Charley “Bird” Parker

By Robert Threatt

Charley Parker, called Yardbird and later shortened to Bird, was born August 29,1937 in Kansas City, Kansas and died March 12, 1955 in New York City. As he was going through his childhood schooling, he started playing the trombone but later favored the saxophone. As he got better playing the tenor, baritone and alto saxophones, he began playing in Kansas City, Missouri clubs. As Charlie started playing in more clubs he dropped out of school and performed fulltime.

Charlie wondered around the mid-west and played/backed many artists of fame. While playing with a group at a club he was having a problem keeping up with the fast rhythm the group was playing, and the drummer threw a cymbal at his feet. Charlie decided he had to practice more and began a twelve to fifteen hours a day practice session for two years.

During these practice sessions he began to develop his fast-paced playing which was the start of “bebop”. BEBOP: Developed in the early to mid-1940s, bebop featured songs characterized by a fast tempo, complex chord progressions and changes of key, instrumental virtuosity, and improvisation based on a combination of harmonic structure, the scales and occasional references to the melody.

While Charlie and his band members were traveling by tour bus there was a mishap with a chicken and the moniker “yardbird” was bestowed on him. For people that is not familiar with the term “yardbird”, in the south the normal chicken is referred to as a “yardbird”. The name stuck with Charlie for the rest of his life.

Charlie played with many performers, such as Art Tatum, Thelonious Monk, etc. As they developed the bebop style of music, introduced by Charlie Parker, they were asked about the style of music. It was said that Monk stated, “we wanted a music that they couldn’t play” (the “they here are white bandleaders, who had taken over swing music, and made money from it.)

Charlie and the caravan of musicians had a car accident and Parker broke three ribs and fractured his spine. The accident led to Parker’s ultimate troubles with pain killers and opioids, especially heroin. Charlie Parker suffered with drug use for the rest of his life. This led to his confinement to a mental hospital in California (Camarillo State Mental Hospital) for six months. He came out clean, returned to New York where he recorded “Relaxing at Camarillo” and resumed the drug usage.

Charlie Parker had three wives, and four children with one child dying shortly after birth. Charlie died in New York City of heroin and alcohol usage, lobar pneumonia, bleeding ulcer and advanced cirrhosis. The coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker’s 34-year-old body to be between 50 and 60 years of age.

Dizzy Gillespie paid for the funeral arrangements and organized a lying-in-state and a Harlem procession officiated by Congressman and Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., as well as a memorial concert.

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