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.


  • 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.
  • 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  Furious, 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.
  • Fan Nickname: 'Bird' or 'Yardbird' were the nicknames he adopted upon joining the Earl Hines Band.
  • Iconic Item: After Ornette Coleman he's the best known user of a plastic Grafton sax.
  • Insufferable Genius: Nobody doubted his abilities, but a few bandleaders were irritated by his tendency to show up late for gigs without an instrument.
  • Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: As mentioned, the Bird used a lot of drugs. It's said that the coroner who conducted his autopsy estimated his age at about sixty. He actually didn't use drugs 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 decimated an entire generation of musicians.
  • Short-Lived Big Impact: Although Parker's career was somewhat longer than most associated with this trope, his death at 34 nonetheless cut short the career of one of the 20th Century's most influential musicians. His impact on jazz in general and saxophonists in particular even today is undeniable.
  • 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 horrible saxophonist who got laughed off the bandstand (on one occasion the drummer threw his cymbals at him to drive him off the stage). He achieved his greatness by practicing for fourteen hours a day for years.

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.