Music / Charlie Parker

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The Bird

You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.
—Miles Davis

Charlie Parker, Jr (1920-1955) was an American saxophonist and composer, renowned for his instrumental virtuosity, harmonically complex and lightning-fast improvisation and his intellectual approach to his music. Nicknamed Bird (or Yardbird), Parker was one of the most influential artists in the 1940s jazz scene. By extension, he was one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century, as he was one of the major forces behind Bebop, and therefore all subsequent Jazz.

Born in 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri, Parker began playing the alto saxophone in his teens. When he was 17, he attended one of Kansas City's notoriously tough and competitive jam sessions, during which he lost track of the chord changes in the tune he was playing. Drummer Jo Jones, who was with Count Basie's band and a seasoned pro, signified to Parker that he should get off the stand by throwing a cymbal at Parker's feet; this incident has become enshrined as part of Parker's legend, because the humiliated Parker went away and committed himself to a ruthless practising schedule in which he made sure to learn how to play every tune he knew in every key possible. A year later (or so the legend goes), Parker returned to the same session and, this time, nobody threw a cymbal at his feet.note 

Parker moved to New York City and secured a place in the Earl Hines Band. He frequented Minton's Playhouse in Harlem, where musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Max Roach met to play a new, hard-edged style of jazz which would become known as bebop. Gillespie in particular became a friend and collaborator, and the two regularly played as sidemen on each other's recordings.

Parker became known for his exceptional musical skill. With his knowledge of music theory, he developed complicated harmonies based on sevenths, ninths and thirteenths and improvised incredibly fast solo choruses. He admired the music of contemporary classical composers like Igor Stravinsky. He made many recordings in his short career, and while fans often prize the later recordings he made with strings for the Verve label, musicians generally regard the sessions he did between 1945 and 1948 for Savoy and Dial as being his most essential work.

Unfortunately, Bird struggled with substance abuse for much of his adult life (some stories even describe how he would pawn his horn to pay for drugs). Parker was unusual in that drugs and alcohol didn't usually impair his playing, although one 1946 recording of "Lover Man" features an extremely drunk and strung-out Parker barely able to shape a phrase with his usual confidence.note  Parker's substance abuse contributed to his early death at the age of thirty-four.

Parker was a friend and mentor to many younger musicians, the most notable of which was Miles Davis, whose tune "Donna Lee" was first recorded by Parker. Parker himself composed several bebop tunes, nearly all of which have become standards in the jazz repertoire: "Ah-Leu-Cha", "Anthropology", "Confirmation", "Now's the Time", "Scrapple from the Apple", "Relaxin' at Camarillo", and many others.

Tropes

  • Appropriated Appellation: "Yardbird" is slang for "Chicken", and he acquired the nickname after cooking and eating a chicken that he had run over. His bandmates mocked him, and the name stuck, although people often shortened it to just "Bird". Eventually the name took on a different meaning as he mastered his instrument, and people lined up to hear his horn sing.
  • Badass: In music at least. The speed of some of his solos, which he achieved with a ridiculous amount of practice, practice, practice. His technique was phenomenal, and he conserved movement so well that his fingers could barely be seen to move off of the keys. He was also very smart and a quick thinker; there are numerous anecdotes testifying to his wit and mental agility.
  • Crazy-Prepared: Parker's style was derived in part from his early humiliation as a young musician, when he'd learned a few tunes but could only play them in one key. This meant that when he was thrown a tune he knew, in a key he was unfamiliar with, but which was a common one for other musicians, he couldn't play it.note  To get around this, he went off and taught himself to play every tune he knew in every key, not just the ones that other jazz musicians usually used. The result was that it was almost impossible for him to get lost in the harmony of any tune, and he knew his instrument better than any of his contemporaries knew theirs.
  • Determinator: As noted below, Bird was originally a pretty crappy saxophonist who got laughed off the bandstand. However, he just kept going, practicing like crazy and ending up one of the biggest names in jazz ever.
  • Iconic Item: Averted. Like Ornette Coleman, Parker is sometimes associated with the Grafton plastic sax, but he only ever used one a few times on what turned out to be very high-profile occasions, resulting in a disproportionate number of photos of him playing one. He used many different saxes over his career because he was constantly either losing them, or pawning them to get cash to feed his heroin habit.
  • Insufferable Genius: Nobody doubted his abilities, but a few bandleaders were irritated by his tendency to show up late for gigs without an instrument - see Iconic Item.
  • Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: As mentioned, the Bird used a lot of drugs. He actually didn't use them for inspiration; he got addicted, as so many did, after being given opiates as painkillers following a car accident. Unfortunately, the level of hero worship from other musicians was such that they would imitate every aspect of his life, including the drug use; this pained him very much and he urged younger musicians not to use drugs. It didn't work; even Eric Clapton took up heroin partly in imitation of Parker.
  • Training from Hell: Bird wasn't a natural savant for music like, say, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. When he was young, he was a mediocre saxophonist who got laughed off the bandstand. He achieved his greatness partly by practising for fourteen hours a day for years, and partly because all sources agree that he was a highly intelligent musician who, as soon he was ready to process new information, processed it unusually quickly.
  • Younger Than They Look: He died at 34, but decades of drug and alcohol abuse had taken such a toll on his body that the coroner who autopsied him estimated him to be somewhere between 50 and 60.

Appearances in popular culture

  • In the movie Diner, Beth inadvertently pushes Shrevie's Berserk Button by not knowing who Parker is.
  • In one episode of The Muppet Show, saxman Zoot is forced to play the song "Sax and Violence". Before beginning he says "Forgive me, Charlie Parker, wherever you are.."
  • Mentioned in passing in The Commitments as one of artists that soul man Joey The Lips strongly dislikes.
  • The Clint Eastwood-directed movie Bird is a reverential Biopic of Parker, in which Forest Whitaker plays him as a glum, tortured depressive, which most sources agree he wasn't.
  • In Stilyagi, he appears to Mel and teaches him to be a Sexy Sax Man.
  • One strip for The Far Side shows that Parker's personal Hell is being forced to listen to New Age music for eternity.
  • Parker is mentioned in an episode of Highlander: The Series when Duncan confronts a fellow immortal, Byron, (yes, THAT Byron) about hooking a young musician on drugs and risky behavior. Parker's name is one of several dropped about great musicians whose lives and careers were cut short by drug addiction.

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