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Charlie Parker - A Short Biography

Charles Christopher Parker, Jr. or Charlie Parker, nicknamed ‘Bird’, was born in Kansas City on the 29th of August 1920. He is best known playing the saxophone and being one of the founders of bebop jazz during the 1940s.

Parker grew up listening to jazz bands like Count Basie’s. During his younger years, Parker’s musical talent does not seem to have been apparent, although some musical influence may have come from his father who played the piano. He started playing the baritone horn before switching to the alto saxophone. Dropping out of school at age 14, Parker concentrated on the Kansas City music scene. Jazz did not take off as his ‘day’ job straight away and he spent one summer woodshedding, whilst building up his technique and getting to grips with the fundamentals.

In 1937 he joined Jay McShann’s Orchestra, and in 1940 he recorded his debut. Parker showed his talent when it came to solos on such songs as ‘Lady Be Good’. He played and jammed with many jazz greats, but it was his collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie during 1945 that had a big impact on the jazz world. However, it was not accepted by all jazz fans in the beginning, as it was completely different to previous jazz, such as the mellow tunes of Glenn Miller. With their rapid playing and unpredictable solos, Parker and Gillespie became pioneers of the Latin jazz and be-bop age.

Parker although talented also had his share of troubles. He became addicted to morphine after a car accident and then started using heroin, which, mixed with a reliance on alcohol, would plague him for the rest of his life.

After a not too successful trip to Los Angeles, the Parker/Gillespie band decided to return to New York, however, Parker impulsively cashed in his ticket and stayed in L.A. He did have some recordings and performances during this time, most notably the classic version of ‘Lady Be Good’. Unfortunately, due to a lack of supply of drugs and an excess of alcohol, Parker suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the Camarillo State Hospital, where he was confined for 6 months.

On his release from hospital, Parker returned to New York and embarked on some of the best performances and recordings of his career. However, this did not last and in 1951 his cabaret licence was revoked, which made finding work difficult. In 1954 he attempted suicide twice.

On March 12th 1955 Parker died at the age of 34, but due to his living life to the fullest extent possible, and his drug and alcohol addiction, the coroner estimated him to be nearly 30 years older.

Addiction problems aside, no-one can deny the talent of Charlie Parker, and jazz today would certainly not be the same without him.

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