Charlie Parker - myth and mayhem
Posted on 31st Aug 2020 by John Rosie
In celebration of the 100th year since Charlie Parker's birth, National Jazz Archive trustee John Rosie explores Parker’s early life and influences along with the development of bebop music. Often portrayed as a tragic character, this giant of 20th century music is forever linked with the jazz revolution he helped create.
Charles Christopher 'Charlie' Parker Jr was the only son of Charles and Addie Parker and was born on 29 August 1920, in Kansas City, Kansas. In his seventh year the family moved across river and state line to Kansas City, Missouri, where he stayed until he left home in his late teens.
Parker’s father was said to be more interested in gambling than being a family man. Originally from Mississippi, Charles Sr was a vaudeville entertainer who played the piano, danced and sang. His mother (Charles’ second wife) was from Oklahoma. During Charlie’s early life his father was often away on tour. Later becoming a Pullman cook, Charles Sr had abandoned his family before Charlie was 10 years old.
Charlie Parker developed his interest in music through the various schools he attended, where he received some tuition on the saxophone. He initially played baritone saxophone at school, but his mother bought him his first alto saxophone when he was 11. After joining the school band when he was 14, he quickly rose to first chair.
Largely self-taught, he said that he ‘used to put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day’ of practice during his early teenage years. Unaware that the modern tunes of the day often used few keys, the young Parker learned how to play all of them.
Kansas City was a lively centre for African-American music, including jazz, blues and gospel. While his mother was working night shifts as a cleaner at the Western Union, Charlie would often slip out to jazz clubs to see the local musicians, including his idol, tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who had settled in Kansas in the early 1930s.
While still at school, Charlie had joined a local band and was influenced by bands he saw in Kansas City including those led by pianists Count Basie and local hero Bennie Moten.
He dropped out of school in late 1935 to pursue a full-time career in music. In 1937 he joined Buster Smith’s band. Buster ‘Professor’ Smith was a musical mentor of the young Parker: he helped him with his technique and is thought to have influenced his style development through using double and triple time in his transitions. (Smith also developed the louder so-called Texas Sax Sound he used with Lester Young in the Count Basie band.)
Smith said of Parker ‘He did play like me quite a bit I guess. But, after a while, anything I could make on my horn, he could make too, and make something better of it’. A father figure to Parker, Smith said ‘He’d listen to you. He used to call me his dad. I called him my boy’.
When 16, Charlie married his childhood sweetheart Rebecca Ruffin (said to be four years his senior, although this is disputed). They had two children before divorcing in 1939.
Part-myth and jazz-lore, in Clint Eastwood’s biographical film Bird, the defining moment for the young saxophone player is shown as his public humiliation when he has a cymbal thrown at him on stage. In 1937, Parker was a confident 16-year-old musician waiting in line to jam onstage at Kansas City’s Reno Club (star guest on stage was Jo Jones, drummer for Count Basie’s Orchestra).
He had practised new ways of phrasing and had bought a new Selmer saxophone. When his time came he started well, but then lost the beat – Jones stopped and Parker froze. Jones then contemptuously threw a cymbal at his feet, which resulted in laughter and catcalls from the audience. Before walking off, legend has it that Parker says he will be back and vows to himself to practise harder – he returned a year later an even more confident and capable artist.
Charlie joined pianist Jay McShann’s band in 1938 and toured with them to Chicago and New York. He stayed with the band on and off for four years.
In 1939 Parker decided to stay in New York City, where he worked as a musician and remained for almost a year. It was during this time that he experienced a stylistic breakthrough. While jamming with guitarist Biddy Fleet he discovered a signature technique. He recounted ‘I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used at the time … I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.’
Charles Parker Sr is said to have died of a stabbing in 1940. On hearing of his father’s death, Parker went back to Kansas City, Missouri for the funeral. After staying there for a few months (where he first encountered his bebop cohort, trumpet player and later band leader Dizzy Gillespie) he headed back to New York City to re-join McShann’s band and, in the same year, make his first recording.
According to myth, it was during this time with McShann’s band that the young Charlie Parker got his nickname of ‘Yardbird’ or ‘Bird’. This was supposed to have been bestowed on him by his fellow band-members while on a tour bus and a chicken was run over and killed. Parker halted the bus and collected the dead bird, which was then plucked, cooked and served for dinner later that night. Chickens in the south of the USA were always called ‘yardbirds’ and the moniker was a gentle jibe at the country boy who had seized his opportunity for an easy meal.
Later the jibe would be flipped by Dizzy Gillespie, who imbued it with respect. Others, partly supported by Parker himself, recalled that his nickname came simply from his love of eating chicken in any form.
The musical genre most associated with Charlie Parker is bebop, most likely named after the onomatopoeic sounds of scat singing (although even this is disputed, with Thelonious Monk claiming it originates as a variation of the original title ‘Bip Bop’ for his composition ‘52nd Street Theme’). Bebop was a revolution that came from a reaction against the predictable music of the dance-based swing groups of the time. Although having its roots in the 1930s, bebop flourished in the small jazz clubs of the 1940s.
During the war years in the USA, many musicians were drafted and consequently the big bands shrank. Smaller quartets and quintets became popular and after-hours jam sessions helped develop the small band compositions. The sound shifted the musical focus from soft intricate band arrangements to more jagged improvisation and interaction.
Although some did initially dance to bebop music, it is essentially concert music. Its compositions are characterised by fast tempos, complex chord progressions and rapid chord changes. The numerous changes of key and improvisation require a virtuosity from its musicians – this would sometimes result in musical snobbery during jam sessions when bebop musicians would reject those unable to keep up or understand the complex chord progressions. You were either in or out, ‘hip’ or ‘square’.
Parker next encountered Gillespie when they both joined the Earl Hines band in 1942, although for Parker this was short-lived as he was fired by Hines for poor time-keeping. Parker, along with Gillespie and Monk, were deemed ineligible for military service and so continued to play in New York City during the early 1940s when bebop started to break out from the restricted style of dance music.
Perhaps more than any musician, Charlie Parker defined the avant-garde sound of bebop. His wondrous flights of fancy during solos showed his virtuosity through speed of playing and improvisation, coupled with invention, imagination and astounding chord changes.
In the National Jazz Archive we are lucky to have a wealth of first-hand accounts from jazz musicians and those associated with the different jazz eras. One of these is an interview with Norwegian trumpeter Rowland Greenberg. He shares his experiences of working with Parker, who joined Greenberg in his Swedish tour band of 1950. You can find the full transcript of this interview here on our website.
Happy 100th birthday Bird.
Image source and details.
You can find other articles about various jazz musicians and the work of the National Jazz Archive
- JD Considine, The sound and myth of Charlie Parker at 100, Downbeat, 10 January 2020
- Charlie Parker, Biography Newsletter, original 24 November 2014, updated 22 June 2020
- The importance of Buster Smith. And Lucille’s. kcjazzlark, 6 December 2010
- Charlie Parker, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Updated 25 August 2020
- Michael Verity, How the rise of bebop changed jazz, Liveaboutdotcom, Updated 16 April 2018