Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

PARKER, CHARLIE (1920-1955)

Charlie Parker with Tommy Potter, Max Roach and Miles Davis at Three Deuces, New York, NY

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Charles Parker Jr. was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920. When he was seven, Charlie moved with his mother, Addie, to Kansas City, Missouri, which was growing at a boomtown rate. From 1925 to 1938 Kansas City was run by notorious Democratic machine boss Tom Pendergast. Pendergast's machine chose to ignore the prohibition on alcohol imposed by the Volsted Act. Kansas City's bars, nightclubs, and cabarets flourished twenty-four hours a day, providing fertile ground for the emergence of a distinctive blues-based jazz style. Thus, while Parker was receiving his formal education at Crispus Attucks Public School and Old Lincoln High School, he was also receiving his early musical education and inspiration outside famous clubs near 18th and Vine, like the Reno Club and Lucille's Paradise Band Box, listening to the legendary orchestras of Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Walter Page's Blue Devils. Some say it was this early proclivity for "hanging out" that gave Parker the nickname "Yardbird" (a slang term for chicken), later shortened to "Bird," a more fitting description for the soaring, high-flying artist he was to become.

Bird's chosen instrument was the alto saxophone, but he showed little obvious musical promise with it in his early years. In fact, a famous jazz anecdote has Basie's drummer hurling a cymbal at the young Parker after a particularly ragged solo. At the age of sixteen, after an intensive period of musical study while performing at a resort in the Ozarks, Parker returned home to take the Kansas City music scene by storm. In the late thirties and early forties Parker played with a number of prominent Kansas City ensembles, most notably the Jay McShann Orchestra; but by 1942 Bird had moved his base of operations to New York City. There he emerged as perhaps the single most important creative figure in the birth of what came to be called modern jazz or bebop.

Collaborating with similar-minded musicians, most notably, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach, Parker revolutionized the art of jazz composition and soloing. As Louis Armstrong had done before him, Bird influenced all of the serious younger jazz musicians of his day, regardless of their chosen instrument. Parker's rhythmic, harmonic, and melodic innovations proved pivotal in changing the primarily dance-oriented swing jazz of the thirties and forties in the direction of full-blown art music. While many of his compositions are thought to have been created in the most casual of circumstances, such as during taxi rides or recording sessions, compositions such as "Confirmation," "Donna Lee," and "Now's the Time'' remain central to the repertoire of jazz standards.

Charlie Parker was perhaps the greatest genius jazz has known. He successfully toured Europe and the United States, his recordings eventually sold millions of copies, and he was so revered in jazz circles during his lifetime that a major jazz club–Birdland–was named in his honor. He became a patron saint of the Beat generation immortalized in Jack Kerouac's On the Road (1957), and he was the subject of a major Hollywood film tribute, Bird (1988), directed by devoted fan Clint Eastwood. Charlie Parker's genius was tragically short-lived. He died in New York City on March 12, 1955, from complications resulting from long-term substance abuse. Charlie Parker and his mother lie side by side in Lincoln Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.

William P. Nye Hollins University

Giddens, Gary. Celebrity Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker. New York: Beech Tree/Morrow, 1987.

Nye, William. "The Heroic Boon of Charlie Parker." Popular Music and Society 15 (1991): 21–31.

Riesner, Robert, ed. Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker. New York: Da Capo Press, 1977.

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