Parker, Charlie [Charles, jr; Bird; Chan, Charlie; Yardbird]


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Parker, Charlie [Charles, jr; Bird; Chan, Charlie; Yardbird]

(b Kansas City, KS, 29 Aug 1920; d New York, 12 March 1955). American jazz alto saxophonist. He was one of the most important and influential improvising soloists in jazz, and a central figure in the development of bop in the 1940s. A legendary figure in his own lifetime, he was idolized by those who worked with him, and he inspired a generation of jazz performers and composers.

1. Life.

Parker was the only child of Charles and Addie Parker. In 1927 the family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, an important centre of African American music in the 1920s and 1930s. Parker had his first music lessons in the local public schools; he began playing the alto saxophone in 1933 and worked occasionally in semi-professional groups before leaving school in 1935 to become a full-time musician. From 1935 to 1939 he worked mainly in Kansas City with a wide variety of local blues and jazz groups. Like most jazz musicians of his time, he developed his craft largely through practical experience: listening to older local jazz masters, acquiring a traditional repertory and learning through the process of trial and error in the competitive Kansas City bands and jam sessions.

In 1939 Parker first visited New York (then the principal centre of jazz musical and business activity), and stayed for nearly a year. Although he worked only sporadically as a professional musician, he often participated in jam sessions. By his own later account (Levin and Wilson, 1949), he was bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used then: ‘I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else … I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it’. While working over Cherokee in a jam session with the guitarist Biddy Fleet, Parker suddenly found that, by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, he could play what he had been ‘hearing’. Yet it was not until 1944–5 that his conceptions of rhythm and phrasing had evolved sufficiently to form his mature style.

Parker’s name first appeared in the music press in 1940; from this date his career is more fully documented. From 1940 to 1942 he played in Jay McShann’s band, with which he toured the Southwest, Chicago and New York, and took part in his first recording sessions in Dallas (1941). These recordings, and several made for broadcasting from the same period, document his early, swing-based style, and at the same time reveal his extraordinary gift for improvisation. In December 1942 he joined Earl Hines’s big band, which then included several other young modernists such as Dizzy Gillespie. By May 1944 they, with Parker, formed the nucleus of Billy Eckstine’s band.

During these years Parker regularly participated in after-hours jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House in New York, where the informal atmosphere and small groups favoured the development of his personal style, and of the new bop music generally. Unfortunately a strike by the American Federation of Musicians silenced most of the recording industry from August 1942, causing this crucial stage in Parker’s musical evolution to remain poorly documented (there are 9 privately-recorded acetates from February 1943 with Parker playing tenor saxophone and 4 more from late 1943–early 1944 with Parker on alto). When the recording ban ended, Parker recorded as a sideman (from 15 September 1944) and as a leader (from 26 November 1945), which introduced his music to a wider public and to other musicians.

The year 1945 marked a turning-point in Parker’s career: in New York he led his own group for the first time and worked extensively with Gillespie in small ensembles. In December 1945 he and Gillespie took the new jazz style to Hollywood, where they fulfilled a six-week night-club engagement. Parker continued to work in Los Angeles, recording and performing in concerts and night clubs, until 29 June 1946, when a nervous breakdown and addiction to heroin and alcohol caused his confinement at the Camarillo State Hospital. He was released in January 1947 and resumed work in Los Angeles.

Parker returned to New York in April 1947. He formed a quintet (with Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Tommy Potter and Max Roach), which recorded many of his most famous pieces. The years from 1947 to 1951 were Parker’s most fertile period. He worked in a wide variety of settings (night clubs, concerts, radio and recording studios) with his own small ensembles, a string group and Afro-Cuban bands, and as a guest soloist with local musicians when travelling without his own group. He recorded slightly over half his surviving work and visited Europe (1949 and 1950). Though still beset by problems associated with drugs and alcohol, he attracted a very large following in the jazz world and enjoyed a measure of financial success.

In July 1951 Parker’s New York cabaret licence was revoked at the request of the narcotics squad: this banned him from night-club employment in the city and forced him to adopt a more peripatetic life until the licence was reinstated (probably in autumn 1953). Sporadically employed, badly in debt and in failing physical and mental health, he twice attempted suicide in 1954 and voluntarily committed himself to Bellevue Hospital, New York. His last public engagement was on 5 March 1955 at Birdland, a New York night club named in his honour. He died seven days later in the Manhattan apartment of his friend the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, sister of Lord Rothschild.

2. Style.

Parker was among the supremely creative improvisers in jazz, one whose performances, like Armstrong’s before him, changed the nature of the music. The force and originality of his style was such that many listeners rejected his music as no longer part of the jazz tradition, and as other jazz musicians took up and elaborated his innovations the music sank to what was then its lowest ebb in popular acceptance. Only decades after his death did Parker shed the élite aura attached to him by fellow musicians and admiring jazz fans and begin to assume a classical status in the popular imagination.

Although Parker was an innovator, his music is rooted firmly in tradition. Like the Kansas City music he heard when young, Parker’s repertory was built on a very limited number of models: the 12-bar blues, a number of popular songs, several jazz standards and newly invented jazz melodies using the underlying harmonies of popular songs. This last-named category and blues account for about half the pieces he recorded. Although the device of composing new melodic themes to borrowed chord progressions was not new to jazz, bop musicians of the 1940s employed this technique much more extensively, partly for financial reasons (to avoid paying copyright royalties) and partly to frighten the uninitiated (who could not always recognize the underlying chord patterns), but also to invent themes that were more consistent with the new jazz style than the original melodies. Thus, by restricting himself to a few harmonic sources, Parker was able to improvise over a few familiar patterns, against which he constantly tested his ingenuity and powers of imagination. A number of Parker’s newly composed melodic themes (based on existing harmonic and metric structures) themselves became jazz standards, among them Anthropology (1950, Sonet; based on the chord progressions of George Gershwin’s I got rhythm, and written in collaboration with Gillespie), Now’s the Time (1945, Savoy; blues), Ornithology (1946, Dial; based on Morgan Lewis’s How High the Moon, probably written in collaboration with Little Benny Harris) and Scrapple from the Apple (1947, Dial; the A section from I got rhythm and the bridge from Fats Waller’s Honeysuckle Rose).

Parker’s outstanding achievement was not his composition but his brilliant improvisation. His improvised line combined drive and a complex organization of pitch and rhythm with a clarity rarely achieved by earlier soloists. In contrast to the rich timbres of Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter, the two most important predecessors on his instrument, Parker developed a penetrating tone with a slow, narrow vibrato. This suited the aggressive nature of the new music, and allowed him to concentrate on line and rhythm. Parker’s improvisations are usually based on the harmonic structure of the original. Melodic ornamentation or paraphrase occasionally occur, but characteristically these are reserved for thematic statements of popular melodies in the opening or closing chorus (ex.1).

Ex.1 Parker’s opening thematic statement on Out of Nowhere (1948, Le Jazz Cool); transcr. J. Patrick

His organization of rhythm and pitch often has an oblique relationship to the principal elements of jazz variation – the pulse (beat) and chord progressions. His solo on Dizzy Gillespie’s Groovin’ High (1945, Guild; ex.2) disturbs the crotchet pulse, steadfastly maintained by the accompanying double bass, resulting in an ever-changing succession of varied subdivisions. This rhythmic complexity is often used in conjunction with highly syncopated lines and persistently contrasting phrase lengths and accents, all helping to obscure the beat, metre and harmonic rhythm. His occasional derivation of pitches from the theme is often hidden by this kind of treatment. This can be seen in his solo on Groovin’ High, notably in bars 5 and 15.

Ex.2 Parker’s improvisation on D. Gillespie, Groovin’ High (1945, Guild); transcr. J. Patrick

Parker’s line typically includes pitches outside the given harmony: in addition to those produced by passing notes, suspensions and other familiar devices, these result from free use of chord extensions beyond the 7th (particularly the flattened 9th and raised 11th), chromatic interpolations suggesting passing chords, the interchange of major, minor, augmented and diminished triads with others on the same root and the anticipation or prolongation of chords within the given progression. Despite this harmonic complexity, Parker’s best work has a clear and coherent line. Sometimes this is achieved by motivic development, as in ex.3, the first ten bars of his solo on Klactoveedsedstene (1947, Dial; based on the chord progressions of Juan Tizol’s Perdido). This passage is constructed from three short ideas, developed and combined, with silences of subtly varied length throughout.

Ex.3 Klactoveedsedstene (1947, Dial); transcr. J. Patrick

In his improvisations, Parker most often drew from a corpus of formulae and arranged them into ever-new patterns, a technique sometimes known as cento. This aspect of Parker’s art has been exhaustively investigated by Owens (Charlie Parker, 1974), who codified Parker’s improvisational work according to about 100 formulae. Many of these are specific to certain keys (where they may be easier to finger) or to particular pieces. Some occur in earlier swing music, particularly in the work of Lester Young, but others originated with Parker himself, and later became common property among musicians working in the bop style. Although it is based on a limited number of such formulae, Parker’s work is neither haphazard nor ‘formulaic’ in a restricted sense: the arrangement of the formulae was subject to constant variation and redisposition, and his performances of a piece were never identical. The overriding criterion was always the coherence and expressiveness of the musical line.

Closely related to this approach is Parker’s use of musical quotations. Probably no jazz musician before him was as fond of this device, or as wide-ranging in his choice of material, as Parker, particularly in private performances in a relaxed atmosphere. His improvisations contain snatches of melody from popular songs and light classics; from earlier jazz performances such as Armstrong’s West End Blues; from his own jazz compositions; and even quotations from Wagner, Bizet and Stravinsky. He retained this device throughout his career, and it is another measure of his authority in jazz that witty quotations became characteristic of the bop style as a whole.

3. Influence.

Although Parker was not solely responsible for the development of the bop style, he was its most important representative and a source of inspiration to all musicians who took part in its early growth. His influence was not limited to performers on his own instrument: his lines, rhythmic devices and favourite motifs were transferred to instruments other than reeds, such as the trombone, vibraphone, piano and guitar, and many innovations of bop drummers were made in response to the increased rhythmic complexity of his music.

Parker’s influence was immediate and intense. His most famous early solos were learnt note-for-note by thousands of aspiring young bop musicians on all instruments; as early as 1948 published transcriptions of them were available for study purposes. Some were even given texts by bop singers and performed as independent pieces. Parker’s impact was naturally strongest on alto saxophonists such as Sonny Stitt, Cannonball Adderley, Phil Woods and many others; only Lee Konitz and West Coast musicians such as Paul Desmond managed to create viable independent styles on alto saxophone. Despite the differences in timbre and mobility of the lower-pitched, bulkier instrument, many tenor saxophonists also came under Parker’s sway, most notably Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Only in the early 1960s did Parker’s influence gradually wane as the modal style led to the abandonment of bop’s formulaic approach and the smoothing out of its erratic rhythms, and the free-jazz style dispensed with preset harmonic patterns; nor did Parker’s music play a role in the emergence of jazz-rock in the early 1970s. Nevertheless, his work remained available on disc in more or less complete reissue series, and recordings of his performances were discovered on private tapes, matrices or radio recordings, and issued posthumously.

With the revival of bop in the mid-1970s Parker’s music once again became a vital force in the evolution and teaching of jazz. The Fine Arts Library at the University of Texas, Austin, holds the world’s largest collection of recordings by Parker, and hundreds of his solos are now available to the student in published transcriptions. The group Supersax, based in Los Angeles, achieved some popular success playing Parker’s solos in harmonized arrangements for saxophone chorus. His work has been the subject of several university dissertations. Although the evanescent, hieratic and emotionally disturbing nature of Parker’s music precludes popularity on a par with that of Armstrong or Ellington, his place beside them as a creative force in jazz history is assured.



[[M. Feldman, ed.]: ]Charles Parker’s Bebop for Alto Sax: 4 Solos (New York, 1948)

P. Pinkerton, ed.: Charlie Parker: Nine Solos Transcribed from Historic Recordings (New York, 1961)

W.D. Stuart: Famous Transcribed Recorded Jazz Solos: Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker (New York, 1961)

Charlie Parker: Sketch Orks, Designed for Small Groups (New York, 1967)

T. Owens: Charlie Parker: Techniques of Improvisation, ii (diss., UCLA, 1974) [190 pieces]

S. Watanabe, ed.: Jazz Improvisation: Transcriptions of Charlie Parker’s Great Alto Solos (Tokyo, c1975) [25 pieces]

J. Aebersbold and K. Stone, eds: Charlie Parker Omnibook (New York, 1978) [60 pieces]

A. White, ed.: The Charlie Parker Collection: 308 Transcribed Alto Saxophone and Tenor Saxophone Solos (Washington DC, 1978–9)

Documents and sources

N. Hentoff and R. Sanjek: Charlie Parker (New York, 1960) [list of compositions]

R. Reisner: Bird: the Legend of Charlie Parker (New York, 1961, 2/1962/R)

G.R. Davies: ‘Charlie Parker Chronology’, Discographical Forum, nos.17–26 (1970–71)

D. Morgenstern and others: Bird and Diz: a Bibliography (New York, 1973)

P. Koster and D.M. Bakker: Charlie Parker (Alphen aan de Rijn, 1974–6) [incl. discography]

C. Parker and F. Paudras: To Bird with Love (Antigny, 1981) [photographs]

R. Bregman, L. Bukowski and N. Saks: The Charlie Parker Discography (Redwood, NY, 1993)

T. Hirschmann: Charlie Parker: kritische Beiträge zur Bibliographie sowie zu Leben und Werk (Tutzing, 1994)

Bird - The Chan Parker Collection, Christie's, 8 Sept 1994 (London, 1994) [auction catalogue]

K. Vale: Bird's Diary – The Life of Charlie Parker 1945–1955 (London, 1996) [reprints of collected source material]

Charlie Parker sessionography (College Park, MD, University of Maryland; P. Losin) [on-line database: Parker recording sessions, with notes and biographical information; initially inaugurated by J. Burton, Aug 29 1995]

Charlie Parker

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Charles Parker, Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955) was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.

Parker, with Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, is often considered one of the most influential of jazz musicians. Parker acquired the nickname "Yardbird" early in his career,[2] and the shortened form "Bird" remained Parker's sobriquet for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles of a number of Parker compositions, such as "Birdfeathers", "Yardbird Suite" and "Ornithology."

Parker played a leading role in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, virtuosic technique, and improvisation based on harmonic structure. Parker's innovative approaches to melody, rhythm, and harmony exercised enormous influence on his contemporaries. Several of Parker's songs have become standards, including "Billie's Bounce", "Anthropology", "Ornithology", and "Confirmation". He introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including a tonal vocabulary employing 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords, rapidly implied passing chords, and new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. Although many Parker recordings demonstrate dazzling virtuosic technique and complex melodic lines – such as "Ko-Ko", "Kim", and "Leap Frog" – he was also one of the great blues players. His themeless blues improvisation "Parker's Mood" represents one of the most deeply affecting recordings in jazz. At various times, Parker fused jazz with other musical styles, from classical to Latin music, blazing paths followed later by others.

Parker was an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat generation, personifying the conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual, rather than just a popular entertainer. His style – from a rhythmic, harmonic and soloing perspective – influenced countless peers on every instrument.


Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, the only child of Charles and Addie Parker. Charles, an alcoholic, was often absent. Parker attended Lincoln High School [3]. He enrolled in September 1934 and withdrew in December 1935 about the time he joined the local Musicians Union.

Parker displayed no sign of musical talent as a child. His father presumably provided some musical influence; he was a pianist, dancer and singer on the T.O.B.A. circuit, although he later became a Pullman waiter or chef on the railways. His mother worked nights at the local Western Union. His biggest influence however was a young trombone player who taught him the basics of improvisation.

Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11 and at age 14 joined his school's band using a rented school instrument. One story holds that, without formal training, he was terrible, and thrown out of the band. Experiencing periodic setbacks of this sort, at one point he broke off from his constant practicing.

Early career

It has been said that, in early 1936, Parker participated in a 'cutting contest' that included Jo Jones on drums, who tossed a cymbal at Parker's feet in impatience with his playing. However, in the numerous interviews throughout his life, Jones made no mention of this incident. Exasperated and determined, in any case, at this time Parker improved the quality of practicing, learning the blues, "Cherokee" and "rhythm changes" in all twelve keys. In this wood-shedding period, Parker mastered improvisation and developed some of the ideas of be-bop. In an interview with Paul Desmond, he said he spent 3-4 years practicing up to 15 hours a day.[4]. Rumor has it that he used to play many other tunes in all twelve keys. The story, though undocumented, would help to explain the fact that he often played in unconventional concert pitch key signatures, like E (which transposes to C# for the alto sax). Groups led by Count Basie and Bennie Moten were the leading Kansas City ensembles, and undoubtedly influenced Parker. He continued to play with local bands in jazz clubs around Kansas City, Missouri, where he perfected his technique with the assistance of Buster Smith, whose dynamic transitions to double and triple time certainly influenced Parker's developing style.

In 1938, Parker joined pianist Jay McShann's territory band.[5] The band toured nightclubs and other venues of the southwest, as well as Chicago and New York City.[6][7] Parker made his professional recording debut with McShann's band. It was said at one point in McShann's band that he "sounded like a machine", owing to his virtuosity without implying a lack of musicality.

As a teenager, Parker developed a morphine addiction while in hospital after an automobile accident, and subsequently became addicted to heroin. Heroin would haunt him throughout his life and ultimately contribute to his death.


In 1939, Parker moved to New York City. There he pursued a career in music, but held several other jobs as well. He worked for $9 a week as a dishwasher at Jimmie's Chicken Shack where pianist Art Tatum performed. Parker's later style in some ways recalled Tatum's, with dazzling, high-speed arpeggios and sophisticated use of harmony.

In 1942 Parker left McShann's band and played with Earl Hines for one year. Also in the band was trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie, which is where the soon to be famous duo met for the first time. Unfortunately, this period is virtually undocumented because of the strike of 1942-1943 by the American Federation of Musicians, during which no official recordings were made. Nevertheless we know that Parker joined a group of young musicians in after-hours clubs in Harlem such as Clark Monroe's Uptown House and (to a much lesser extent) Minton's Playhouse. These young iconoclasts included Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, guitarist Charlie Christian, and drummer Kenny Clarke. The beboppers' attitude was summed up in a famous quotation attributed to Monk by Mary Lou Williams: "We wanted a music that they couldn't play" – "they" being the (white) bandleaders who had taken over and profited from swing music. The group played in venues on 52nd Street including the Three Deuces and The Onyx. In his time in New York City, Parker also learned much from notable music teacher Maury Deutsch.


Right side view of a Conn 6M "Lady Face" alto sax with highly distinctive underslung octave key, a model that Parker is known to have used.[5][6] [7]

According to an interview Parker gave in the 1950s: one night in 1939, he was playing "Cherokee" in a jam session with guitarist William 'Biddy' Fleet when he hit upon a method for developing his solos that enabled him to play what he had been hearing in his head for some time, by building on the chords' extended intervals, such as ninths, elevenths, and thirteenths. Still with McShann's orchestra, Parker at this time realized that the twelve tones of the chromatic scale can each be quickly led melodically to any key, breaking some of the confines of simpler jazz soloing.

Early in its development, this new type of jazz was rejected by many of the established, traditional jazz musicians who disdained their younger counterparts with comments like Eddie Condon's putdown: "They flat their fifths; we drink ours." The beboppers, in response, called these traditionalists "moldy figs". However, some musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman, were more positive about its development, and participated in jam sessions and recording dates in the new approach with its adherents.

Because of the 2-year Musicians' Union recording ban on all commercial recordings from 1942-1944 (part of a struggle to get royalties from record sales for a union fund for out-of-work musicians), much of bebop's early development was not captured for posterity; as a result, the new musical concepts only gained limited radio exposure. Bebop musicians had a difficult time gaining widespread recognition. It was not until 1945, when the recording ban was lifted, that Parker's collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and others had a substantial effect on the jazz world. One of their first (and greatest) small-group performances together was rediscovered and issued in 2005: a concert in New York's Town Hall on June 22, 1945. Bebop began to grab hold and gain wider appeal among musicians and fans alike.

On November 26, 1945 Parker led a record date for the Savoy label, marketed as the "greatest Jazz session ever." The tracks recorded during this session include "Ko-Ko" (based on the chords of "Cherokee"), "Now's the Time" (a twelve bar blues incorporating a riff later used in the late 1949 R&B dance hit "The Hucklebuck"), "Billie's Bounce", and "Thriving on a Riff".

Shortly afterwards, the Parker/Gillespie band traveled to an unsuccessful engagement at Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles. Most of the group returned to New York, but Parker remained in California, cashing in his return ticket to buy heroin. He experienced great hardship in California, eventually being committed to Camarillo State Hospital for a six month period.


Parker's addiction to heroin, which began in his late teens, caused him to miss gigs and to be fired for being high. To satisfy his habit, he frequently resorted to busking on the streets for drug money, receiving loans from fellow musicians/admirers, pawning his own horn and borrowing other sax players' instruments as a result. Parker's situation was typical of the strong connection between drug abuse and jazz at the time.

Although he produced many brilliant recordings during this period, Parker's behavior became increasingly erratic due to his habit. Heroin was difficult to obtain after he moved to California for a short time where the drug was less abundant, and Parker began to drink heavily to compensate for this. A recording for the Dial label from July 29, 1946 provides evidence of his condition. Prior to this session, Parker drank about a quart of whiskey. According to the liner notes of Charlie Parker on Dial Volume 1, Parker missed most of the first two bars of his first chorus on the track, "Max Making Wax." When he finally did come in, he swayed wildly and once spun all the way around, going badly off mic. On the next tune, "Lover Man", producer Ross Russell physically supported Parker in front of the microphone. On the final track Parker recorded that evening, he begins a solo with a solid first eight bars. On his second eight bars, however, Parker begins to struggle, and a desperate Howard McGhee, the trumpeter on this session, shouts, "Blow!" at Parker. McGhee's bellow is audible on the recording. Charles Mingus considered this version of "Lover Man" to be among Parker's greatest recordings despite its flaws. Nevertheless, Parker hated the recording and never forgave Ross Russell for releasing the sub-par performance (and re-recorded the tune in 1953 for Verve, this time in stellar form, but perhaps lacking some of the passionate emotion in the earlier, problematic attempt).

During the night following the "Lover Man" session, Parker was drinking in his hotel room. He entered the hotel lobby stark naked on several occasions and asked to use the phone, but was refused on each attempt; the hotel manager eventually locked him in his room. At some point during the night, he set fire to his mattress with a cigarette, then ran through the hotel lobby wearing only his socks. He was arrested and committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, where he remained for six months.

Coming out of the hospital, Parker was initially clean and healthy, and proceeded to do some of the best playing and recording of his career. Before leaving California, he recorded "Relaxin' at Camarillo", in reference to his hospital stay. He returned to New York – and his addiction – and recorded dozens of sides for the Savoy and Dial labels that remain some of the high points of his recorded output. Many of these were with his so-called "classic quintet" including trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach. The highlights of these sessions include a series of slower-tempo performances of American popular songs including "Embraceable You" and "Bird of Paradise" (based on "All the Things You Are").

Charlie Parker with strings

A longstanding desire of Parker's was to perform with a string section. He was a keen student of classical music, and contemporaries reported he was most interested in the music and formal innovations of Igor Stravinsky, and longed to engage in a project akin to what later became known as 'Third Stream Music'; a new kind of music, incorporating both jazz and classical elements as opposed to merely incorporating a string section into performance of jazz standards. On November 30, 1949, Norman Granz arranged for Parker to record an album of ballads with a mixed group of jazz and chamber orchestra musicians.[8] Six master takes from this session comprised the album Bird With Strings: "Just Friends", "Everything Happens to Me", "April in Paris", "Summertime", "I Didn't Know What Time It Was", and "If I Should Lose You." The sound of these recordings is rare in Parker's catalog. Parker's improvisations are, relative to his usual work, more distilled and economical. His tone is darker and softer than on his small-group recordings, and the majority of his lines are beautiful embellishments on the original melodies rather than harmonically based improvisations. These are among the few recordings Parker made during a brief period when he was able to control his heroin habit, and his sobriety and clarity of mind are evident in his playing. Parker stated that, of his own records, Bird With Strings was his favorite. Although using classical music instrumentation with jazz musicians was not entirely original, this was the first major work where a composer of bebop was matched with a string orchestra.

Some fans thought it was a "sell out" and a pandering to popular tastes. Time demonstrated Parker's move a wise one: Charlie Parker with Strings sold better than his other releases, and his version of "Just Friends" is seen as one of his best performances. In an interview, he considered it to be his best recording to that date.


By 1950, much of the jazz world had fallen under Parker's spell. Many musicians transcribed and copied his solos. Legions of saxophonists imitated his playing note-for-note. In response to these pretenders, Parker's admirer, the bass player Charles Mingus, titled a tune "Gunslinging Bird" (meaning "If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there would be a whole lot of dead copycats") featured on the album Mingus Dynasty. In this regard, he is perhaps only comparable to Louis Armstrong: both men set the standard for their instruments for decades, and few escaped their influence.

In 1953, Parker performed at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, joined by Gillespie, Mingus, Bud Powell and Max Roach. Unfortunately, the concert clashed with a televised heavyweight boxing match between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott and as a result was poorly attended. Thankfully, Mingus recorded the concert, and the album Jazz at Massey Hall is often cited as one of the finest recordings of a live jazz performance, with the saxophonist credited as "Charley Chan" for contractual reasons.

At this concert, he played a plastic Grafton saxophone (serial number 10265);[9] later, saxophonist Ornette Coleman used this brand of plastic sax in his early career. Parker had sold his alto saxophone to buy drugs, and at the last minute, he, Dizzy Gillespie and other members of Charlie's entourage went running around Toronto trying to find Parker a saxophone. After scouring all the downtown pawnshops open at the time, they were only able to find a Grafton, which Parker proceeded to use at the concert that night.

Parker was known for often showing up to performances without an instrument, necessitating a loan at the last moment. There are various photos which show him playing a Conn 6M saxophone, a high quality instrument which was noted for having a very fast action[10] and a unique "underslung" octave key.[11][12][13][14] Some of the photographs showing Parker with a Conn 6M were taken on separate occasions [15][16][17][18] because Parker can be seen wearing different clothing and there are different backgrounds. However, other photos exist which show Parker holding alto saxophones with a more conventional octave key arrangement, i.e. mounted above the crook of the saxophone[19] e.g. the Martin Handicraft[20] and Selmer Model 22[21] saxophones, amongst others. Parker is also known to have performed with a King 'Super 20' saxophone, with a semi-underslung octave key which bears some resemblance to those fitted on modern Yanagisawa instruments. Parker's King Super 20 saxophone was made specially for him in 1947.


Parker died in the suite of his friend and patron Nica de Koenigswarter at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City while watching The Dorsey Brothers' Stage Show on television. Though the official causes of death were lobar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, Parker's demise was undoubtedly hastened by his drug and alcohol abuse. The coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker's 34-year-old body to be between 50 and 60 years of age.[22]

It was well known that Parker never wanted to return to Kansas City, even in death. Parker had told his common-law wife, Chan, that he didn’t want to be buried in the city of his birth; that New York was his home and he didn’t want any fuss or memorials when he died. At the time of his death, though, he hadn’t divorced his previous wife Doris, nor had he officially married Chan, which left Parker in the rather awkward post-mortem situation of having two widows, a scenario which muddied the issue of next of kin and would ultimately serve to frustrate his wish to be quietly interred in his adopted hometown. Dizzy Gillespie was able to co-opt the funeral arrangements[23] that Chan had been putting together and coordinated a ‘lying-in-state’, a Harlem procession officiated by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and a memorial concert before flying Parker's body back to Missouri to be buried there per his mother's wishes. Parker was buried at Lincoln Cemetery[24] in Kansas City, Missouri.

Charlie Parker was survived by his widows Doris Parker and Chan Parker; a stepdaughter, Kim Parker, who is also a musician; and a son, Baird Parker; their later lives are chronicled in Chan Parker's autobiography, My Life in E Flat[25].

Shortly after Parker died, graffiti began appearing around New York with the words "Bird Lives", the ultimate source for this is usually considered to be the poet Ted Joans.

Musical approach

Parker's style of composition involved interpolation of original melodies over pre-existing jazz forms and standards, a practice still common in jazz today. Examples include "Ornithology" ("How High The Moon"), "Yardbird Suite" ("What Price Love") and "Donna Lee" ("Indiana"). The practice was not uncommon prior to bebop; however, it became a signature of the movement as artists began to move away from arranging popular standards and began to compose their own material .

While tunes such as "Now's The Time", "Billie's Bounce", and "Cool Blues" were based on conventional 12-bar blues changes, Parker also created a unique version of the 12-bar blues for his tune "Blues for Alice". These unique chords are known popularly as "Bird Changes". Like his solos, some of his compositions are characterised by long, complex melodic lines and a minimum of repetition although he did employ the use of repetitive (yet relatively rhythmically complex) motifs in many other tunes as well, most notably "Now's The Time".

Parker also contributed a vast rhythmic vocabulary to the modern jazz solo, one in which triplets and pick-up notes were used in (then) unorthodox ways to lead into chord tones, affording the soloist with more freedom to use passing tones which soloists would have previously avoided. Within this context, Parker was admired for his unique style of phrasing and innovative use of rhythm. Via his recordings and the popularity of the posthumously published Charlie Parker Omnibook, Parker's uniquely identifiable vocabulary of "licks" and "riffs" dominated jazz for many years to come. Today his concepts and ideas are transcribed, studied, and analyzed by a great deal of jazz students and are part of any player's basic jazz vocabulary.


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