Charlie Parker

American saxophonist and jazz composer (1920, Kansas City - 1955, New York)

Being one of the fathers of the bebop, Charlie “Bird” Parker left an indelible print on the history of jazz with his harmonic, rhythmic and expressive innovations.

Born in Kansas City, the homeland of the great jazz orchestras, Charlie Parker showed at an early age his exceptional gifts for music. He started his saxophonist professional career when he was only fourteen years old. When he joined the Count Basie orchestra, he angered the other musicians because he didn’t master harmony. Aware of his gaps, he worked relentlessly with Buster Smith and did as any budding jazzman would do: he learnt the solos of the great jazz masters (like Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins) and played them by ear. Then he multiplied his experiences with different bands. In 1937, he played with Jay MacShann’s orchestra and left with them on tour in New York where he settled down in 1939. In 1942, he was invited to join Earl Hines’s formation. 1943 was a decisive year: he met Dizzy Gillespie. Parker and his fellow musicians like Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Max Roach and Kenny Clarke, used the jam sessions they had after their gigs to break with the swing generation and set down the basis of bebop. The quintet triumphed in New York and went to California to spread across the country this new style of music.

Unfortunately, Charlie Parker was caught back by his drugs addiction and stayed for several months in the hospital in 1946. This would be the end to his idyllic collaboration with Gillespie. Back in New York in 1947, he got back to his formation of predilection: the quintet. He came playing in France in 1949. During the last years of his life, he performed more or less regularly but always in the company of the greatest musicians of his time such as Miles Davis, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach, Kenny Clarke. At the age of 34, he died of an overdose. In 1988, Clint Eastwood paid him an homage with his movie Bird.

Six landmark dates in the life of Charlie Parker

1937: joined Jay MacShann’s orchestra
1939: moved to New York
1942: joined Earl Hines’s orchestra
1943: met Dizzy Gillespie with whom he creates the bebop
1946: rehab stay at hospital
1949: came to play in France

Six key recordings by Charlie Parker

Groovin’high of Dizzy Gillespie (1945)
The Charlie Parker story (1945)
Charlie Parker with strings (1949)
Bird and Dizz (1950)
Quintet of the year (1953)
Charlie Parker plays Cole Porter (1954)

Radio France Documentation biography, August 2014