Remembering a sax player who changed the course of American music
Last month was the 100th anniversary of the birth of one of America’s most influential musicians. Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas on August 29, 1920 and began playing the saxophone when he was 11. At age 15—which would’ve been 1935 and in the depths of the Great Depression—he dropped out of school to pursue music full time. He once told another sax player that when he was young, he’d practice as much as 15 hours a day. He joined the local chapter of the musician’s union and for four years played the very lively Kansas City jazz and blues circuit. Soon he was touring with bands as far afield as Chicago and New York.
In 1939 he decided to stay in New York City and dive into its music scene. He initially got by working as a dishwasher to make enough money to live on. He was a
great player and got the nickname Yardbird, which was soon shortened to just Bird.
In 1942 he met a trumpet player named Dizzy Gillespie and the two became trailblazers in a strikingly new form of jazz that came to be known as Bebop. Bird, Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and other bop musicians would sometimes play all night long in after-hours clubs in up in Harlem, refining their chops. Bop was heavily improvisational and notable for fast complex passages that demanded a level of technical proficiency that relatively few players could attain. It was far outside the mainstream of swinging melodic jazz. It was an insider’s style of music, aggressively Modern. It remains, as many of my friends like to remind me, an acquired taste.
Parker improvised solos that were very experimental and creative within the chord structures of melodies, sometimes inserting unexpected chords between other more traditional intervals. He took the predictable structure of a twelve-bar blues progression and filled it with such distinctive chordal shifts that they became known as “Bird Changes.” Sometimes he borrowed chord progressions from other songs and worked out new ones over them.
Parker suffered a nearly lifelong struggle with drugs that began when he was seriously injured in a car wreck when he was only 16. His doctor prescribed morphine for the pain and he got hooked. He later struggled with a heroin addiction which at one point kept him in a California hospital for six months. By his early 30s he already had a weak heart, ulcers, and cirrhosis of the liver.
Miles Davis once said “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong Charlie Parker.”
Charlie Parker died in 1955. He was only 34.