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Profile of Alto Saxophonist Charlie Parker

By

Charlie Parker Jazz Saxophone
© Frank Driggs Collection / Getty Images

Born:

August 29, 1920, Kansas City, Kansas

Died:

March 12, 1955, New York, New York

Early Life:

Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was born to Charles and Addie Parker, and raised in Kansas City, Kansas until he was seven years old, when his family moved to the culturally thriving Kansas City, Missouri. He began to play the baritone horn in high school, and later switched to the alto saxophone. He did not display signs of much talent, but he was devoted, and at age fifteen he left school to pursue a music career.

Initially this proved to be very difficult. At one gig, drummer Jo Jones was so flustered with Charlie Parker’s lack of skill that he supposedly threw a cymbal at him. Distraught yet determined, Parker began to practice fervently, sometimes up to fifteen hours a day for the next several years. Around this time he also developed an addiction to morphine while in the hospital for a car accident injury. The addiction would persist throughout his life, and eventually lead to his tragic death.

New York City:

In 1939 Parker moved to New York City, where he worked as a dishwasher and frequented late night jam sessions. He formed a friendship with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, with whom he would collaborate and develop the style of jazz known as “bebop,” which gets its name from the onomatopoeic rhythmic accents in the music. Both were able to experiment with this style while playing in a big band led by pianist Earl Hines, one of the legends of the big band era.

As big bands began to decline in popularity, Parker and Gillespie started to receive attention for their virtuosic and up-tempo style of improvising. While many older musicians dismissed the new style, young players gravitated towards it, and it soon grew in popularity among non-musicians. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, Parker led and toured with various small ensembles. In 1949, the jazz club Birdland was established, deriving its name from Parker’s nickname, “Yardbird” or simply, “Bird.”

Downfall:

Despite his successes as a performer, Parker’s life was riddled with strained relationships and health problems as a result of his drug and alcohol addiction. In 1945 Parker and Gillespie played a series of concerts in California. Parker decided to stay there to record for Dial records, but his addiction began to get the better of him. In a period of withdrawal from heroin he recorded a sloppy, unfocused album, set fire to his hotel room, and was found wandering around naked in the hotel lobby. He was committed to Camarillo State Hospital where he attempted to clean up.

Relapse:

A sober and optimistic Parker returned to New York later in 1945 and was welcomed with many successes. He formed a famous group that included trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach. He released several recordings with Latin jazz ensembles and one with a string ensemble. He toured Europe and played all over New York. Audiences and musicians admired him, and he reached a level of stardom within the jazz community.

Soon, however, he would begin to use heroin again, resulting in the confiscation of his permit to play in New York City clubs. In 1954 the death of his young daughter lead him to attempt suicide. His playing was as good as ever, but his health rapidly deteriorated, and in 1955 he died while watching television in a friend’s apartment. The coroner who examined his body estimated his age at close to sixty because of the damage drugs and alcohol had inflicted. He was only thirty-four.

Legacy:

Despite his unstable lifestyle and career, Parker had an incredible impact on jazz. As his exposure to audiences increased, the jazz world became filled with imitators. Saxophonists copied his phrasing, his melodic and harmonic approaches, and in some cases, even his drug use. To this day Parker’s recordings are upheld as some of the most important documents of the era, and his playing techniques are studied and analyzed by all jazz musicians. But he is more than just a historical figure, because his solos continue to resound as timeless works of beauty.
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