Charlie Parker – A Flight Ended Too Soon

Charles Christopher Parker, Jr. was better known to jazz fans as “Bird,” a name which had been shortened from “Yardbird,” which is in turn an old black slang word for “chicken.”   But it's hard to see any “chicken,” in any of its slang meanings, in Parker or his music. His music soared like a free-flying bird, uncaged and climbing toward the sun.

Parker got too close to the sun. Born on August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas, he died on March 12, 1955 in the New York City apartment of the Baroness Pannonica (better known as "Nica") de Koenigswarter. There were three autopsies performed after his death. He was killed by a blow from drummer Art Blakey during a fight. He was 34 years old.

In those 34 years Parker revolutionized the sound of jazz, but at great personal expense. A virtuoso on alto saxophone, he could not only play incredibly fast – playing 16th and 32nd notes (you can fit 16 16th notes into a single bar of music, or 32 32nd notes) – but with impeccable inflection and rhythm. If you slow one of his recorded solos to half speed you can hear this more clearly:   not only does every note make musical sense, it is perfectly formed and its rhythmic placement uses a sophisticated syncopation and is not – despite the speed of execution – metronomically even.

Parker, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk, is credited with the creation of “bebop,” or “bop,” as it came to be known: the first “modern” jazz to follow swing music at the end of the 1930s. Although bop has been superceded since then its musical vocabulary still dominates most contemporary jazz and has been assimilated into our musical culture itself.   Its once-daring flatted fifths no longer surprise or shock our ears.

Parker was the son of a vaudevillian song and dance man, who abandoned his family when Parker was 10 or 11. Parker himself was musically precocious, picking up the alto sax at 12, teaching himself how to play it, and turning professional at 15 (lying about his age to join the local musicians' union). He joined the Jay McShann Orchestra when he was 17, and recorded his first solos with that band (“Lady Be Good” and “Honeysuckle Rose”) three years later in 1940.

Parker was part of the after-hours jam sessions in Harlem where bop first was incubated, and his playing with McShann and subsequently Noble Sissle, Earl Hines and Billy Ekstine’s bands in the early 1940s revealed an already well-developed style full of startlingly original ideas.   Instead of basing his solos on the melody of a piece, he based them on the harmonies and chord-progressions, creating a wholly new melody.   Subsequently he would create new pieces – now jazz “standards” – the same way, basing “Anthropology” on the chords of “How High The Moon,” for example.   (Other Parker-composed “standards” include “Ornithology,” “Scrapple from the Apple,” “Ko Ko,” “Now's the Time,” and “Parker’s Mood,” a blues.)

Parker formed his own quintet – which included the young Miles Davis – in 1947 and was at his peak during the 1947-1951 period, during which time he recorded for both the Dial and the Savoy labels.   All of his studio recordings are available on CD, as are a large number of live recordings, most of them done on disc recorders (at 78 rpm) before the advent of tape recording, and many of them of mediocre sound quality.   (Some of these recordings were made by fans who turned on their recorders only when Parker soloed, ignoring the rest of the band’s performances.) In 1953 he appeared at Toronto’s Massey Hall with an all-star quintet – Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Bud Powell on Piano, Charles Mingus on bass and Max Roach on drums – for a concert which was recorded for Debut Records.

But Parker was also a heroin addict and an alcoholic, a man of gargantuan tastes who massively abused himself. He had “dried out” and was trying to put his life together when the Baroness de Koenigswarter, a wealthy and attractive “patroness” of jazz, invited him to stay for several days in her apartment. When drummer Blakey returned from an out of town gig and found Parker there, a fight ensued, and Parker was killed. It is said that at the time of his death he appeared to be twice his actual age.   Blakey was never charged with Parker’s death, and his involvement was never reported in the jazz press.

But almost immediately after Parker's death the graffiti began to appear: “Bird lives! (29638 bytes)