Charlie Parker

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Charlie Parker 1947, picture by William P. Gottlieb

Charlie "Bird" Parker (born August 29, 1920 as Charles Parker Jr. in Kansas City , Kansas , †  March 12, 1955 in New York ) was an American musician ( alto saxophonist and composer ), who is considered one of the creators and outstanding Performers of bebop became an important and influential musician in the history of jazz . His music "influenced jazz like only that of Louis Armstrong before him , like that of John Coltrane and Miles Davis after him ".

From 1942 he participated in the legendary jam sessions in Monroe's and Minton's Playhouse in Harlem , where he laid the foundations for modern jazz together with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk . He played, by the standards of the day, bold dissonances and rhythmic shifts , but all of them were shaped by his feeling for melodic coherence. Even in very fast pieces he was able to improvise concisely and consistently with high intensity. At the beginning of the 1950s, the saxophonist's health deteriorated after he had been a drug addict since his youth. He had his last appearance on March 5, 1955 in the New York jazz club Birdland named after him .


Starts in Kansas City

Parker was born in Kansas City. The father was a service steward on the Santa Fe Express . When she was sixty, her mother trained as a nurse. Charlie Parker had an older brother who was a postal worker for the Kansas City Post Office. Parker did not begin to play alto saxophone until after attending Lincoln High School. Although his mother had given it to him in 1933, Parker was initially not interested and loaned the saxophone to a friend for two years. Instead, he played tenor horn in the high school brass band . John Maher asked him in an interview at which Marshall Stearns was also present: "Did you play tenor horn in the marching band of your high school?" Parker replied: "... You had something called a symphonic wind orchestra ... tenor horn, right ... No, not quite as big as a tuba . It has three valves. Between a tuba and an alto horn, quite large. You have to do it this way, you know, this way. ”- (Laughter). Parker didn't take an interest in the alto saxophone until he was about 17. Parker soon played professionally with various bands, including Mary Colston Kirk , George E. Lee and his Novelty Singing Orchestra , the Territory Band of Tommy Douglas and the Deans Of Swing . Bassist Gene Ramey became one of his friends, with whom he later played in pianist Jay McShann's band. Parker was listening to some of the most famous saxophonists of the time, including tenor saxophonists Herschel Evans , Coleman Hawkins, and Lester Young .

According to Russell's biography, Parker had a key experience at a jam session with members of the Count Basie Big Band : He was playing so badly that drummer Jo Jones threw his drum cymbal on the floor in anger. Parker then took lessons from the guitarist of his combo during an engagement at Lake Taneycomo . According to eyewitnesses, he was transformed afterwards: from a less than competent saxophonist with a miserable tone, he had developed into a capable and expressive musician who could now compete with even more experienced saxophonists.

Breakthrough as a musician

Charlie Parker, Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Duke Jordan, Max Roach circa August 1947.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb .

After stops in the band of Jay McShann (1937 to 1942), with Noble Sissle (1942/43), in the Big Band of Earl Hines , in whose orchestra he worked for the first time with trumpeter and arranger Dizzy Gillespie , with Cootie Williams , Andy Kirk and the innovative big band of Billy Eckstine , Parker formed the first bebop combo together with Gillespie in 1945 . With her energetic rhythms and her harmonics, which are innovative for jazz, she represented a clear rejection of the established swing and was therefore heavily criticized at the beginning: Cab Calloway, for example, called her style disparagingly "Chinese music". By the late 1940s, however, bebop had established itself as the definitive new jazz style and ushered in the era of modern jazz. Several important recordings date from this period, for example by Billie's Bounce , Now's the Time , Donna Lee - composed by Miles Davis - and Koko . There, however, Gillespie, who mastered high notes and fast passages more confidently than Davis, took over the trumpet part.

Tommy Potter, Parker and Max Roach (hidden), appearance at the New York jazz club Three Deuces, approx. November 1946.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb .

After Dizzy Gillespie broke up the band in 1946 during a stay in Hollywood , Parker remained the only band member in California for a year , performed at JATP concerts with Lester Young and put together his own band there, in which first the young Miles Davis , then Howard McGhee - a student of Gillespies - took over the trumpet. Here he also signed a first record deal with the jazz label Dial Records of Ross Russell, his future biographer, and recorded a number of his most important pieces, including the Yardbird Suite , Moose The Mooche and A Night in Tunisia with the famous alto saxophone break (famous alto break) in the first take.

After a recording session in which he played Lover Man , among other things , Parker suffered a nervous breakdown and had to be admitted to Camarillo State Hospital, where he stayed for a few months. After his release he returned to New York and put together a new quintet with Miles Davis, among others. This received a permanent engagement in the Three Deuces on the then famous 52nd Street . In 1948, the Charlie Parker Quintet had an engagement at the Royal Roost , where many performances were recorded live and later published ( The Bird Returns ) ; in May 1949 it appeared at the Paris Festival International 1949 de Jazz . From 1948 until his death Parker recorded for Mercury Records , then Verve Records , the recordings appeared summarized under the title Bird: The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve .

In 1949 several recordings with strings, oboe, french horn and harp followed, which were published on Verve under the title Charlie Parker with Strings . Of that matters Just Friends of the outstanding recordings Parker, as he pointed out himself. He shows himself in top form as a soloist and is also accompanied by a piano solo by Stan Freeman . They were the most commercially successful recordings in Parker's career, but even when they were released, the studio arrangements were rejected by many jazz critics as an ingratiation to the masses.

In the next Parker quintet, the young white trumpeter Red Rodney , who had previously played with such renowned bands as the Claude Thornhill Orchestra and Woody Herman , was in the front line . Al Haig sat at the piano , bass was played by Tommy Potter , drums by one of the best young bebop drummers, Roy Haynes . Apart from a number of studio recordings, there is a very instructive live recording of this band, which was released as Bird at St. Nick’s . There - as later also by Dean Benedetti , a devoted Parker fan from the very beginning - only Parker's saxophone passages of the solos can be heard. These partly reveal a very "free" way of playing back then.

The band then toured the southern United States . No multiracial bands were tolerated there at that time, so that the white pianist Al Haig was replaced by the black Walter Bishop and Red Rodney was announced as "Albino Red" - that is, white-skinned black. Because of the poor sanitary conditions for black bands, this was Parker's last tour of the southern states. Russell describes this episode in detail in his biography.

" Birdland ", which opened at the end of 1949 and named after Parker's nickname, contains some interesting live recordings from the 1950s, as well as other live recordings by Charlie Parker with Strings . It concludes with a concert that Parker gave in 1953 at the " Massey Hall " in Toronto and which Charles Mingus , his bassist at the time, recorded and later released on his own label Debut Records . Jazz at Massey Hall is considered a kind of " swan song " of bebop, as the trend had meanwhile gone to cool jazz initiated by Miles Davis .


Parker has likely been addicted to heroin since he was fifteen , according to Ross Russell . Because of his unpredictable behavior on stage, he was often dismissed from current performance contracts, so that he got less and less permanent engagements. So he saw his star sink slowly but surely from around 1950. The last highlights are his two appearances in March and September 1953 at the Boston Club Storyville .

On March 12, 1955, Charlie Parker died, weakened by liver cirrhosis, stomach ulcers and pneumonia, in the New York Hotel Stanhope in the suite of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter , a patron of black jazz musicians.

Charlie Parker's music

Charlie Parker with Tommy Potter, Miles Davis, Max Roach around 1947.
Photograph by William P. Gottlieb .

Parker's style of playing is characterized by an extremely lively, agile, imaginative and virtuoso melody, often in connection with a vibrating, uneasy rhythm. That is why his melody lines are sometimes only partially recognizable, especially on old recordings.

At the beginning of the forties, swing, which was enormously popular not only in the USA at the time, increasingly exhausted itself in clichéd arrangements and stereotypical harmonies. The often hit-like themes produced solos with often typical, predictable twists in the context of wide, easily understandable arcs of tension.

Parker looked bored with other young musicians for new musical ways that allowed more creative development. So he “dismantled” the large, singable arcs of the swing melodies into smaller, motivic fragments, a technique that already appeared in the “diminution” of the high baroque. The tempos are often extremely fast, so the solos often consist of breakneck fast tone cascades. However, these are always consistent harmonically and rhythmically and never lose the reference to the underlying chords. Parker achieved this with special scales that he developed in Kansas - during his retreat from public sessions and secret practice phases. He expanded a normal scale to include “guiding” or “gliding tones”, which were considered disharmonious in swing, but let his runs and phrases end on rhythmic emphases. This also included the "forbidden" interval of the raised fourth in swing, the downward jump of which seems to say "be-bop" onomatopoeically. At the same time he integrates the vitality of a strong blues feeling into his solos.

Parker's improvisational style changed the usual formula language of swing also with regard to the harmonies: These were enriched with more tensions (additional tones in the chord) and changed more frequently. The hypnotic pull of his saxophone playing created an interaction with his fellow musicians: for example, the drummer Kenny Clarke was inspired to great rhythmic complexity , the pianist Thelonious Monk to great harmonic complexity. Parker then brought these elements together in his very own way and moved within this self-created musical idiom with a unique skill and elegance.

As a composer, Parker has also become authoritative for jazz history. His pieces often emerged from improvisations on long-known topics. He simply used the harmony framework of a standard to invent a completely new, again coherent topic - mostly spontaneously and often only in the studio. The technical term bebop head has been developed for the topics developed in this way . As a rule, he did not bother to write it down, so that he occupied countless enthusiastic musicians and editors with "listening out". One of his motto was: "Learn the damn changes to forget them!" - "Learn the damn chords to forget them!"

Ornithology, for example, is more or less an elegant solo on How High The Moon , which "accelerates" its change of harmony, Bird of Paradise is a variation on All the Things You Are .

Parker also often used harmonious basic forms of jazz such as the rhythm changes from George Gershwin's hit I Got Rhythm (for example in Celebrity , Chasing the Bird , Kim , Moose the Mooche , Passport , Steeplechase , Anthropology , Dexterity and others) or the blues scheme , where he harmoniously expanded these forms.

Examples of the harmonically expanded so-called Parker Blues with rhythmically refined “staggered” theme phrasing are Au Privave , Confirmation or Blues for Alice : On the one hand, the use of the major seventh chord (or in the international jazz term Major Seventh ) instead of the Dominant seventh chords on the 1st degree, d. H. the expansion of the major triad by the major instead of the minor seventh (see first part in the audio example), on the other hand, cadenza-like transitions between the main chords, especially from the 1st to the 4th degree in the first 4 bars (e.g. in Confirmation or Blues for Alice starts in the 2nd bar). This is how Parker succeeded in fusing blues and functional harmony.

At the beginning his game looked brand new, revolutionary and was considered a sacrilege by the heroes of the swing era. He contrasted her catchy and danceable style with music that contradicted the expectations of the audience. With its swirling melody abbreviations and rapid rhythms, bebop was unsuitable as dance music and was perceived as disharmonious and chaotic. Unlike many black and white musicians at the time, Parker did not see himself as an entertainer who only had to serve the needs of the audience. He played extrovertly and often responded immediately to calls on stage, but saw himself as an artist who was constantly looking for his own, individual musical expression. Initially, this earned him only a few fans and musician friends, while the general public initially harshly rejected him. In its heyday between 1945 and 1950, the bebop was by no means popular and only gradually established itself commercially.

It was only Charlie Parker who gave the alto saxophone the dominant solo role in combo jazz, which it could not have in the big bands of the 1930s to this extent . In doing so, he also gave other jazz instruments - above all drums, piano, guitar and later the Hammond organ - new impulses for greater solo freedom: from then on, many drummers played more “melodically”, the harmony givers more rhythmically. Parker redefined jazz as a group dynamic event that invites you to unimaginable adventures and discoveries while regaining its original vitality and expressiveness.

He had a clear, sharply accented tone without vibrato and a highly virtuoso technique, which earned him a lot of admiration from his fellow musicians. Saxophonist Paul Desmond said in an interview that Parker was also present: "Another thing that is an essential factor in your playing is this fantastic technique that nobody equals." Parker replied, "Well, you make it so difficult for me to answer you; You know, because I don't see where there is something fantastic about it ... I drove people crazy with the saxophone. I usually put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day. "

Even today he is considered to be the outstanding and unsurpassed genius on the alto saxophone, which had an educational effect and which many jazz musicians emulate. He led jazz out of the constraints of popular music and thus if not "established" it as an independent art form of the 20th century, at least emancipated it. He is considered by musicians, experts and the public as the outstanding founding father of modern jazz . Even so, Parker was not a dogmatist and showed a great deal of understanding for new developments. In his mind he was even able to understand the beginnings of freely improvised jazz music. When asked by journalist John McLellan what Parker would think of Lennie Tristano's new direction, that collective improvised music devoid of themes and harmonies (he, McLellan, couldn't understand how it works), Parker replied, “That's exactly what you say " Improvisation , you know, and if you listen carefully enough you can discover the melody moving on within the chords, any sequence of chord structures, you know, and instead of letting the melody predominate. In the style that Lennie and the others perform, it is more or less heard or felt. "

Charlie Parker the man

Gravestone in Lincoln Cemetery, Kansas City

Contemporaries describe Parker as a highly sensitive and passionate, but extremely erratic, torn and extremely behavior-prone character. Parker's whole life was influenced by his addiction to heroin, which ultimately led to his untimely death. He made several suicide attempts, one of them with tincture of iodine in 1952 after the untimely death of his daughter Pree. As a junkie, he often had no control over his career as a professional musician: Occasionally, he would sell the rights to recordings before they were recorded for the equivalent of a dose of heroin. He created a musical memorial to his dealer Emry Bird with the piece Moose The Mooche , which was titled after his nickname. The recordings of July 29, 1946, in which Loverman and The Gipsy were recorded, are considered a tragic document of his addiction and his decline: Here you can hear a Parker, plagued by severe withdrawal symptoms and apparently completely drunk, playing the saxophone can play. The Birdland jazz club banned him from the house in 1954 after he had an argument with the drug-addicted pianist Bud Powell on the open stage and then abandoned his performance.

Parker was married three times in total. In 1936 he married Rebecca Ruffin in Kansas City and in 1943 the night club dancer Gerri Scott. In 1945 he married Doris Sydnor in Tijuana, Mexico, for the third time (although it turned out in the 1960s that this marriage was not valid under American law). Since 1950 he lived with Chan Berg , whom he considered to be his wife even though they were not officially married. With her he had the son Baird (1952-2014) and the daughter Pree (1951-1954), whose death hit him hard. The unclear marriage relationships caused trouble at his funeral and later in the dispute over the inheritance. At the place of burial, Doris Parker prevailed as the marriage still existed, and at the request of the mother and Doris Parker, a Christian funeral took place (Parker was actually an atheist) and he was buried near her near Kansas City at the urging of the mother. According to his will, he actually wanted to be buried in New York City. Before his funeral, a grand funeral service was held at the Abyssynian Baptist Church in Harlem under the direction of clergyman and politician Adam Clayton Powell junior . He is buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Summit .


In his honor, the Charlie Parker Festival has been held in New York since 1992 .

The rock band Sparks released the song "When I Kiss You (I Hear Charlie Parker Playing)" in 1994.


  • Ah-leu-cha
  • Anthropology
  • Au Privave
  • To Oscar for Treadwell
  • Another hairdo
  • Back Home Blues
  • ballad
  • Barbados
  • Billie's bounce
  • Bird Gets the Worm
  • Bird of Paradise
  • Bloomdido
  • Blue bird
  • Blues (almost)
  • Blues for Alice
  • Buzzy
  • Card board
  • Celebrity
  • Chasing the bird
  • Cheryl
  • Chi Chi
  • Confirmation
  • Constellation
  • Cosmic Rays
  • Dewey Square
  • Dexterity
  • Various
  • Donna Lee (with Miles Davis)
  • Kim
  • KC Blues
  • Klaun Stance
  • Ko-Ko
  • Laird Baird
  • Leap Frog
  • Marmaduke
  • Merry-go-Round
  • Moose the Mooche
  • Mohawk
  • My little suede shoes
  • Now's the time
  • Ornithology
  • Parker's mood
  • Passport
  • Perhaps
  • Quasimodo
  • Red Cross
  • Relaxing with Lee
  • Scrapple from the Apple
  • segment
  • Shawnuff (with Dizzy Gillespie)
  • She red
  • Si Si
  • Steeplechase
  • The Bird
  • Thriving from a reef
  • Visa
  • Warming up a reef
  • Yardbird Suite

Important recordings


  • The Complete Dean Benedetti Recordings of Charlie Parker (1947/48) . Mosaic , 1990 - 10 LPs or 7 CDs


  • Charlie Parker: The Charlie Parker Omnibook . Goldfeder, Lynbrook NY 1978 (1st edition 1946). Together with Jamey Aebersold and Ken Slone .
    Transcription of Parker's most famous solo passages. Available in different keys, with accompanying CD (stereo: soloist can be faded out), with details of the original recordings. A must for jazz musicians.
  • Robert G. Reisner (Ed.): Bird. The Legend of Charlie Parker . Da Capo Paperback, New York 1987, ISBN 0-306-80069-1 . Citadel Press, New York 1962 (with discography)
    Put together interviews with friends of Charlie Parker very well.
  • Ross Russell : Bird Lives. The High Life And Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker . Charterhouse, New York 1973. Quartett Books, London 1980, ISBN 0-7043-3094-6 .
    • German edition: Charlie Parker. The story of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker . Droemer Knaur, Munich 1991, ISBN 3-426-02414-4 .
      The Charlie Parker biography. Written excitingly, with lots of details, but also a few factual errors. Is heavily criticized for this by musicians like Miles Davis . The characterization of Dean Benedetti and his alleged use of steel tape machines for his Parker recordings is wrong: it was actually the easier-to-transport acetate cutters and paper-based magnetic tapes.
  • Gary Giddins Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker . Da Capo Press, New York 1998.
  • Studs Terkel : giants of jazz . Zweiausendeins, Frankfurt am Main 2005, ISBN 3-86150-723-4 .
  • Peter Niklas Wilson , Ulfert Goeman: Charlie Parker - his life, his music, his records . Oreos (Collection Jazz), Schaftlach 1988, ISBN 3-923657-12-9 .
  • Thomas Hirschmann: Charlie Parker: Critical contributions to the bibliography as well as to life and work . Schneider, Tutzing 1994, ISBN 3-7952-0768-1 .
  • Carl Woideck: Charlie Parker. His Music and Life . University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor MI 1996, ISBN 0-472-10370-9 (illustrated, with music samples)
  • Carl Woideck: The Charlie Parker Companion. Six decades of commentary . Schirmer Books, New York 1998, ISBN 0-02-864714-9 .
  • Wolfram Knauer : Charlie Parker . Reclam, Stuttgart 2014, ISBN 3-15-020342-2 .
  • Brian Priestley : Chasin 'The Bird: The Life And Legacy Of Charlie Parker . Oxford University Press, 2007
  • Chuck Haddix: Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker . University of Illinois Press, 2013
  • Stanley Crouch : Kansas City Lightning: The Rise And Times Of Charlie Parker . Harper, 2013
  • Henry Martin: Charlie Parker, composer , New York: Oxford University Press, 2020, ISBN 978-0-19-092340-2



Before his acting and directing career, Eastwood performed as a pianist in nightclubs in Oakland . So he could still see Parker on stage. Eastwood was also lucky enough to be able to talk to his widow, Chan Parker, about his film. His homage to Bird, which Eastwood financed himself, is considered by connoisseurs to be the best jazz film ever. For some jazz fans, the only controversial issue was the process of underlaying Parker's authentic solo voice with what is now a studio band. The film won the Oscar for Best Sound, while Whitaker with the Best Actor Award of the Film Festival of Cannes was excellent. Eastwood received the Golden Globe Award for Best Director in 1988 .
  • 1987: Bird Now . Documentary, 90 minutes, director: Marc Huraux. Much more authentic than the Clint Eastwood film, with interviews and the like. a. by Parker's wives Chan Parker-Woods and Doris Parker, Bird Now in the Internet Movie Database .
  • 1987: Celebrating Bird - The Triumph of Charlie Parker. Documentary, USA, 60 min., Directors: Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons, film dates .
  • 2000: "Jazz" Daring Play - 1945 to 1949 . Documentary series by Ken Burns , book: Geoffrey C. Ward

Web links

Commons : Charlie Parker  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Wolfram Knauer: Charlie Parker . Reclam-Verlag, Stuttgart 2014
  2. Wolf Kampmann (ed.), With the assistance of Ekkehard Jost : Reclams Jazzlexikon . Reclam, Stuttgart 2003, ISBN 3-15-010528-5 , p. 398 f.
  3. “Did you play in the high school marching band… Baritone Horn?” - “Uh huh… They had what they called a symphony band… baritone horn, that's right… No, it isn't as big as a tuba. It's got three valves. It's between a tuba and a alto horn, pretty big. You hold it like this, you know, like this… ”- (laughter). Interview by John Maher with Charlie Parker, Marshall Stearns , April 1950. The interview is published in Bird Box Volume 3 and Philology Volume 7 .
  4. Dirk Bell : Jazz starts. In: Guitar & Laute 8, 1986, No. 2, pp. 53–56; here: p. 53.
  5. Parker is u. a. to be heard in the two vocal numbers "Hootie Blues" and "Confessin 'the Blues" with singer Walter Brown ; the latter song, written by Brown and McShann, became a hit with Brown / McShann and established the band leader nationwide. Parker's twelve-bar alto saxophone solo in “Hootie Blues” between the orchestra chorus and the vocal part of Brown was, according to Parker's biographer Ross Russell, “a shock for the jazz world of that time”. Quoted from Peter Niklas Wilson & Ulfert Goeman Charlie Parker - His life, his music, his records. Oreos Verlag, Waakirchen 1988.
  6. Charlie Parker: 'Bird Lives!' Part 2 . In: . September 5, 2007 ( [accessed November 28, 2017]).
  7. Dirk Bell: Jazz starts. In: Guitar & Laute 8, 1986, No. 2, pp. 53-56 (analysis for Blues for Alice ).
  8. "Another thing that's a major factor in your playing is this fantastic technique, that nobody's quite equalled." - “Well, you make it so hard for me to answer you, you know, because I can't see where there's anything fantastic about it all… I was driving the people crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day. " Interview by John McLellan with Charlie Parker and Paul Desmond in January 1954, WHDH radio station Boston. Republished Philology Volume 8 .
  9. "Oh, no. Those are just like you said improvisations, you know, and if you listen close enough you can find the melody traveling along within the chords, any series of chord structures, you know, and rather than to make the melody predominant. In the style used that Lennie and they present, it's more or less heard or felt. ”Interview by John McLellan with Charlie Parker, June 13, 1953; WHDH radio station Boston. Republished Philology Volume 18 .
  10. ^ Brian Priestley, Chasing the Bird, 2005, p. 209
  11. ^ Brian Priestley, Chasing the Bird, 2005, p. 126
  12. Charlie Parker's grave.
This version was added to the list of excellent articles on April 24, 2005 .