Charlie Parker: Jazz Styles, Saxophone & Improvisation

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  • 0:00 A King of Swing
  • 0:38 Biography
  • 2:41 Jazz Styles, Saxophone…
  • 3:49 Legacy
  • 4:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Despite dying at age 34, Charlie Parker made an important impact on the genre of jazz. Among the most important of these was improvisation, which influenced other jazz musicians as well as the hipster subculture of the 1940s.

A King of Swing

When you think of jazz music, what images come to mind? Do you think of jazz as a quartet, or do you think of a smoky club with a man on a saxophone? Who knows, you may think of the usefulness of the jazz flute. One of the pioneers of the jazz movement was Charlie Parker. His unforgettable style and talent has influenced jazz, and the people who play and study it, for decades. While his untimely demise cut short his musical career, his genius lives on in his music, which has influenced jazz greats like Miles Davis.


Charlie Parker was born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas, although he grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. An only child, he took to music at an early age. His musician father was not around all the time, but it was from Charles Parker, Sr. that young Charlie drew inspiration. However, some of Parker's greatest inspiration would come from watching a local young man playing the trombone. He never realized that it was possible to quickly adapt music to the circumstances, almost as if he was composing it as he played. He devoted himself to his music, learning by listening to the greats of the time, like Count Basie. During his teenage years he played in his school band. Soon afterwards, he picked up the nickname Bird, by which many of his fans would know him. Parker adopted the Bird persona, with much of his work making reference to the name. However, music wasn't the only habit that Parker picked up as a teenager. During this time he became addicted to drugs, particularly heroin. This addiction would control much of his life.

Drugs were not Parker's only addiction - he was well known for his womanizing. He married his first wife Doris in 1948, but lived with various other women, including Chan Berg, who was the mother of his two children. He also spent a great deal of time with Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a member of the wealthy Rothschild family. De Koenigswarter was a baroness who was obsessed with the jazz scene, and was a patron of various jazz artists, including Parker.

Parker's demons eventually caught up with him. Heroin and other drugs often led him down bad paths, and he largely survived by the good will of his friends and fans. When those failed, he resorted to other means, including playing in subway stations. While staying with de Koenigswarter, Parker overdosed and died at age 34 in New York City. Officially, the cause of death was an ulcer, but the truth was apparent - Charlie Parker had the body of a weakened retiree. Despite his wishes to be buried in New York, he was buried in Kansas City, Missouri.

Jazz Styles, Saxophone, and Improvisation

Charlie Parker was a pioneer of jazz and bebop, which were cutting edge during his lifetime. Rather than playing the same standards over and over, Parker began to think outside the box and create his own movements within pieces. These movements on classic pieces that often seemed random were known as improvisation and were a hallmark of Parker's work. While it took some time for this style to become popular, once it began to influence other artists, the style of jazz Parker made famous found its way to clubs and radio stations from coast to coast.

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