In his 34 years on Earth, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker made such an impact on 20th-century music—from its composition and improvisation to its purest performance—that we’re still feeling his vibrations today. And yet relatively little is known about the revelatory saxophonist, especially amongst those of us not earning our keep as jazz historians.
In honor of what would have been Bird’s 96th birthday, take a moment to riff with a few lesser-known facts about a guy who, according to the Los Angeles Times, “played like one who had been touched by the gods of music … [and] was without doubt the source of inspiration to hundreds of players.”
1. AS A KID, HE PRACTICED FOR UP TO 15 HOURS PER DAY.
Parker spent some of his tween years participating in the school band, but critics often attribute his characteristic technique in part to the long, rigorous practice schedule he imposed upon himself while he was still a very young player. As The Toledo Blade reported in 1988, Parker first picked up the saxophone at age 10, using an instrument borrowed from school, and was so dedicated to his new art that, when he turned 11, “his mother scraped together $45 and bought him his first saxophone—an ancient, beat-up horn that leaked air so badly it was hard to blow.”
Sub-par instruments didn’t slow the young musician down, though. In a 1954 radio interview, Parker explained that he “put quite a bit of study into the horn” in those early years: “In fact the neighbors threatened to ask my mother to move once when we were living out West. She said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least … 11 to 15 hours a day.”
2. HE WORKED IN THE SAME RESTAURANT AS MALCOLM X AND REDD FOXX.
By the end of the 1930s, Parker had the itch to find a more jazz-prone environment for his music than his hometown of Kansas City could offer. So, in 1939 (after his wife and his mother kicked him out), he sold his saxophone, made his way to New York City, and found work as a dishwasher in Harlem’s famed Jimmy’s Chicken Shack. It was there that Parker caught many formative performances by pianist Art Tatum and where, just a couple of years later, fellow groundbreakers-to-be Malcolm X and Redd Foxx goofed around with each other.
3. HE AND HIS CREW INVENTED A WHOLE NEW GENRE: BEBOP.
The term “bebop” reportedly first appeared in print during the late 1930s, but it was popularized by Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and other musicians who performed at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem in the early 1940s. It represented a new form of music that defied the conventions of earlier Big Band and jazz hits, allowed melodic and rhythmic departures from both established songs and new-tunes-in-progress, and embraced the rising mood of an era by putting the spirit of coping with life’s twists and turns to music in a new method: improvisation. The scholar and critic Eric Lott explains:
"Bebop was about making disciplined imagination alive and answerable to the social change of its time. 'Ko Ko,' Charlie Parker's first recorded masterpiece, suggested that jazz was a struggle which pitted mind against the perversity of circumstance, and that in this struggle, blinding virtuosity was the best weapon."
Of course, a major artistic movement isn’t ever set off by just a handful of people; bebop’s evolution relied on several communities and generations of musicians (which included John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, and Clifford Brown, to name just a few). Some critics cite late, great jazz critic Leonard Feather’s point that “bebop in its various manifestations, as a harmonic, melodic, and rhythmic outgrowth of what preceded it, was a logical and perhaps inevitable extension”—meaning that “possibly it would have happened along largely similar lines without the existence of either Parker or Gillespie."
Nevertheless, Parker was (and is) decidedly the face of jazz innovation for many.
4. HE WAS THE ORIGINAL HIPSTER ICON.
With a second, deadlier World War at their backs and the grim prospects of nuclear warfare lying ahead, many younger Americans—including Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—began inoculating themselves against a mood of bleakness and fear by diving headfirst into jazz and “jive” culture. Of these “hipsters” and hepcats, historian Frank Tirro says:
“Bird was a living justification of their philosophy. The hipster is an underground man … [who] knows the hypocrisy of bureaucracy, the hatred implicit in religions—so what values are left for him?—except to go through life avoiding pain, keep his emotions in check, and after that, ‘be cool,’ and look for kicks. He is looking for something that transcends all this bullshit and finds it in jazz.”
Critic Dennis Hall also suggests that "Parker's improvisations represented the medicine [hipsters’] souls required in a universe ostensibly doomed”—even more so, perhaps, than the alcohol, marijuana, and heroin that flavored bebop and jazz circles. And while Kerouac and his white, middle-class brethren “could not fully grasp the pain exuded through Parker's saxophone, hipsters knew it represented something arcane, and that the music transported their minds some place other than reality."
5. HIS NICKNAME IS A NOD TO THE FACT THAT HE REALLY, REALLY LOVED CHICKEN.
Both the music and the legend of Charlie Parker are frequently earmarked with the sax master’s nickname, “Yardbird” (or just “Bird”), one that’s always been used fondly by fans and friends alike. Trombonist Clyde Bernhardt (whom Parker dubbed “Cornbread” after a name mishap at a snooty party) recalled in his autobiography how Parker once told him that he “got the name Yardbird because he was crazy about eating chicken: fried, baked, boiled, stewed, anything. He liked it. Down there in the South, all chickens are called yardbirds."
Pianist Jay McShann (one of Parker’s bandleaders in the 1940s) recalled Bird’s adoration for chicken, too, and how that love once asserted itself during a tour in Texas:
"We were in two cars and the car he was in drove over a chicken, and Bird put his hands on his head and said, 'No, stop! Go back and pick up that yardbird.' He insisted on it and we went back and Bird got out of the car and carefully wrapped up the chicken and took it with him to the hotel where we were staying and made the cook there cook it for us. He told him we had to have this yardbird."
6. HE WAS ONCE LAUGHED OFF STAGE (AND HAD A CYMBAL THROWN AT HIM).
As The Guardian explains:
“One night in 1937, a teenage musician called Charlie Parker joined a queue of players waiting to jam onstage at Kansas City's Reno Club … Parker thought his moment had come, 16 years old or not. He had been practicing an improv method of his own, deploying keys rarely used in jazz tunes, and modulating between them to free up new ways of phrasing—and he'd bought a new Selmer saxophone.”
After a promising start, though, “the teenager lost the tune, and then the beat. [Count Basie Orchestra drummer Jo] Jones stopped, and Parker froze … Jones contemptuously threw a cymbal at his feet, and the reverberations were followed by the sound of laughter and catcalls.” Explaining his perspective on the gaffe, Parker said:
“I knew a little of 'Lazy River' and 'Honeysuckle Rose,' and played what I could … I was doing all right until I tried doing double tempo on 'Body and Soul.' Everybody fell out laughing. I went home and cried and didn't play again for three months."
Thankfully, the humbling experience didn’t keep Parker down; like the many drop-outs and intellectual rejects of note who went on to shape the world as we know it, Bird was able to bounce back from his humiliation and reach unprecedented heights of musicianship. Or, as literary critic Harold Bloom put it: “[If] God appeared in 19th Century America, it was as Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the 20th Century it would have been as Charlie Parker.”