This page has been carefully put together by my brother Llew, who knows a darn site more about this genius and tragic character than this ageing soul boy! Great job Llew.
b. Charles Parker, Jr., 29th August 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas, U.S.A.
d. 12th March 1955 in New York, New York State, U.S.A.
BUYING CHARLIE PARKER by Llew Walker
Its Just music. Its playing clean and looking for the pretty notes. Charlie Parker.
Charlie Parker was a genius.
Misunderstood and unrecognised by the establishment while alive, his contribution to music was only realised after his death.
The myths and inaccuracies that surround him are mostly borne from this neglect therefore no definitive record of his life or work exists.
The biographical literature available is based primarily on reminiscences by people who knew him or played with him.
As with all histories of this type, are prone to exaggeration and inaccuracy.
Similarly, the discographies available that cannot agree with some dates, venues and tracks.
Consequently, any biography of Parker will contain inaccuracies of some kind or other, some on a very basic level.
For example, the official Charlie Parker website states his name as Charles Christopher Parker, Junior.
It appears regularly in various biographies and sleeve notes, but his mother Addie Parker stated, I dont know anything about no Christopher. Just plain Charles Parker. (Reisner).
Of course, errors, contradictions and fabrications add to the enigma that is / was Charlie Parker but they can also divert attention away from his musical genius.
Charlie Parker not only changed jazz but his influence spread to other areas of music, literature and art.
The simplicity of the opening quote probably gives us the best guide to his art, but equally there is a saying that matches the opening quote in straightforwardness yet is difficult to fault:
There are two forms of jazz: before Parker and after Parker!
He was born in Kansas City, Kansas, U.S.A. on the 29th of August 1920
When he was eight years old he moved to Kansas City, Missouri.
He grew up in a city that was the most vibrantly jazz-orientated city in America.
As a teenager he would sneak into the clubs and bars and watch the best jazz musicians of the day battle against each other in 'cutting contests' in after hours jam sessions.
Parker was no doubt influenced by these events and eventually he experienced the humiliation of being 'cut' on stage himself.
This incident was represented in Clint Eastwood's rather one-dimensional biopic 'Bird', and whether or not the humiliation Parker experienced in the jam session was the turning point and motivation behind Parker's genius, as Eastwoods film suggests, is debatable.
However, there was no doubting the fact that at the end of the following summer, Parker returned to Kansas after 'wood shedding', a much better musician than the humiliated boy that ran crying from the Reno Club that Spring.
In 1939, Parker was 19 and had already been married for three years and had a son, Leon, by his wife Rebecca.
Due to an incident with a cab driver, he pawns his sax and travels to Chicago, and then New York.
It was about this time Parker experienced a musical epiphany'.
He said in an interview, "I was working over 'Cherokee' and, as l did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with the appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive."
It should be mentioned that along with the inaccurate and flowery biographies, Parker himself was probably behind some of the fabrications about himself.
There is no doubt he was misquoted by reporters and hangers-on, but there is a suspicion that Parker may have mischievously enjoyed making misleading statements about himself.
Perhaps he is guilty of the 'Christopher' addition mentioned earlier.
In 1940 he returns to Kansas for his father's funeral and joins The Harlan Leonard band but is fired after a few weeks and then joins Jay McShann's Band.
He asks for a divorce from Rebecca, staying that if he were free he thought he could become a great musician.
He stays with the McShann band, on and off for the next three and a half years.
In 1942, the McShann band is in New York playing opposite Lucky Millander.
Dizzy Gillespie is in the band and he and Charlie become friends.
They spend their free time jamming in clubs such as Mintons and Monroe's Uptown.
Participants at these jam sessions include Thelonius Monk, Max Roach and Charlie Mingus.
Charlie stays behind when McShann heads back to Kansas and joins the Earl Hines Band playing tenor!
Bird and Diz in the Earl Hines Orchestra
Gillespie is already in the band along with Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughn.
The following year he joins the newly formed Billy Eckstine band with Vaughn and Gillespie, and a new member, Art Blakey.
Later that year, while performing in St Louis, an eighteen-year-old Miles Davis sits in with the band.
Charlie quits the Eckstine band after five months and gets work on 52nd Street, a place soon to be recognised as the home of be-bop.
52nd Street Awning advertising Parker on right
Parker then begins a period of recordings in small groups, some be-bop orientated some not, including, Tiny Grimes, Clyde Hart, Cootie Williams, Red Norvo, a marvellously humorous session with Slim Gaillard and of course with the Dizzy Gillespie Septet.
Notice John Coltrane in the background
In this last session, Gillespie and Parker record 'Groovin' High' and 'Dizzy Atmosphere', both classic be-bop tracks.
It was one of the first issues of the new musical genre.
52nd Street was the place to be and its multiple clubs housed an impressive array of talent.
Bird would spend many nights on 'The Street' and would often play in more than one bar a night, booked or not!
At the age of 25 is considered by a growing group of fellow musicians to be the greatest alto sax player around.
It wasn't until November 1945 that Parker recorded as leader for the first time.
A Savoy recording of Charlie Parkers Reboppers in New York City, recorded 'Billies Bounce', 'Warming Up a Riff', 'Nows the Time', 'Thriving on a Riff', 'Meandering' and 'Ko-ko'.
There is a story surrounding this session, that like so many Charlie Parker stories, has several versions each with its own interpretation of the truth.
The basis of the story goes that Miles Davis froze up / started vomiting / disappeared, feeling he was unable to play Parkers difficult patterns, which meant that Dizzy Gillespie had to double up instruments on one take, playing the intro on the trumpet and then dashing across the studio, during the recording, to accompany Parker on the piano.
There are many stories surrounding Parkers life, and each story has its own version of the truth.
On occasions, even with more than one witness, each will produce a different version of events!
It is probable that the definitive truth will never be known and the enigma of Charlie Parker will be further embellished.
About this time, Parker and Gillespie are offered a gig at Billy Berg's in Hollywood.
Parker signs a contract to record with Ross Russell's Dial Records only a month after signing with Savoy!
When the Berg gig closes, he cashes in his ticket home and is stranded in Los Angeles.
He works with the Howard McGhee band and records for Dial.
His first full session is a success.
But not for the first time, a youthful Miles Davis makes an error and the first take of 'A Night in Tunisia', is stopped.
Arguably, if completed, this take might have produced the greatest track ever recorded by Charlie Parker It was later released simply titled 'The Famous Alto Break (Real Audio)'.
This small piece of music encapsulates everything that Parker is famous for; his lightening technique, the inspired improvisation, its perfect musical sense and the ability to maintain the melody rather than resort to dissonance.
This 'break' exemplifies what Parker's revolutionary style did to music; he turned the structure of the music itself on its head and reinvented it; he opened the door into musical experimentation and divergence; he reclaimed jazz from the sanitised white swing bands and dance bands of the previous generation, and he presented jazz for the first time as an art form.
Of course, not everybody was taken by this Young Turk from Kansas.
The sound and technique were considered by many others to be too extreme; jungle music, some called it.
The poet Philip Larkin expressed their sentiments well when he said, I never liked bop. It seemed to me nervous and hostile ( something that they cant steal because they cant play it) music, at odds with the generous spirit of its predecessors.
Every change will have its detractors, but it is by no coincidence that in the ten years after Charlie Parkers death a wide variety of musical styles had emerged.
Rock and roll, R & B, reggae, soul, etc., all emerging from the content or example of Parker and the be-bop revolutionaries.
From Downbeat Magazine
During the last ten years of Parkers life he experimented with different musical styles including Latin and orchestral music and he initiated the concept album style of 'with strings'.
There were reports that even at the end of his life, with health failing, there was new sound emerging.
He played with several formations under his own name, quartets, septets, etc, some large orchestras with vocalists, and towards the end he would play with pick-up musicians in whatever town he was booked to play.
It didn't seem to matter to him who supported him, because he could play anything with anyone and out perform them in the process.
Even though Parker was excessive in most areas of his life, miraculously, he rarely lost the ability to perform.
He was a legend and drew crowds wherever he played.
Parker once said that people only came to see the world's most famous junkie and in part he was true.
No one knew what would happen at a Parker gig.
Sometimes he would turn up late or wouldn't show at all.
Other times he'd show up in such a condition that the musicians thought he'd be unable to play, but when he stood up to play, he amazed the crowd and the band would struggle to keep up.
His fans thought so highly of him that they began recording his gigs and consequently, the majority of the recordings available today were recorded at live performances.
Parker apparently found this practice abhorrent, but bought his last wife, Chan, a tape machine for this purpose.
One fan, Dean Benedetti, also a saxophone player, recorded only Parker solos!
Benedetti's recordings became part of the Parker legend.
They were originally thought lost, and rumours circulated that they had been destroyed, but several years ago, they eventually showed up in Italy and were painstakingly transferred from a variety of media used by Benedetti, to compact disc.
Recording just the solos was due in part to the confines of the technology available for portable recording, and because Bird never played the same thing twice.
Benedetti cut acetates on 78's in the clubs, (no mean feat), and progressed to paper-based tape later, all of which were in a terrible state when found.
Finally, when released they amassed a massive 7 CD's in length.
The sound quality is poor and the box set really only of interest to Parkerite's, but it is a statement of the regard with which his fans, if not the establishment held Parker.
Grateful though we are for these crumbs from the master's table, there is an element of exploitation in these acts of bootlegging that are unfortunately mirrored in the antics of the legitimate recording companies.
The worst culprits would be Verve and Dial Records who have released their Charlie Parker stock over and over again, in a multitude of different guises.
Knowing that Parker died relatively penniless and little or nothing was left to his children or ex-wives in the way of royalties juxtapose the exhaustive efforts these companies have gone to wring every last penny from their Parker archives.
While alive, he would complain that the record companies, club managers and booking agents made money from him and he didn't see any of it. In reality most of the money he made was spent on drugs and alcohol.
He once pointed to his arm and said, " there is my house, there is my Cadillac...
Parker visited Europe on a couple of occasions he drew crowds from all over the continent.
(There is a story of a group of young British jazz musicians visiting Parker in France and a young Johnny Dankworth lending Parker his sax!).
He was treated as an artist in these countries, and this experience changed the view of himself.
In America, black musicians were entertainers, and had limited avenues to pursue their craft.
The reaction of the visits to Europe seemed to highlight the inability he felt of not being accepted as an artist at home in America.
When Time magazine wanted to write a piece on the new jazz happening in America, they chose a picture of Dave Brubeck to put on the cover, and when Life ran a similar article, he wasn't mentioned at all! Accolades were few and he was rarely recognised elsewhere in the establishment.
The fact there is only a short piece of film of him playing perhaps says more about the lack of recognition than anything else. Arguably, if he had stayed in Europe where he was treated with the respect and adoration he may have survived longer.
In the end Parker just burnt out.
He had been suffering from stomach ulcers and cirrhosis of the liver; the continuous drug and alcohol intake literally wore his body out.
His excessiveness in all things left a body that the attending doctor at his death, guessed to be in his mid sixties; he was 35.
Emotionally, the death from pneumonia of his daughter Pree, and the separation from his last wife, Chan, drained him.
A staged picture,Kim, Bird and Chan You can listen to the track 'Kim' that Charlie Parker wrote for her, right here.
Psychologically Parker was unstable and attempted suicide on two occasions.
He admitted himself to another institution towards the end, but released himself.
Any imbalance is perhaps understandable considering the society, both social and musical, that a black musician of Parkers intelligence and genius had to suffer.
But even in death, the truth about Charlie Parker was blurred.
There was the question of how he had died; the accepted story says he died watching the Dorsey Brothers on TV and just keeled over, others said he had been badly beaten in a fight by a fellow musician, others that he had been shot and there had been a cover up.
Also there was the question of why his body lay unclaimed in the morgue for two days.
It was stated that at the moment of his death there was a massive thunderclap.
Shortly after he died, graffiti appeared around New York saying Bird Lives and some people even believed he was still alive.
Parker had told Chan that he didnt want to be buried in Kansas, that he didnt want any fuss or memorials when he died.
He hadnt divorced his previous wife Doris nor had he married Chan, so on getting the news of Parkers death, Doris ambushed the funeral arrangements that Chan had been organising and going against Parkers wishes organised a lying-in-state, a Harlem procession and a memorial concert before flying Parkers body back to Kansas to be buried.
The original headstone even had the wrong dates! The confusion surrounding his death was just a continuation of that found in his life and is all part of the enigma of Charlie Parker.
As we move closer to the fiftieth anniversary of his death, all his recorded work will enter the public domain and there will be an almighty 'Parker-fest' as the record companies re-issue all there stock, again, and the semi-fictitious biographies will re-appear on the book shelves, and there will be yards of editorials and articles in a variety of papers and magazines, introducing the life and work to another generation keen on understanding the phenomenon of Charlie Parker. 'Bird Lives'.
BUYING CHARLIE PARKER
There are, and have been hundreds of Charlie Parker issues released in the last fifty years or so.
There are so many that it is impossible to draw up a definitive list and any trawl through the Internet music catalogues can produce a lengthy list of which many will no longer be available.
The available material by Charlie Parker's falls into two categories, studio and live recordings.
The live category could also be split into two types; live radio broadcasts and private recordings of gigs made illicitly by fans (and band members!).
Studio recordings are obviously the best quality and some have been transferred to digital media.
There are about 500 studio-recorded tracks by Parker; many of these will be incomplete or alternate takes and false starts.
Parker recorded in the days before multi-tracking and long playing records, so many of the studio albums available today are fleshed out with all the incomplete and alternate takes from one or more sessions for the company.
Parker was recording for release on 78 rpm, so these tracks are mostly around three minutes and there maybe only four tracks a session.
Again, the false starts, incomplete takes, reed squeaks and studio banter might only be of interest to Parkerites, but they make the studio albums more human and less sterile than a collection of master takes.
Arguably, the studio recordings although of a better quality don't often reveal the inspired Parker of the live radio and private takes.
The live recordings, although poor in sound quality and littered with shouts from fans, or interspersed with jabbering hosts such as Symphony 'I dig you the most' Sid, do capture Parker in his most fertile environment.
They not only capture Parker playing naturally without the benefit of retakes, but also capture the end of an era for jazz that began back before Louis Armstrong, before jazz got sidelined into concert halls and dinner clubs and replaced by newer sounds aimed at other audiences.
With the exception of a few artists, much of what followed Parker in the jazz idiom became insular and less popular than before, replaced by the diverse musical styles released by the revolution that Parker spearheaded.
Jazz would never be the same again. So the live recordings of Parker represent the swan song of the greatest jazz era.
The radio recordings are generally of a higher quality than the private recordings, as professional sound recordists were used.
The radio and private recordings overlap because some fans made tapes directly from the radio while others have been released from the archives of radio stations.
The private recordings vary in quality dependent on whom, where and how they were recorded and as they are less likely to be under copyright to an individual record company, are usually released by anyone wishing to front the cost.
Ultimately, more than two thirds of all Parker recordings fit into the live category.
So, ultimately, buying Charlie Parker records can be difficult for someone looking for an introduction to his music, as all Charlie Parker albums available are compilations of one sort or another.
Unfortunately, any Best of Bird albums available are likely to be made up of a single record companies stock, or a compilation of live recordings.
Other compilations of this type draw their content from the public domain and are generally early Parker releases as a guest or participant in a session.
Price is nothing to go by either; some cheap imported compilations are better value than the expensive albums.
Because of the amount of duplications of Parkers work, the list of recommended titles is relatively short and gives a general cross-section of the better Parker issues.
CHARLIE PARKER RECOMMENDED ISSUES
Pretty much all of Parkers studio work is available via three companies; Savoy-Arista, Verve and Spotlite (Dial).
Now's the Time - The Quartet of Charlie Parker Verve. One of the best studio albums available. You can check the track 'Kim', right here.
Dial Records: The Complete Master Takes Spotlite Records 559 859-2. Arguably, the best collection of Parker studio work available. Contains the famous Loverman (Real Audio) track. Parker was booked to record a session but showed up in a semi-comatose condition having attempted to counter-act the effect of heroin withdrawal with quarts of cheap alcohol and any narcotics he could lay his hands on. He had to be held to the microphone but manages to complete the take and record the funereal music of a man one step away from death. It is a remarkable piece of music, it is the ultimate blues track of all time matching Billie Holiday in passion and expression but also capturing the desperation that seemed to run through Charlie Parkers life.
Charlie Parker, Boston, 1952 Uptown Records UPCD 27-42. Discovered a few years ago in the vaults of the radio station, the quality is great, the tracks perfect, overall one of the best Parker issues available.
Charlie Parker at Storyville Blue Note 1988 - 0 777 785108 2 6. A live radio broadcast. Great quality, great tunes, and some nostalgic radio commentary. You can check the track 'Now's The Time' (with Radio MC John McLelland) in Real Audio, right here.
Bird at St. Nicks Jazz Workshop OJCCD-114-2 (JWS-501). You can check the track 'Ornithology', right here.
Bird on 52nd Street Jazz Workshop - OJCCD-041-2 (JWS-500) Both these issues are good examples of the type of thing to expect when buying privately recorded material. Chan Parker, and apparently two other people may have recorded this gig as well?
Jazz at the Massey Hall Debut OJCCD044-2. This is also known as The Greatest Jazz Concert of All Time and is of a high sound quality. Both Parker and Gillespie are outstanding, although the pace of the concert can be exhausting!
COMPILATION (Studio & Live):
Confirmation: The Best of The Verve Years Verve - 527 815-2 A Double CD that selects the best from Verves stock.
Talkin' Bird Verve - 559 859-2. Verve trying to repackage its product for another generation! The sleeve notes are awful but funny, and the collection is good too.
Jazz & Blues: Charlie Parker Bluenite BN207. A good example of the cheap, public domain issues. Very good value for money, with several hard to get tracks slotted in.
Bird at the Apollo - Black Label - (Charlie Parker Records) - BLCD 8002. Half the tracks on here dont have Bird on at all?
Charlie Parker Jazz Archives - Century Vista Records - CVR CP 18024-2. Only three of the eight tracks have anything to do with Charlie Parker, the rest are a mix of unidentifiable pap. The tracks that do appear are obviously burnt from a badly scratched vinyl pressing of some Dial recording!
Discography, session index and session query for all known Parker recordings, accessed through a Miles Davis-based site, still is a massive resource on Parker.
Unfortunately this site has seen no activity in the pass year or so. Not a great site but has potential.
Not specifically about Bird, but a site dedicated to an English musician/journalist who knew and produced Parker. (Feather was one of Parkers the pallbearers). A marvellously nostalgic site, with great images and information.
The William P. Gottleib Collection of jazz photographs held at the Library of Congress. The collection of Parker pictures is of a very high quality and all are downloadable. Most of the pictures youve seen of Parker playing with Davis are from this collection.
The Official Charlie Parker site hosted by CMG the premier company for representing the families and estates of deceased celebrities! Inaccurate and bland, the links page to learn more about Charlie Parker, is just a link to Amazon Books catalogue of Parker publications!
The Charlie Parker eGroup, for anyone interested in Charlie Parker trainspotting!!!
Birds Diary Ken Vail Castle Communications/Sanctuary 1996.
A marvellous book to browse through. Written as a diary dating all Parkers performances and appearances with commentary on many other non-musical happenings in Birds life. Well illustrated with pictures and reproductions of club flyers and magazine articles.
The Charlie Parker Companion. Six Decades of Commentary - Carl Woideck - Schirmer Books 1998.
Exceptional book made up of selected articles and published commentaries on Bird. A great read and an intelligent overview of Parkers life and work. The opening piece by Gary Giddens, an authority on Bird, is outstanding.
Charlie Parker - His Music and His Life. - Carl Woideck - Univ. of Michigan 1996.
Rather more academic than the previous work, analyses Birds music, but in an approachable way.
Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker - Gary Giddins - Da Capo Press 1998.
My Life in E Flat Chan Parker - University of South Carolina Press 1999.
The memoirs of Charlie Parkers last wife. A very moving book for anyone interested in the life of Bird. After Bird died she married Phil Woods, a musician considered to be the man to take up where Parker left off. He didnt, and he eventually left Chan, but the book is a marvellously rich insight into the life Charlie Parker.
Bird Lives! : The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker
Ross Russell - Da Capo Press 1996.
If The Sun (National Enquirer) were to write a piece on Charlie Parker, this would be their reference book! It's included in this list, as it is the most popular biography of Charlie Parker by someone who knew and recorded Bird. Its angle is sensationalist, and any truth tarnished by Russell's literary attempt to promote the sales of Parker's records on Russell's own Dial Records label. Otherwise a good read, but not to be taken seriously.
Bird: the Legend of Charlie Parker - Robert George Reisner - Da Capo Press - 1975.
A collection of interviews by people who knew Parker. Highlights the chameleon-like personality of Parker. Very interesting and thought provoking.
The Charlie Parker Story, Vol. 1 ([Stash] Stash Budget 1940)
Charlie Parker, Vol. 1 ([Savoy] Savoy 1944)
Savoy Recordings (Master Takes) (Savoy 1944)
Bird: The Savoy Recordings (Master Takes) (Savoy 1944)
Charlie Parker, Vol. 2 (Savoy 1945)
Bird, Diz, Bud, Max (Savoy 1945)
The Charlie Parker Story [Savoy Jazz] (Savoy 1945)
At the 1946 JATP Concert (Verve 1946)
Bird Set (Verve 1946)
Bird / Pres: '46 Concert [live] (Verve 1946)
Bird & Pres (Verve 1946)
Jazz at the Philharmonic, 1946 [Polygram] [live] (PolyGram 1946)
Diz 'N Bird at Carnegie Hall [live] (Blue Note 1947)
Charlie Parker [Verve] (Polygram 1947)
South of the Border: The Verve Latin-Jazz... (Verve 1948)
Bird on 52nd Street [live] (Original Jazz 1948)
Bird at the Roost: The Savoy Years, Vol. 1 (Savoy 1948)
Swedish Schnapps (Polygram 1949)
Jazz at the Philharmonic, 1949 [live] (Verve 1949)
The Genius of Charlie Parker, Vol. 2: April... (Verve 1949)
Charlie Parker with Strings: The Master Takes (Verve 1949)
The Genius of Charlie Parker, Vol. 3: Now's... (Verve 1949)
The Bird Blows the Blues (Dial 1949)
Charlie Parker Quintet (Dial 1949)
Charlie Parker & Stars of Modern Jazz at... (Jass 1949)
The Genius of Charlie Parker, Vol. 4: Bird... (Verve 1950)
Bird & Diz [Verve] (Verve 1950)
Bird and Diz (Verve 1950)
One Night at Birdland (Columbia 1950)
The Genius of Charlie Parker, Vol. 1: Night... (Verve 1950)
Bird with Strings [live] (Columbia 1950)
Charlie Parker Sextet (Dial 1950)
The Genius of Charlie Parker, Vol. 8:... (Verve 1951)
The Genius of Charlie Parker, Vol. 6: Fiesta (Verve 1951)
Summit Meeting at Birdland (Columbia 1951)
The Complete Legendary Rockland Palace... [live] (Jazz Classics 1952)
Boston (1952) [live] (Uptown 1952)
The Genius of Charlie Parker, Vol. 3: (Now's... 1952)
Charlie Parker Plays South of the Border (Mercury 1953)
Yardbird: DC-53 (VGM 1953)
Quintet of the Year (Debut 1953)
The Jazz at Massey Hall (Original Jazz 1953)
The Greatest Jazz Concert Ever [live] (Prestige 1953)
Jazz at Massey Hall (Debut / OJC 1953)
Collectors' Items (Dial 1953)
Bird at the Hi-Hat [live] (Blue Note 1953)
One Night in Washington (Elektra 1953)
The Genius of Charlie Parker, Vol. 5: C.P.... (Verve 1954)
A Night at Carnegie Hall [live] (Birdland 1956)