The Bird –– a tragic jazz legend
The glitz and glamour of the music industry can often be filled with pitfalls.
Countless great musicians, both female and male, have fallen victim to alcohol and/or drug abuse. Some have fallen prey to violence.
Often, they die in their youth, in their prime; and their legend becomes bigger than they ever might have been.
Whether it be a Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix or a Jim Morrison, they are remembered not for the human weaknesses that contributed to their downfall, but for their sheer musical brilliance that enthralled and continues to entertain generations.
For much of the 1940s and 1950s and one mentioned The Bird, lovers of jazz music instantly knew the identity of the person referred to. Sixty-one years after his self-destruction, there is still only one Bird –– Charles Christopher Parker Jr.
Parker Jr was born on August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Kansas. His father Charles Parker was an African-American stage entertainer, and his mother Addie Parker was a maid-charwoman of Native-American heritage. An only child, Charlie moved with his parents to Kansas City, Missouri, when he was seven years old.
At the time, the city was a lively centre for African-American music, including jazz, blues and gospel.
Charlie discovered his own talent for music through taking lessons at public schools. As a teen, he played the baritone horn in the school band. By the time Charlie was 15, the alto saxophone was his instrument of choice. (Charlie’s mother had given him a saxophone a few years prior, to help cheer him up after his father had abandoned the family.)
While still in school, Charlie started playing with bands on the local club scene. He was so enamoured of playing the sax that in 1935
he decided to drop out of school in pursuit of a full-time musical career.
From 1935 to 1939, Parker played the Kansas City, Missouri nightclub scene with local jazz and blues bands, including Buster Professor Smith’s in 1937 and pianist Jay McShann’s in 1938, with which he toured Chicago and New York.
In 1939, Parker decided to stick around New York City. There he remained for almost a year, working as a professional musician and jamming for pleasure on the side. After his year-long stint in the Big Apple, Parker was featured as a regular performer at a Chicago club before deciding to move back to New York permanently. Parker was at first forced to wash dishes in order to get by.
While working in New York, Parker met guitarist Biddy Fleet. It would prove a fruitful encounter. While jamming with Fleet, Parker, who was bored by popular musical conventions, discovered a signature technique that involved playing the higher intervals of a chord for the melody and making changes to back them up accordingly.
Later that year, Parker heard the news of his father’s death and went back to Kansas City, Missouri, for the funeral. After the funeral, Parker joined Harlan Leonard’s Rockets and stayed in Missouri for the next five months.
Parker then decided it was time to head back to New York, where he would rejoin Jay McShann’s band. It was with McShann’s band, in 1940, that Parker made his first recording.
Parker stayed on with the band for four years, during which time he was given several opportunities to perform solo on their recordings. It was also during his time with McShann that Parker earned his famous nickname Bird, short for Yardbird.
As the story goes, Parker was given the nickname for one of two possible reasons: (1) he was free as a bird, or (2) he accidentally hit a chicken, otherwise known as a yardbird, while driving on tour with the band.
In 1942, burgeoning jazz musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk saw Parker perform with McShann’s band in Harlem and were impressed by his unique playing style. Later that year, Parker signed up for an eight-month gig with Earl Hines. Then in 1944, Parker joined the Billy Eckstine Band.
The year 1945 proved to be a landmark one for Parker. At this stage in his career, he is believed to have come into his maturity as a musician. For the first time, he became the leader of his own group while also performing with Dizzy Gillespie on the side. At the end of that year, the two musicians launched a six-week nightclub tour of Hollywood. Together they managed to invent an entirely new style of jazz, commonly known as bop, or bebop. After the joint tour, Parker stayed on in Los Angeles, performing until the summer of 1946.
After a period of hospitalization, he returned to New York in January of 1947 and formed a quintet there. With his group, Parker performed some of his best-known and
best-loved songs, including his own compositions like Cool Blues.
From 1947 to 1951, Parker performed in ensembles and solo at a variety of venues, including clubs and radio stations. Parker also signed with a few different record labels: from 1945 to 1948, he recorded for Dial. In 1948, he recorded for Savoy Records before signing with Mercury.
In 1949, Parker made his European debut at the Paris International Jazz Festival and went on to visit Scandinavia in 1950. Meanwhile, back home in New York, the Birdland Club was being named in his honour. In March of 1955, Parker made his last public performance at Birdland, a week before his death.
Throughout his adult life, Parker’s battles with heroin addiction, alcoholism and mental illness caused turbulence in his career and personal relationships. By the time Parker married Rebecca Ruffin in 1936, he had already started abusing drugs and alcohol. The couple had two children before divorcing in 1939.
In 1942, Parker remarried –– to Geraldine Scott. Financial stresses created a rift between the couple, and Parker turned to heroin for an escape. He ended up leaving his second wife not long after they were married.
In June of 1946, while performing solo in Los Angeles, Parker had to cut his tour short when he suffered a nervous breakdown and was committed to a mental hospital, where he stayed until January of 1947. Newly clean in 1948, Parker married Doris Snyder, but the marriage fell apart within less than a year when Parker started using heroin again. His heroin abuse only increased after the divorce.
In the early 1950s, Parker took on a live-in girlfriend, a jazz fan named Chan Richardson. Chan took Parker’s last name and gave him two children: daughter Pree, who lived for only two years, and son Baird, who was born just a year and a day before Parker’s death.
To make matters worse, in 1951 Parker was arrested for heroin possession and had his cabaret card revoked, which meant he couldn’t perform in New York clubs.
By the time he got the card back a year later, his reputation was so damaged that club owners still refused to let him play. Drug-addled and depressed, Parker tried to take his own life twice in 1954, by drinking iodine. Although he survived both attempts, his physical and mental health had greatly deteriorated.
In 1955, Parker was visiting with his friend Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter when he suffered an ulcer attack and refused to go to the hospital. On March 12, 1955, Charlie Parker died in the baroness’ New York City apartment of lobar pneumonia and the devastating effects of
long-term substance abuse.
The baronnes found him slumped over in an easy chair in front of the TV set. He was 34 years old. An autopsy revealed such damage to the inside of his body that the doctor who performed the autopsy thought Charlie was a man at least 50 years old.
His legend grew even larger after his death. Fans scrawled Bird Lives! on walls of jazz clubs from New York to Los Angeles to Paris, France.
To this day, Bird remains jazz’s single most venerated figure.