Charlie Parker, the man they nicknamed ‘Bird’, was one of the most important figures in the development of jazz and in particular be-bop. His was a thoughtful kind of jazz; the fact that he was a saxophonist unrestricted by arrangements made him the master of improvisation. Bird was also a troubled man, with drugs and drink at the heart of his problems, but more importantly, he was a genius, a man that changed the course of jazz history.
“Charlie had a photographic mind. When we would rehearse a new arrangement, he would run his part down once and when we were ready to play it a second time, he knew the whole thing from memory.” Earl Hines
Charles Parker Jr. hailed from the jazz well that was Kansas City. Born to a teenage mother, his father had once worked in a travelling minstrel show. By all accounts, he had a decent childhood despite the fact that his father was more interested in gambling than parenting. By the time he was fourteen, Charlie’s father had left, leaving his doting mother to bring up Charlie, and they were living in the ‘jazz district’ of Kansas City. He was besotted with music and the life of the musicians he saw around 12th Street and Vine. Eventually, his office-cleaner mother scraped together enough to buy Charlie a beaten-up second-hand alto sax.
By the time he was sixteen, Charlie was married but playing around Kansas City wherever and whenever he could. Even then his love of improvisation drove him on, and on one occasion he tried jamming with some of Count Basie‘s band, but this ended in humiliation when Jo Jones, Basie’s drummer, dropped his cymbal on the floor to indicate that the session was over and young Charlie was not good enough; he held a grudge against the Basie band forevermore.
It was around the summer of 1937 that he got a permanent job at a holiday resort in the Ozark Mountains where he, at last, began to master the rudiments of proper playing. The pianist with the band taught him about harmony and Charlie listened endlessly to records to dissect the solos and learn them off by heart. Having got inside the music’s DNA, he was able to break free and become a brilliant improviser.
Sometime around the end of 1938, Parker went to Chicago. The 65 Club, like many of the clubs, had a breakfast dance at which musicians from all over town came to hang out. According to Billy Eckstine: “A guy comes up that looks like he just got off a freight car; the raggedest guy. He asks Goon Gardner, ‘Say man can I come up and blow your horn?'” Goon was more interested in a woman at the bar, so he just handed over his sax. According to Eckstine: “He blew the hell out of that thing. It was Charlie Parker, just come in from Kansas City.” Parker was eighteen years old.
By 1940, Parker had separated from his wife and joined pianist Jay McShann’s Band, writing arrangements as well as leading the sax section. The first time that anyone outside of a club heard Charlie blow his horn was in November 1940, when the McShann Combo was heard on a Wichita radio station.
Six months later, Parker was in Dallas recording with McShann for a Decca session; as well as playing alto, Charlie arranged ‘Hootie Blues’. In November 1941, the McShann Quartet recorded more sides and it was during his time with McShann that he picked up the nickname ‘Yardbird’ no one can remember quite why, and before long everyone just called him ‘Bird’.
At the Savoy Ballroom in January 1942, Charlie began to get serious recognition from other musicians, especially at some after-hours sessions at Monroe’s Uptown House; however, not everyone understood Parker’s music. There was none of the smoothness of regular swing bands in what Charlie played; many just heard it as notes in random order.
In 1943, Parker played in Earl Hines’ band along with Dizzy Gillespie; Hines recalls how conscientious they were: “They would carry exercise books with them and would go through the books in the dressing rooms when we played theatres.” It was with Hines that Parker began playing the tenor sax. Necessity being the mother of invention, Budd Johnson had left Hines, and so a tenor player was required. At first, Parker couldn’t get used to his new sax: “Man this thing is too big.” According to Charlie, he couldn’t ‘feel’ it.
Eventually, the Hines band broke up and Parker played with both Andy Kirk and Noble Sissle’s bands for brief spells, before moving to Chicago where Billy Eckstine recruited him for his band. It didn’t last long and by late 1944 Bird was on his own, although he spent most of his time playing with Dizzy Gillespie in 52nd Street clubs; recording was impossible as there was a Musician’s Union ban on making records that lasted until September 1944. It was around this time that Parker first met Miles Davis; it was an uneasy, though very fruitful relationship, and along with Dizzy these men created what we now know as be-bop.
By 1945, Parker and Gillespie’s band were much in demand and in early 1946 they toured California, but Bird would frequently disappear when they had gigs, which made Dizzy’s on-stage life challenging. Dizzy managed the problem by taking vibraphonist Milt Jackson with them to deputize for Charlie when he went missing. As well as a six-week booking at Billy Berg’s jazz club in Hollywood, they played Jazz at the Philharmonic along with Lester Young. In true fashion, Parker even arrived late for the gig at the Philharmonic Auditorium, walking on stage during a piano solo, and when Gillespie asked “Where you been?”, Parker let his sax do the talking.
When the booking in Los Angeles finished, Dizzy headed back east while Parker stayed in California. Ross Russell, a hip Hollywood record shop owner and former pulp fiction writer, approached Parker with an offer of a recording contract with the label he proposed to set up. The first Dial Records session was in February 1946, and despite Charlie’s heroin problems, it went well.
At a session in March with a septet that included Miles Davis, Lucky Thompson and Dodo Marmarosa, Parker cut ‘Yardbird Suite’ and ‘A Night In Tunisia’; despite Bird’s drug issues, this is a pivotal moment in modern jazz. By the next session in July his supplier had been arrested, so with no heroin, Parker was drinking gin by the bucket instead.
Parker spent six months at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, and by February 1947 he was back in the studio sounding better than ever. He recorded ‘Relaxing At Camarillo’, ‘Stupendous’, ‘Cool Blues’ (with Erroll Garner on piano) and ‘Bird’s Nest’; these sides are arguably the cornerstones of the Parker legend. As well as sounding great, Parker was looking great, and after he finished in Los Angeles he went back to New York.
Back on the East Coast, he formed a new quartet with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach. Parker lost no time in getting back into the studio and recording some more great sides in the autumn of 1947. More sessions followed, producing a string of brilliant recordings that were augmented by performances around town, including a concert at Carnegie Hall with Dizzy. At the beginning of 1949, Bird recorded for the first time for the Mercury label with Norman Granz producing, with Machito And His Orchestra. More sessions followed, and he appeared at the JATP at Carnegie Hall in February and again in September.
In November he recorded with the Jimmy Carroll Orchestra for what became the quintessential Charlie Parker With Strings (1950); the album has just been remastered at Abbey Road and is available as a vinyl LP with the original cover art. The following month, a new club opened in New York; it was named Birdland in the saxophonist’s honour.
The following year, in June, he recorded – with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Curly Russell on bass and Buddy Rich the sides that made up the classic recording Bird And Diz (1956). In late 1950 there was a visit to Europe, and Parker, at last, seemed to be getting his life under control, even if the drugs and booze were never entirely absent. Parker’s band was great around this time, featuring a young John Coltrane and wowing audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 1950, he began living with a dancer named Chan Richardson, despite only having married his long-term girlfriend Doris two years earlier. Charlie and Chan had a daughter in 1951 and a son in 1952. Sadly Charlie’s daughter died from pneumonia in 1954, an event that brought on the final decline for a man whose mind was fragile from self-abuse. There were recording sessions around this time, but they were not his best, barring a few highlights; the best is Jazz at Massey Hall (1956).
Things eventually got so bad that he was even banned from Birdland. By September 1954, Bird had a breakdown; he even attempted suicide. After a spell in hospital, he did get back on his feet and was booked to appear at Birdland in March 1955. Before he could fulfil his engagement, he died at the home of jazz patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, where Thelonious Monk would also pass away, nearly twenty-seven years later.
Bird was thirty-four when he died, but according to the autopsy report, he had the body of a man of over fifty. Lived fast, died young? Definitely, but along the way he helped make modern jazz sound the way it does today. To get a total appreciation for Bird’s genius check out Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker On Verve (1990) it is simply brilliant.
Words – Richard Havers