Charlie Parker: Biography, Songs & Death

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will go over the career and legacy of musician Charlie Parker. We will explore his innovations and contributions to modern jazz, as well as his troubled biography.

The King of Bebop

Charlie Parker changed jazz music forever and is often cited as one of the greatest American musicians. Over the course of his relatively short career in the 1940s and 1950s, Charlie Parker created the sub-genre of jazz known as bebop. The shift from traditional jazz to modern jazz can be attributed to Parker and the other musicians he played with, like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach. Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz improvisation, theory, and style, creating some of the most breathtaking and complex American music ever performed.

Early Life and Career

Charlie Parker was born on August 29th, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas. When Parker was seven years old his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where he spent the remainder of his childhood and early career.

Kansas City was a very lively town for jazz during Parker's formative years. Swing music was particularly popular during the 1930s in Kansas City. Swing was a rollicking, intense form of jazz designed for dancing. Building on the groundwork of traditional New Orleans jazz and ragtime, swing added levels of musical complexity to jazz that would open up new horizons for the young Charlie Parker.

Parker began playing the alto saxophone in public school. In 1935, Parker left school to pursue music full time. The Kansas City scene provided Parker with some early professional experience, but he would soon leave for the big lights and vibrant jazz scene of New York City.

The Birth of Bebop

After arriving in New York City, Parker played in a number of different bands as he established himself. During the late 30s and first half of the 40s, Parker met and played with many of the main figure that would help him pioneer bebop, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk. These young, highly ambitious musicians felt constricted by the limitations of swing and other traditional forms of jazz, which they would soon re-imagine as bebop.

Dizzy Gillespie, friend and collaborator of Charlie Parker

In 1945, Parker began leading his own band and collaborating frequently with Dizzy Gillespie. By devising new ways of changing keys from one scale to the next, Parker broke many of the rules that jazz was based on and opened up new musical pathways. To some jazz purists, bebop sounded chaotic and unmusical. Some traditional jazz fans today continue to have difficulty wrapping their minds and ears around Parker's style, as well as the other sub-genres of modern jazz that would come after him. To many others, bebop was a euphoric revelation.

Charlie Parker's startling abilities with improvisation and wild, vivid style reflected the chaos of modern American life. Although quite polarizing in 1945, the music that Parker started making during this period is believed by many to be the greatest jazz music of all time. Parker earned the nicknames Bird and/or Yardbird.

Unfortunately, music wasn't the only thing on Parker's mind during this period. Drug use was common among jazz musicians in New York City during the 1940s. Charlie Parker used heroin and other drugs off and on throughout his career. Heroin and alcohol abuse exacerbated his struggles with mental illness, which likely predated his drug use. Parker's behavior and personality have been described as unpredictable and difficult. The extent to which mental illness and drug abuse went hand-in-hand with his dazzling creativity and fearless artistry is difficult to assess, but his personal struggles characterized much of his adult life.

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