One of the greatest jazz innovators of all time, Charlie Parker (1920-1955) is one of the few musicians who can be said to have permanently changed jazz.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Parker grew up in nearby Kansas City, Missouri. He was so attracted to the Kansas City nightlife that he dropped out of school at the age of 14 despite being only a beginner on alto sax. At that point, his ideas were far ahead of his technique and, after a few humiliating episodes at jam sessions, he spent a summer playing his horn largely nonstop. No one would ever defeat him in a cutting contest again.
Parker worked with the Jay McShann Orchestra off and on during 1937-1942, making his recording debut with the band. His style was influenced by Lester Young and his love for the blues, but his ideas were far more advanced than any of his contemporaries. Parker (who picked up the lifelong nickname of Bird) also had the ability to play perfectly coherent solos at ridiculously fast tempos. By the time he met his musical soulmate, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Bird was on his way to the top of jazz. Diz and Bird worked together in the big bands of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine during 1943-1944 and created a sensation in 1945, both in their live performances in 52nd Street clubs and in their recordings. Due to their stunning playing, bebop replaced swing as the jazz mainstream.
Bird’s longtime heroin addiction and his recklessness resulted in an erratic lifestyle full of triumphs and disasters. Along the way he made brilliant recordings for the Savoy, Dial, and Verve labels. Although poorly recorded, Bird at St. Nick’s and Bird on 52nd Street, originally made for the short-lived Jazz Workshop label, show just how remarkable a soloist he could be when jamming in clubs.
One of Charlie Parker’s last great performances was his famed Massey Hall Concert in 1953, featuring Bird with Dizzy, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach and available as Jazz at Massey Hall.
Charlie Parker lived to be only 34, but his musical legacy remains enormous.