Charlie Parker

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Parker, (Charles, Jr.) Charlie (“Bird” or “Yardbird”)

(1920–55) jazz musician; born in Kansas City, Kans. (Note: His name sometimes appears as Charles Christopher Parker Jr., a misnomer.) An only child, he was raised by his mother in Kansas City, Mo., an important center of jazz and blues activity in the 1930s. He received his first music lessons on the baritone horn in the public schools in 1931; three years later he dropped out of school to concentrate on mastering the alto saxophone and watching Lester Young, Count Basie, Hot Lips Page, and other locally based musicians. In 1936 he spent the summer playing in the Ozarks with George E. Lee's band; that same year, he entered the first of his four legal or common law marriages, became a father, and developed an addiction to heroin. Between 1937 and 1939, he played in Kansas City with Lawrence Keyes, Tommy Douglas, Harland Leonard, and his mentor Buster Smith, and he was an inveterate participant in the city's competitive jam sessions. He spent most of 1939 in New York, where he frequently heard the virtuoso pianist Art Tatum and began working out the rhythmic and harmonic ideas that would form the basis of modern jazz. Between 1940 and 1942 he began gaining attention as a featured sideman on recordings and broadcasts with Jay McShann. In 1943 to 1944, he played briefly with the big bands of Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine, where he was a galvanizing figure among his rebellious colleagues, including Dizzy Gillespie. The year 1945 marked a turning point in his career: he led his own group in New York, made numerous combo recordings in the new and controversial bebop style, and played extensively with Gillespie. In December 1945 they played an unsuccessful engagement in Hollywood, but Parker remained in Los Angeles. In June 1946, he suffered a nervous breakdown related to his drug addiction and alcoholism, and he was confined for six months at Camarillo State Hospital. He made a triumphant return to New York in 1947 and formed his celebrated quintet featuring Miles Davis and Max Roach. For the next four years, he worked almost exclusively in New York and recorded the majority of his most famous performances. He toured in Europe in 1949 and 1950, and was showcased in a variety of settings, including a string ensemble, a big band, and Afro-Cuban bands in New York clubs and concert halls and on records. By 1951 he was the most influential jazz musician in the world, but his notoriety as a heroin addict had also become legendary, and the New York police withdrew his cabaret card, a requisite to working in New York nightclubs. Thereafter, he adopted a more itinerant lifestyle, playing with pick-up groups in Boston, Newark, Philadelphia, Chicago, and in California, and appearing as guest soloist with bands led by Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. His cabaret card was reinstated in late 1953, but by then he was beset by sporadic employment, debt, and failing physical and mental health. He twice attempted suicide in 1954 and voluntarily committed himself to Bellevue Hospital in New York. His last public appearance was on March 5, 1955, at Birdland, the club that had been named in his honor in 1949. He died seven days later. His chaotic life formed the basis for the 1987 Clint Eastwood-directed dramatic film Bird.
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