Charlie Parker Day

August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955

A tribute to one of the true jazz masters

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Alto-saxophonist Charlie Parker was born August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas.

Parker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, starting on baritone horn and switching to alto-sax when he was ten.

He was so attracted by the Kansas City jazz scene that he dropped out of school when he was 14 to try to make it as a musician but, as he found out at jam sessions where he did not quite know the songs, he was not ready.

Charlie Parker took care of the problem one summer by woodshedding to Lester Young records around the clock until he had developed his own style.

In 1937 Parker (who soon gained the nickname of “Bird”) was a member of the Jay McShann Orchestra with whom he made his recording debut in 1940.

Visiting New York with McShann, Bird had the opportunity to perform at jam sessions at Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House, and to meet trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie who was developing an equally radical style.

“Bird and Diz” worked together with the Earl Hines Orchestra in 1943 and Billy Eckstine’s big band the following year, developing the new modern jazz music that was soon called bebop.

Their joint recordings of 1945 revolutionized jazz, putting the emphasis on chordal improvisation, rapid phrases, and new ideas that became the mainstream of jazz.

Charlie Parker’s life was consistently erratic due to his heroin addiction and excessive intake of alcohol, but at his best, no other horn player ever performed on his level, playing perfectly coherent and creative solos at blistering tempos.

Parker often teamed up with Gillespie in 1945, survived a mental breakdown the following year, and during 1947-48 led his finest working group which also included trumpeter Miles Davis, pianist Duke Jordan, bassist Tommy Potter and drummer Max Roach.

During the next seven years there would be many musical highpoints (Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, his famous recordings with strings, visits to Europe, and reunions with Gillespie) but the excesses of his life resulted in Charlie Parker passing away at the age of 34.

There are very few films of Charlie Parker and here is the best one, a version of “Hot House” from 1952 with Gillespie and pianist Dick Hyman.

-Scott Yanow


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