Charlie Parker (August 29, 1920 - March 12, 1955) was a jazz saxophonist and composer, and one of the top musical innovators of the 20th century. Parker is commonly considered one of the half-dozen greatest jazz musicians, on a level with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins and Johnny Hodges. He received early in his career the nickname of Yardbird which was shortened to Bird. Many refer to Parker as the Father of Modern Jazz since his influence on jazz is incalculable. Almost every serious jazz musician after him has at one time studied his approach to melody and harmony and absorbed much of his style.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Parker showed musical talent from a very early age. As a small boy, he sang in the church choir of a local Catholic Church. Parker's father provided much musical influence, as he was a piano player and singer in a vaudeville circuit. Parker grew up listening to jazz bands like Count Basie's and Bennie Moten's. Although he sometimes played tenor saxophone, he primarily played the alto saxophone. He first recorded with Jay McShann's Kansas City orchestra.
Parker moved to New York City, where he emerged as the leading figure in the generation of artists that created bebop. Building on the innovations of the preceding generation of players — especially Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young — Parker developed a revolutionary musical vocabulary and style. He worked with and inspired the most prominent and influential jazz musicians of the era, producing a series of classic recordings with artists including Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke, and Miles Davis.
Parker's soaring, fast, rhythmically asymmetrical improvisations could amaze the listener; nevertheless close inspection shows each line to hold a complete, well-constructed phrase with each note in place. Parker's harmonic ideas were revolutionary, introducing a new tonal vocabulary employing 9ths, 11ths and 13ths of chords, rapidly implied passing chords, and new variants of altered chords and chord substitutions. His tone was clean and penetrating, but sweet and plaintive on ballads. Although many Parker recordings demonstrate dazzling virtuoso technique and complex melodic lines — the early 'Ko-Ko' is a superb example — he was also one of the great blues players. His themeless blues improvisation 'Parker's Mood' represents one of the most deeply affecting recordings in jazz, as fundamental as Armstrong's classic 'West End Blues.'
Parker became an icon for the Beat generation, and was a pivotal figure in the evolving conception of the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than just a popular entertainer. At various times, Parker fused jazz with other musical styles, from Igor Stravinsky to Machito, blazing another path followed later by others.
Parker was known for often showing up to performances without a horn and borrowing someone else's at the last moment. At one venue he played on a plastic Grafton saxophone.
He died while watching Tommy Dorsey on television in the suite at the Hotel Stanhope belonging to his friend and patroness Nica de Koenigswarter. He had suffered tragically from drug abuse — as a teenager he developed a morphine addiction while in hospital after an automobile accident, and subsequently became addicted to heroin. His heroin addiction ultimately caused his death at the age of 34, after a lifetime of abuse (though the 'official' cause of death was a bleeding ulcer and pneumonia). The coroner mistakenly estimated Parker's age to be between 50 and 60.
- Parker's performances of 'I Remember You' and 'Parker's Mood' were selected by Harold Bloom for inclusion on his short list of the twentieth-century American Sublime.
- The Birdland night club was named after him.
- A memorial to Parker was dedicated in 1999 in Kansas City at 17th Terrace and the Paseo, featuring a 10-foot tall bronze head sculpted by Robert Graham.
- Phil Woods, a famous saxophone player recorded a tribute concert for Parker, and in an interview stated that he thought Parker had said everything he needed to say.
- 'Bird's mind and fingers work with incredible speed. He can imply four chord changes in a melodic pattern where another musician would have trouble inserting two.' - Leonard Feather
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