Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas on August 29, 1920. He was born under the name Charles Parker Jr. Charles Parker Sr didn’t play a huge role in Charlie’s life. He soon left Charlie and his mother after Charlie was born. Charlie’s mother, Adelaide “Addie” Bailey, was a strong independent woman who was half African American and half Choctaw. She soon moved the family across state lines into Kansas City, Missouri.
Charles then began going to school. He wasn’t the best student and it was said that if he put as much effort into his schoolwork as he did his music he would be a professor. In 1931 Charlie went to Lincoln High School in K. C. There he played in the school band, which was directed by Alonzo Lewis.
In 1934 Rebecca Ruffin moved into the house with Charlie and his mother. It was Rebecca, her siblings, and her divorced mother that became one with the Parker family. Rebecca and Charlie started getting very close and became “good” friends. Since they both went to the same high school and lived together. Around this time Charlie started experimenting with Kansas City’s up and coming jazz scene. In 1933 Charlie asked his mother to by him an alto saxophone and she bought him a used one for 45 dollars. This was the fuel to the endless fire.
Charlie had no formal music experience he took what he could to play music. The only experience he really did have was he short span of playing in the school band. He would learn everything he could be sneaking into clubs, standing in the doorway, and trying to memorize everything that came out from those grungy K. C. nightclubs. He would go to the movies and try to memorize theme songs and play them when he got home. It was a process of trial and tribulation and it seems in the end that it paid off.
When Charlie turned 15 (1935) he decided he was going to try his luck as a professional jazz musician. Well if he wanted to do it, he sure did pick a good place. Kansas City was a hopping city at the time and soon became “the center of jazz for the Southwest,” as Carl Woideck would put it. Drugs and Prostitution were everywhere and the city wasn’t so touched by the Prohibition laws as some cities in the east. Drugs, Sex and Alcohol it sounds like a good place to have a party and that is what it became. Charlie soon learned about a drug he would never forget. He was first introduced to heroin at 15 in 1935. An actor friend introduced him to the drug, and he never forgot that “gift”. As he put it “It all came from being introduced too early to night life?. When you’re not mature enough to know what is happening -well you goof,” (Carl Woideck, Charlie Parker, page 7).
In 1936 Rebecca saw just how close her daughter and Charlie we getting and she moved them out of the Parker’s house. They still found ways to see each other. Young love just can’t be held back so on July 25th 1936 the marriage became official and Rebecca moved back into the house. In November of 1936 Charlie was on his was to a job in the Ozark Mountains when the car he was in slide on some ice and crashed. One of the band members died and another was seriously injured. Charlie broke a couple ribs and fractured his spine. These injuries are what seemed to set Charlie into a full-fledged junkie. He started using heroin more and more as a way of dealing with the pain from the accident. Then it just got worse and worse.
In 1937 Charlie met Jay McShann and Henry “Buster” Smith. Jay McShann became a friend and Henry “Buster” Smith became sort of a mentor. Henry formed a band in the fall of 1937 and asked Parker to join. Parker’s drug addiction was getting worse and worse he didn’t hold a steady job and was jumping from gig to gig. On January 10th 1938, Francis Leon Parker was born. Named after Leon “Chu” Berry a tenor saxophonist that Charlie admired.
In early 1939 Charlie decided that he had to leave and get to New York. He called Rebecca up to their room and said “Rebecca set me free” and so she did. He called his mother in the room and said “Rebecca has set me free and as long as they live I want her and my son to have a roof over their head and food in their mouth.” Then he pawned his horn and hopped a freight train to Chicago and made his was to New York.
It wasn’t the easiest for Charlie when he was in New York and he had to do whatever he could do to get by. For a while he washed dishes at a place called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, there he first got some influence by some great stars such as Thelonis Monk. As time went on around 1941 things started picking up for Charlie in the music scene. He started jamming at some Harlem nightclubs and he was starting to get introduced to some real cool cats. Charlie became involved with Jay McShann and his Orchestra again and soon Dizzy Gillespie and Cab Calloway became involved. Dizzy and Charlie soon started to develop a relationship.
Many things happened from this point on Parker got involved in another band in April of 1943 the band included Dizzy Gillespie, “Little” Benny Harris, Bennie Green, Wardell Gary, Billy Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan, and Charlie Parker. This was the new Earl Hines group. Things went on and on and some partnerships got split up but one that always remained was Dizzy and Charlie. As time went on they got various recording done and got their names out into the world. They decided to take a trip to California.
Dizzy brought six guys with him to California instead of five because he new Charlie would sometimes not show up. His heroin addiction was getting worse and worse. Dizzy and the guys eventually went back to New York and Parker cashed his ticket and stayed in California. He became worse and worse and finally broke down. He stumbled into a recording session and fumbled his way thought half of it. He had to be taken back to the hotel because he was so messed up. He soon got arrested for throwing a tantrum in the room and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. Things went on and finally he made in back to New York on April 7, 1947.
Parker while in New York went through many women and did a lot of recording. He finally had two children with Chan Richardson. In 1954 his daughter by her Pree died of a heart condition that she was born with. This crushed Parker and sent him over the edge. For the couple of years before this he had been playing out and recording with a number of different people but he loss of his daughter sent his life in a new downward spiral. Charlie was hospitalized several times for emotional problems and alcohol/drug abuse.
His last important job was at Birdland on March 4 and 5th 1955. He was part of an all-star type group that included Kenny Dorham, Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, and Art Blakey. The first night went well, but on the second night Charlie and Powell fought. Parker got trashed while playing and was asked by the manager to leave the club that was named after him. Parker reportedly said “Mingus, I’m goin someplace, pretty soon, where I’m not gonna bother anybody.” The next day was the one-year anniversary of his daughter’s death.
There are a couple different stories about how Charlie died. The most accepted one is that on his way out of New York he stopped at an old friends house. Panonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter. Parkers doctor examined him there and said that he was ill and should be taken to a hospital. Charlie didn’t agree with that and decided to stay there for a while. By March 12, he was in better health and he could sit up and watch TV. That night while he was sitting and watching the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey’s show, he started laughing and choked and died. Another story is that he died due to internal injuries that he had received in a fight a couple nights earlier. A more recent story is that Parker had gotten shot and doctor was paid to cover it up. Whatever the real story is we can never be absolutely sure. The only thing that we can be sure of is that he is a musical genius.
I chose a concert by Charlie Parker to Analyze. The concert I chose in the 1949 concert at Carnegie Hall. During this performance Bird was at his peak of heroin addiction and abuse. His life was chaotic and unorganized and it reflects in some of the songs. The madness he was living and also the despair he seemed to have.
I liked every single song on the album and as I listened to it more I liked it more and more. The first song was titled Ornithology, this song seemed sort of Angry to me very wild and be-boppy. He would just rip through the scales going a fast and as wild as he seemed he could. I was like he was getting out all of his aggression. The trumpet wasn’t as wild as the sax but still kept up and stood its ground and the piano was a quite murmur compared the Charlie screaming saxophone. I liked it, it seemed angry.
The second song I heard was Cheryl this song is a lot more laid back and relaxing it still has a be-boppy feel to it but it wasn’t so hectic. It was a sweet-jamming song, it had a really chilled out bass line and made you tap your foot.
The next song was called Ko Ko and the title fits it. At the very beginning it is kind of sultry and sexy then it just goes crazy. It breaks into crazy lines that are outrageously fast and the trumpet keeps right up with the sax, and at the very end it gets all sultry and sexy again for a minute.
The number four songs is one of my favorites; it is titled Bird of Paradise. This one is different from every other song on the album it is a lot more mellow and laid back. It still has fast lines but not half as fast as the other ones. It is a really sweet song it reminds me of a love song. The song is very sweet sounding and soft. It almost sounds sad and soulful. I really enjoy this song.
The last song is my absolute favorite. I love this song. Its called Now’s The Time. It is such a song that makes you want to tap your foot and bop your head and dance. It is great. It has a really great bass line and ripping solos and everything you could want in a swinging tune. It just makes me want to dance and I love it. The melody is great and the trumpet and sax keep up with each other. It is the best song on the album.
Charlie Parker-At: Carnegie Hall 1949
Alamac Record Company-vinyl
Available at FIU Library
Charlie Parker Volume III
Available at FIU Library
Celebrating Bird; The Triumph of Charlie Parker
1987 Toby Byron/ Multiprises. Sony Video Software.
Based on book by Gary Giddins.