Welcome to our “Psychedelic Lunch” series, “Jazz Week,” where we find out how deep the rabbit hole really goes and explore music from the 60’s to today. Weekdays At Noon EST. Enjoy the trip!
Charlie “Bird” Parker was a highly influential saxophonist that contributed to the growth of the bebop style of jazz music during the demise of the Big-Band era, alongside other notable artists such as Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Bebop is synonymous with fast improvisation and complicated chord structures.
Parker married for the first time when he was 15, and had a succession of four marriages throughout his short life.
Charlie Parker’s nickname “Bird” (also “Yardbird”) has many stories associated with it, but two are more convincing than others. One story recounted by Jazz trombonist Clyde Berhardt in his autobiography I Remember (1986) said that “[Charlie] Told me he got the name Yardbird because he was crazy about eating chicken: fried, baked, boiled, stewed, anything. He liked it. Down there in the South, all chickens are called yardbirds.”
Another interpretation given by fellow Bebop saxophonist Buddy Collette is that he got the name because used to practice all the time in the local park, since that was the only place far enough from the residential areas to play without being bothered by the police.
Songs reflecting his avian nickname include “Ornithology,” “Bird of Paradise,” and “Yardbird suite,” all of which were composed by Parker, even though he is recorded to have found his nickname extremely annoying.
Dizzy Gillespie said that “Charlie Parker’s contribution to our music was mostly melody, accents and bluesy interpretation.” Parker’s highly coveted musical style consisted of extremely fast improvisations played in an extremely free manner, captivating melodies. The blues was a fundamental part of his musical style.
Charlie Parker was a heroin addict. Unlike Ray Charles, who managed his addiction well, Parker was impulsive and missed gigs. In one circumstance Parker moved cities because of his need for heroin, after cashing in his return ticket from California to New York after a gig. This turned out to be a positive move, because heroin was not readily available in California.
In 1951, Parker’s cabaret card, which performers during the prohibition era needed in order to work in nightclubs, was suspended by the authorities because of his drug charges.
In 1949, the original Broadway club Birdland was opened in honor of Charlie Parker, and he was the headlining act on opening night. However, at one point, due to his excessive drinking and trouble-making, Parker was banned from the club that beared his name. Other than Parker, in the first years of the club, Miles Davis, Erroll Garner, Theolnious Monk and John Coltrane graced Birdland’s stage.
Clint Eastwood directed a movie about Parker’s life called Bird in 1988, written by Joel Oliansky and starring Forest Whitaker as Parker and Samuel E. Wright as Dizzy Gillespie. This film stemmed from Eastwood’s enthusiasm for the Jazz genre of Bebop – Eastwood has been quoted saying that Jazz and Westerns are America’s only true art forms.
Parker died from pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer whilst watching The Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on television in 1955. He was 34 years old.
Charlie Parker’s heroin and alcohol addictions were so severe, that after his death at 34, the coroner mistakenly estimated him to be between 50 and 60 years old.