Charlie Parker
By Gabrielle Brim


In this paper, the biography of Charlie Parker will be studied. The research conducted in this paper was done by finding scholarly books and articles that reflected the life and career of Charlie Parker. In addition, audio examples of Parker’s music was found using YouTube.  The research focused on the musical experience and influence of Parker’s musicality. Parker participated in multiple band collaborations throughout his career. His creativity and talent in music help to promote the emerging new jazz sub-genre of the 1940’s called Bebop. Along with his participation in other bands, Parker started his own two bands and had a unique style that was admired by musicians and ultimately the world. 


          Charlie Parker was a remarkable jazz musician from Kansas City. He played alto saxophone for multiple jazz bands and eventually collaborated with other great jazz musicians such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, to produce numerous songs during recording sessions. In addition, Parker established his own jazz bands and string ensembles. Furthermore, Parker was well-known for his ability to play unfamiliar music from memory as well as his technical and fast-paced structured solos.  Due to his musical style and collaboration with Gillespie, Parker became a legend for newly emerging jazz sub-genre called Bebop, which influenced future jazz musicians. Overall, Parker was considered to be one of the most influential jazz musicians of his day.

Early Years

Charles “Charlie” Parker Jr. was born to Adelaide “Addie” and Charles Parker Sr. on August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas. Parker’s parents both withheld multiple jobs. His mother was a domestic cleaner and nanny, while his father was an entertainer and a waiter on the railways. Parker had a half-brother named John “Ikey” that he played with when he was younger. However, when Charlie’s parents separated, and he and his mother moved to Missouri, where he was left alone often due to his mother working long hours. Nevertheless, Charlie was quiet and spoiled by his mother. 

Parker was exposed to music while he was in school. In the fifth grade, he played the alto saxophone. Noticing his zeal over the sound of alto saxophone player, Rudy Valee, on the radio, Addie bought Parker’s first alto saxophone. Nevertheless, Parker did not become involved in playing and developing his sound on his saxophone until after playing the baritone in his high school’s orchestra, marching and symphonic band. His experience with the baritone created a musical passion within him. However, due to the limitations that the brass instrument offered, Parker returned to his saxophone again. Within no time, his zeal for the saxophone returned. As a result, Parker began to attend school less and started hanging outside around nightclubs and alleyways at night learning musical techniques from upper class students that played within these places. The late-nights led Parker to drop out of school; however, it became the foundation of his musical development. Nevertheless, he married his childhood sweetheart, Rebecca Ellen Ruffin, on July 25, 1936.

Rise of the Gigs

Charlie began to play in many bands in nightclubs, such as Lincoln Hall, and other venues that were non-union. However, due to his use of marijuana, his membership in most of the bands were not permanent. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1935, Parker at age fourteen joined the band, “Ten Chords of Rhythm,” formed by his fellow classmate Lawrence Keye. Parker’s participation in the band helped to launch his career in music. The band made a lot of money playing in local venues, but in order to play at the premier halls and clubs, Key’s placed the band under the African American Musicians Protective Union. Unfortunately, the band broke up in December after members noticed that they were making less money than they did before joining the union.

Despite that, Parker continued to play in union-sponsored bands and take part in jam sessions. On one session at the Reno Club in 1936, Parker attempted to play “Honeysuckle Rose”, but he wavered while playing, and consequently, a cymbal was thrown at his feet by one of the drummers of William “Count” Basie’s band. As a result, Parker was determined to improve his musicality. After a year of playing in George E. Lee’s band in Ozark, Missouri, Parker had improved greatly and became high in demand. He was hired by Buster Smith who had begun a small ensemble that often performed at Lucille’s Paradise. Lucille’s Paradise became the site for radio broadcasting at night, and as a result, the band became very popular. Smith also had a big band that consisted of twelve members, in which Parker was also a part of. The band performed at the opening of the Vine Street Varieties, which was the first local broadcast that held an all African American variety show. The band’s frequent appearances on the broadcast, increased Parker’s popularity locally. The band soon collapsed after Smith moved to New York to find a greater opportunity for his big band.

Parker also left for New York in 1940 to search for greater opportunities and the hopes of collaborating with Smith again. He joined Banjo Burney Robinson’s band but ended up returning to Kansas after receiving news that his father was killed. Charlie soon reunited with Keye’s, joining his band, the “Deans of Swing”. The band participated in a band battle with Jay McShann’s band at a ballroom called Roseland Hall. After the battle, Parker, impressed by McShann’s band, was hired on spot after asking to join. The band had a recording session during the weekend of Thanksgiving at the Trocadero Club in Wichita, Kansas. Parker’s solos on songs “Body and Soul” and “Moten’s Swing” revealed his unconventional style and techniques, especially his use of triplets within the second measure and the end of the bridge. In addition, Parker received his nickname “Bird” from members of the McShann band because of his obsession for chicken. In April 1941, the band recorded for the Decca label in Dallas, Texas. On one of the songs on the recordings, called “Hootie Blues”, Parker creatively played a twelve-measured solo that amazed musicians who listened. In addition, the band’s performance at the Savoy Ballroom exposed Parker to audiences around the country. Impressed by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie sat in on the band’s sessions often. Parker and Gillespie soon began to play together in jam sessions along with Kenny Clarke, Thelonious Monk at Minton’s Playhouse. Parker, Gillespie, and Clarke joined Monk’s band, which served as the breeding ground for bebop where the musicians experimented various phrases and harmonics. Parker was eventually released from McShann’s band, but then joined Earl Hines band, where he learned and mastered the tenor saxophone. Hines was impressed by the ability of Parker to play music that was unknown to him from memory. While the band was on tour, Parker married Geraldine Marguerite Scott, a stage show dancer, in April 1943, while he was still legally married to Rebecca, his first wife at the time.

Bop Beginnings

          Parker and others quit the Hines Band after facing racial tensions at a performance in the South, where white people threw cherry bombs on the stage. Parker joined Billy Eckstine, Gillespie, and other old members from the Hines and McShann bands to form one of the first big bands of bebop. Within the band, Parker was the head of the reed section. At an engagement in St. Louis, Parker and other members of the band broke the color barrier by utilizing the front door and socializing with whites. In September 1944, Parker later left the Eckstine band and joined another band formed by Ben Webster.  Gillespie also left the Eckstine Band in January 1945 and shortly after did a recording session with Charlie, Clyde Hart, Ruberlegs Williams, and Trummy Young. The recordings were not very successful. Nevertheless, Parker and Gillespie did another recording session in February, where they recorded “Groovin’ High”, “All the Things You Are,” and “Dizzy Atmosphere” with Hart and others. They followed up with another session, recording “Salt Peanuts”, “Shaw Nuff” and “Hot House”. These sessions eventually formed Charlie’s and Gillespie’s first group together. The group brought the bebop style to bigger audiences in May 1945 at a concert in Town Hall in New York. Charlie then left Gillespie to start his own quintet. The quintet featured Don Byas on tenor, Al Haig on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Stan Levey on drums. The group became the standard for bebop in New York. In addition, Parker formed another group with Levy, Sir Charles Thompson, Leonard Gaskin, Dexter Gordon and Miles Davis. By late 1945, Parker had appealed to many jazz writers, musicians, poets, and artists.  In addition, he did his first recording session as a leader in November of that year. Parker invited Gillespie to replace the pianist and recorded songs such as “Now’s the Time”, “Billie’s Bounce”, “Thriving from a Riff”, and “Ko Ko”.  Six months later, the recordings were released to the nation and impressed critics greatly.

Bird's Got Rhythm

            In December 1945, Charlie and Gillespie rejoined and brought bebop to Los Angeles, California. Although the general public on the west coast was not very supportive, Parker and Gillespie gained a great deal of recognition on the east coast for their recordings and were noted as one of the greatest partnerships in jazz music. Parker and Gillespie separated permanently as business partners after the trip to California. Parker remained in California and joined Howard McGhee’s band as a star soloist. While attending other jam sessions, Parker encouraged young musicians, such as Hampton Hawes, to keep pure music. Parker did another recording session with Dial records, with Miles Davis and others, and recorded “A Night in Tunisia”, “Moose the Mooche”, “I Got Rhythm”, etc. Parker was almost paid for his original compositions through a publishing company, but he failed to complete the publishing agreement and sold his royalties with Dial to Byrd for a heroin exchange. In February 19, 1947, Parker recorded with Earl Coleman on two ballads, “This Is Always” and “Dark Shadows”. In addition, Charlie also recorded two other originals, “Bird’s Nest” and “Cool Blues”. On February 26 , he recorded again with seven other musicians on “Relaxing at Camarillo”. This composition allowed Parker to win the Grand Prix du Disque award in France, which was his first international award. 

            Parker left Los Angeles for New York in April 1947. On May 8, he recorded “Donna Lee”, “Chasin’ the Bird,” “Cheryl” and “Buzzy” with his quintet band, which included Miles Davis, Bud Powell, and others, on the Savoy label. In 1948, Parker married Doris Sydnor while on the Philharmonic tour. In 1949, Charlie was honored by Metronome magazine as the number-one alto saxophonist, a notable contributor to bebop music, and an influence on future jazz musicians.  Parker also was honored with a club named after him in New York called Birdland. In 1950, Parker arranged his own ensemble of strings and recorded “Just Friends”, which became one of his best-selling recordings. In addition, Charlie Parker with Strings was released in February, and created a trend in jazz, where string ensembles accompanied jazz musicians. After the recordings, Parker began touring with his string ensemble throughout New York.  Despite his success, Parker began to decline in his health both physically and mentally. Consequently, he died on March 12, 1955 from lobar pneumonia. 


              Charlie Parker’s outstanding musical talent made him an exceptional  jazz musician. Parker was noted as one of the key leaders of bebop, and was credited with helping establish its structure. In addition, he was greatly acknowledged as a musician after his death in 1955. In fact, Parker received a Grammy Award for the best jazz soloist performance in 1974 as well as the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1984. Furthermore, Parker was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame for a few of his songs and albums, which included songs, “Billie’s Bounce” and “Ornithology,” and albums, “Jazz at Massey Hall” and “Charlie Parker With Swings.” Parker’s success and impact in jazz established him as one of the greatest influential jazz musicians.


Balliett, Whitney. “A Portrait of Charlie Parker: Remembering Bird.” The Instrumentalist 61,  no. 10 (2007): 37–42.

DeVeaux, Scott. “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker/Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker.”                                                The Journal of Southern History 83, no. 1 (2017): 209–211.

Feinstein, Sascha. “Yusef Komunyakaa’s ‘Testimony’ and the Humanity of Charlie Parker.” Callaloo 28, no. 3 (2005): 757–762.

Giddins, Gary. Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013. Accessed May 8, 2018.                     ProQuest Ebook Central.

“” Grammy Hall of Fame. Accessed May 08, 2018.

Haddix, Chuck. 2013. Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost),                   EBSCOhost (accessed May 8, 2018).

Lawn, Richard. “Charlie Parker: His Music and Life.” Music Library Association. Notes 54, no. 2 (1997): 495–496.

Priestley, Brian. Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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