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Charlie Parker
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Charlie Parker


Charlie Parker (August 29, 1920 - March 12, 1955) was a jazz saxophonist and composer who made huge contributions to jazz music. Parker is commonly considered one of the half-dozen greatest jazz musicians, on a level with Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins. He received early in his career the nickname of "Yardbird," and became known as "Bird."

Born in Kansas City, Kansas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Parker grew up listening to jazz bands like Count Basie's and Bennie Moten's. Although he sometimes played tenor saxophone, he made the alto saxophone his instrument of choice.

Parker moved to New York City and, with Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke and many others, was one of the principal creators of the style that came to be called bebop. Building on the innovations of the preceding generation of players — especially Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young — Parker developed a style that was massively influential.

Parker's blindingly fast, rhythmically asymmetrical lines could baffle and amaze the listener, yet closer inspection reveals how formidably well-constructed they are, without a superfluous note. His tone was clean, almost vibrato-less, yet penetrating and peculiarly intimate; his harmonic ideas were bold and often strikingly dissonant -- reaching high up into the 9ths, 11ths or 13ths of chords, making use of rapidly implied passing chords and of a range of altered chords and substitute chords. But however thought-out and logical Parker's playing was, however sheerly dazzling it can be — the early "Ko-Ko" is a superb example — he was also one of the great blues players in jazz: the themeless blues improvisation "Parker's Mood" is one of the most deeply affecting recordings in jazz, as iconic as Armstrong's classic "West End Blues."

His renown and his mystique was such during his lifetime that a musician and jazz enthusiast, Dean Benedetti, recorded performances by Parker in 1947 and '48, and turned off the recorder whenever Parker was not playing.

In addition to the musical example he set for other musicians with his rise in the mid-1940s, Parker instantly became a role model for countless aspiring jazz musicians, and his music remains a fundamental reference point for jazz players to this day.

Unfortunately, Parker also set a more problematic example — as a teenager he became addicted to morphine while in the hospital after being injured in an automobile accident, and subsequently became addicted to heroin. It was this same heroin addiction that ultimately contributed to his death at the age of 34 (though the "official" cause of death was a bleeding ulcer and pneumonia). His body was so worn by the time of his death that the coroner mistakenly estimated Parker's age to be between 50 and 60.

Though it would be wrong to place too much blame on Charlie Parker for the massive drug problems of the jazz scene in the 1950s and 1960s (virtually every major jazz musician from this period fought a battle with drug addiction: Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Jackie McLean, Gerry Mulligan, Chet Baker, Bill Evans, Frank Morgan, and countless others), Parker's example undoubtedly played a part in the culture of substance abuse in the jazz world of the time.


Parker's performances of "I Remember You" and "Parker's Mood" were selected by Harold Bloom for inclusion on his short list of the twentieth-century American Sublime.

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