Charlie Parker

Charlie Parker Public Domain

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker

(August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955)

The only child of Charles and Addie Parker, Charlie Parker was one of the most important and influential saxophonists and jazz players of the 1940s. 

When Parker was still a child, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where jazz and blues music was developing.  When he was fifteen, he showed a great interest in music and a love for the alto saxophone.  Parker left school to start a musical career in 1935. 

From 1935 to 1939, Parker worked in Kansas City with several local jazz and blues bands.  Four years later, Parker visited New York for the first time, and he stayed for a year working as a professional musician and participating in jam sessions.  Parker loved New York, claiming that it affected his musical style and helped him develop as an artist. 

In 1938, Parker joined the band of pianist Jay McShann, and toured with them around Chicago and New York.  A year later, Parker traveled to Chicago on his own and became a regular performer at a club on 55th street.  Parker soon moved back to New York, washing dishes and trying to get back into music.  Shortly afterwards, Parker returned to Kansas City to attend his father’s funeral.  Once there, he joined Harlan Leonard’s Rockets and stayed for five months.  In 1939, Yardbird rejoined McShann’s band and was placed in charge of the reed section.  Parker made his first recording in 1940 with the McShann orchestra. 

During the four years that Parker stayed with McShann’s band, he got the opportunity to perform solo in several of their recordings, such as “Hootie Blues,” and the 1941 hit “Confessing the Blues.”  In 1942, while on tour with McShann, Parker performed in jam sessions at Monroe’s and Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem.  There he caught the attention of up-and-coming jazz artists like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.  Later that year, Parker broke with McShann, joining Earl Hines for eight months.

The year 1945 was extremely important for Parker.  He worked with Gillespie in New York, and in December, Parker and Gillespie took their music to Hollywood on a six-week nightclub tour.  Parker continued to perform in Los Angeles until he suffered a nervous breakdown in June 1946 and was confined at a state hospital.  After his release in January 1947, Parker returned to New York and formed a quintet that performed some of his most famous tunes. 

From 1947 to 1951, Parker worked in a number of nightclubs, radio studios, and other venues performing in groups and also working as a solo performer.  During this time, he visited Europe where he was cheered by devoted fans and did numerous recordings.  March 5, 1955, was Parker’s last public engagement at Birdland, a nightclub in New York that was named in his honor.  He suddenly died a week later in a friend’s apartment from health issues. 

Charles “Yardbird” Parker was an amazing saxophonist who gained wide recognition for his brilliant solos and innovative improvisations.  He was, without a doubt, one of the most influential and talented musicians in the world.