Music / Charlie Parker
The Bird

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 a major force, some say the major force, behind Bebop and all subsequent Jazz.

Born in 1920 in Kansas City, Missouri, Parker began playing the alto saxophone in his teens, later moving to New York City and securing 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. Bird's Signature Song, "The Yardbird Suite", is often credited as the first bebop recording.

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 inspired by the works of classical composers like Igor Stravinsky. These inspirations culminated in his album Charlie Parker With Strings, which continues to serve as a major influence on jazz musicians today.

Unfortunately, Bird struggled with a drug habit for much of his adult life (some stories even describe how he would pawn his horn to pay for drugs). Although he spent some time in an institution - and subsequently recorded some of his best work - Parker would eventually die at the age of thirty-four.

During the bebop era, Parker took a young Miles Davis under his wing. Davis went on to become even more innovative than his mentor.


  • 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, and 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.
  • Follow the Leader: Played straight and subverted. Bird didn't lack for imitators, and a surprising amount of them developed into what could be argued to be equals to Parker himself. Others like Ornette Coleman, however, looked at the impact that he had on Jazz as a whole, and believed that they could never match the giant leap forward that he made with his mastery of harmony and rhythm without drastically changing the way that they approached the music. Thus, several subsequent movements like Free Jazz can be considered both Spiritual Successors and Spritual Antitheses to Parker's music.
  • 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, from his reports, he was a mediocre saxophonist who got laughed off the bandstand; on one occasion, Count Basie's drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal to the floor, to signify that they'd had enough and Parker should leave the stage.note  He achieved his greatness partly by practicing for fourteen hours a day for years, and partly because all sources agree that he was a highly intelligent musician who, when 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, about some of Parker's life.
  • 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.