Parker reissues are fortunately widely available. His early work with McShann has been reissued by domestic and import labels. His Verve output has been reissued twice on mammoth sets; once a 10-album box and recently a 10-CD set with many additional tracks. There have been two-record and two-disc best of anthologies. His Dial material has been haphazardly reissued, but there are complete import collections available. Some Prestige material is available, and his landmark Savoy sessions are coming out in separate editions. They’ve previously been reissued in two-album “best ofs” and complete boxed editions. Hopefully, the handful of Columbia Parker sessions that were available in the ’70s on vinyl will reappear.
Blue Note has reissued the Storyville session. Elektra had reissued the Washington D.C. date on vinyl, but it was deleted. Mosaic has issued a mammoth boxed set of Parker recordings made by fanatical follower Dean Benedetti, who took a portable recorder to countless Parker performances, concerts and sessions, faithfully copying every Parker solo. This is the only collection in the company’s illustrious history they they personally own. Stash has issued the ’43 Parker sessions on tenor, and also has issued a two-disc best of Dial package. There’s lots of transcription, bootleg and broadcast items available. Ross Russell’s self-serving book “Bird Lives!” irritated many by its slant, as did Robert Reisner’s “Bird – The Legend Of Charlie Parker.” Gary Giddins’ “Celebrating Bird – The Triumph Of Charlie Parker” is the best combination of scholarship, commentary and analysis. There are also many accounts available in anthologies. Clint Eastwood valiantly attempted to get Parker’s life on the screen with “Bird” in 1988. The results were quite mixed.