Charles Parker

Charles Parker, Jr. was born August 29 of 1920 to Charles and Addie Parker. Growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, he dropped out of high school in 1935 to join the local Musicians Union. He had started playing the saxophone at age 11 and learned much of what he knew from his father.

Parker’s father was a singer, dancer, and pianist on the T.O.B.A. (Theater Owners Booking Association) circuit. His father worked a great deal and his mother worked nights at a Western Union office. He spent much of his time with a young musician that taught Parker improvisation, a happenstance that would change his life and jazz as we know it.

Sadly, Parker had an automobile accident as a teenager that left him addicted to morphine. This soon led to an addiction to heroin which he used until it took part in ending his life. During the 1930s, Parker practiced for 3-4 years as much as 15 hours per day, developing his improvisation skills and the sound that led to bebop. He played with local bands, eventually joining Jay McShann’s territory band in 1938, with which he participated in his first recording.

One night in 1939, when Parker was jamming with William “Biddy” Fleet, he had a sudden realization. He found that twelve tones of the chromatic scale could work into any key, which was a major change from the simpler jazz solos of the day. Some of the traditional jazz musicians at first rejected Parker’s new style, but others like Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman were excited about the sound and even helped form the new bebop movement.

Parker recorded many albums including those that fused jazz with classical, blues, and Latin sounds. He loved classical music and the sound of string orchestras. He was an icon for the hipsters and then for the Beat Generation, famed for his intellect and artistry. During his distinguished career, before his death at age 34 to complications of heroin use, Parker made significant contributions to the world of music.

Later, well after his death, many of his recordings were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, including “Billie’s Bounce” and “Charlie Parker with Strings.” The Library of Congress added his 1945 recording “Ko-Ko” to the National Recording Registry. In 1995, Parker was featured on a U.S. Stamp. Parker’s influence continues to affect musicians of today and will be remembered in the years to come.

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