Today in History: Saxophonist Charlie Parker dies

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Article first published in Bio http://www.biography.com/people/charlie-parker-9433413#creating-bebop

Charlie Parker was a legendary Grammy Award–winning jazz saxophonist who, with Dizzy Gillespie, invented the musical style called bop.
QUOTES
“Don’t play the saxophone. Let it play you.”
—Charlie Parker
Synopsis

Charlie Parker was born on August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Kansas. From 1935 to 1939, he played the Missouri nightclub scene with local jazz and blues bands. In 1945 he led his own group while performing with Dizzy Gillespie on the side. Together they invented bebop. In 1949, Parker made his European debut, giving his last performance several years later. He died a week later on March 12, 1955, in New York City.

Early Life

Legendary jazz musician Charlie Parker was born Charles Christopher Parker Jr. on August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Kansas. His father, Charles Parker, was an African-American stage entertainer, and his mother, Addie Parker, was a maid-charwoman of Native-American heritage. An only child, Charlie moved with his parents to Kansas City, Missouri when he was 7 years old. At the time, the city was a lively center for African-American music, including jazz, blues and gospel.

Charlie discovered his own talent for music through taking lessons at public schools. As a teen, he played the baritone horn in the school band. By the time Charlie was 15, the alto saxophone was his instrument of choice. (Charlie’s mother had given him a saxophone a few years prior, to help cheer him up after his father had abandoned the family.) While still in school, Charlie started playing with bands on the local club scene. He was so enamored of playing the sax that, in 1935, he decided to drop out of school in pursuit of a full-time musical career.

Early Musical Career

From 1935 to 1939, Parker played the Kansas City, Missouri nightclub scene with local jazz and blues bands, including Buster Professor Smith’s band in 1937, and pianist Jay McShann’s band in 1938, with which he toured Chicago and New York.

In 1939, Parker decided to stick around New York City. There he remained for almost a year, working as a professional musician and jamming for pleasure on the side. After his yearlong stint in the Big Apple, Parker was featured as a regular performer at a Chicago club before deciding to move back to New York permanently. Parker was at first forced to wash dishes in order to get by.

Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker

While working in New York, Parker met guitarist Biddy Fleet. It would prove a fruitful encounter. While jamming with Fleet, Parker, who was bored by popular musical conventions, discovered a signature technique that involved playing the higher intervals of a chord for the melody and making changes to back them up accordingly.

Later that year Parker heard the news of his father’s death and went back to Kansas City, Missouri for the funeral. After the funeral, Parker joined Harlan Leonard’s Rockets and stayed in Missouri for the next five months. Parker then decided it was time to head back to New York, where he would rejoin Jay McShann’s band. It was with McShann’s band, in 1940, that Parker made his first recording.

Parker stayed on with the band for four years, during which time he was given several opportunities to perform solo on their recordings. It was also during his time with McShann that Parker earned his famous nickname “Bird,” short for “Yardbird.” As the story goes, Parker was given the nickname for one of two possible reasons: 1) He was free as a bird, or 2) he accidentally hit a chicken, otherwise known as a yard bird, while driving on tour with the band.

Creating Bebop

In 1942, burgeoning jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk saw Parker perform with McShann’s band in Harlem and were impressed by his unique playing style. Later that year, Parker signed up for an eight-month gig with Earl Hines. Then in 1944, Parker joined the Billy Eckstine band.

The year 1945 proved to be a landmark one for Parker. At this stage in his career, he is believed to have come into his maturity as a musician. For the first time, he became the leader of his own group while also performing with Dizzy Gillespie on the side. At the end of that year, the two musicians launched a six-week nightclub tour of Hollywood. Together they created an entirely new style of jazz, known as bop or bepop.

 

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