July 13, 2020

Bird Lives! 1OO Years

charlie parker 1

Charlie Parker

The epitaph, “Bird Lives!” would prove to be more than prophetic as the saxaphonist’s influence, reputation and legend have only grown exponentially in the decades since his death in 1955

By Armand Lewis

When Charlie Parker died on the evening of March 12, 1955 in the hotel suite of Baroness Panonnica de Koenigswarter, graffiti started appearing almost instantly around New York proclaiming “Bird Lives!” This epitaph would prove to be more than prophetic as the saxophonist’s influence, reputation and legend would grow exponentially in the succeeding decades.

Born in Kansas City, Kansas on August 29th, 1920 and raised across the river in Kansas City, Missouri, Charles Parker Jr. was the only child of African-American vaudevillian Charles Parker Sr. and Addie Boxley Parker, who was of both African-American and Native American/Choctaw heritage.

By all accounts a quiet, studious child, who’s mother doted on him endlessly, Charlie gradually became aware of the nearby dance halls and nightclubs. They would be hard to miss, thanks to the effort of city councilman and bootlegger Tom Pendergast.

Under Pendergast, Kansas City would become a haven for gambling, nightclubs and speakeasies, dance halls and lots of other places that needed live music. Regional big bands as well as national names like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Fletcher Henderson all brought their groups to play extended gigs, bringing their star band members with them. As a teenager, Parker gained exposure to the likes of Lester Young, Johnny Hodges, Coleman Hawkins and Parker’s personal favorite, Leon “Chu” Berry.

Upon hearing Berry, Parker, who had shown scant interest in music, took up his previously neglected alto sax and began searching out local informal opportunities to hang out, learn from and jam with both his peers and many of the visiting musicians who were constantly available for late night jam sessions and “cutting contests.” It was at one of these cutting contests where sixteen-year-old Parker would receive possibly his most important music lesson — be prepared. 

A cutting contest was an informal jam session where musicians would try to out-play one another, showing up the inferior player and “cutting” him from the stage. It was a friendly type of musical competition, but was taken very seriously by those involved.

Parker, who by then was playing alto in a local dance band, attended one such contest presided over by Count Basie drummer Jo Jones. The sixteen-year-old started playing George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm,” but half way through got lost and couldn’t keep up. Jones indicated (with a gong) that Parker’s time was up. Parker refused to take the hint and after a couple more gongs, Jones unscrewed the cymbal from his drum kit and threw it onstage, where it landed with a thundering crash at Parker’s feet.  The humiliating laughter of both the audience and fellow musicians drove Parker out of the club in tears, vowing to himself to return and show them all up.

Newly married and basically unemployed, Parker spent hours per day practicing along with phonograph records, especially those by Leon Chu Berry. In a much later interview, Parker said that he spent three to four years practicing up to fifteen hours a day. This may have been only a slight exaggeration as Parker’s next gig would leave him with a lot of time to fill.

Working in Ernie Daniels’s trio in the later part of 1936, the group was on a 150 mile trip to play at a club in the Ozarks on Thanksgiving, when their car skidded off the road on a sheet of ice and turned over more than once before crashing. Daniels was hospitalized with a punctured lung, while bassist George Wilkerson was killed outright. Parker was relatively lucky. He suffered three broken ribs and a spinal fracture and could recuperate at home. Once sufficiently healed enough to play, Parker resumed practicing in his bedroom. It’s believed that this was the time when Parker also started messing with drugs, possibly as pain relief for
his injuries.

Once healed, Parker was forced to look for work. Pendergast’s corruption as well as his own gambling addiction were beginning to catch up with him. As Kansas City cleaned itself up, Pendergast’s clubs and dance halls began to close, putting even the most experienced musicians out of work.

Hopping a freight train to Chicago in the fall of 1938 did little to improve Parker’s prospects. With no place to stay or possible employment, within a week of arriving in the windy city, Parker pawned his clarinet and used the money to buy a bus ticket to New York.

A transient with no union card, Parker also couldn’t find work in New York as a saxophonist, so was forced to take a job washing dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem for nine dollars a week. The location was not an accident as the resident pianist was another of Parker’s musical idols, pianist Art Tatum.

Tatum was a musical force of nature. Blind and seriously alcoholic, Art Tatum was nevertheless astonishing. His playing built on the earlier stride style of jazz piano, but with the addition of incredible harmonic imagination — all while playing with a speed and complexity that had never been heard to that point. Tatum was a major influence on literally every major jazz musician of the 1940s and ‘50s, but it was Parker who directly received Tatum’s musical lessons as he listened to and absorbed the piano master’s genius every night of Tatum’s three month engagement.

Through listening to Tatum all those nights, Parker learned that virtually any note could be made to fit in a chord if suitably resolved — moving the note or chord from dissonance (an unstable sound) to a consonance (a more final or stable sound). Parker would perfect this into a style and technique that would baffle and inspire awe in his fellow musicians. 

His own breakthrough happened at a jam session in December 1939, when Parker was playing the big bands standard “Cherokee” and in his words “I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with the appropriate related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.”

Back in Kansas City for his father’s funeral, Parker renewed his previous acquaintance with pianist Jay McShann, whose newly formed big band was about to go on tour through the Midwest. It was on this tour that Charlie Parker got the nickname that would stick with him forever.

It was outside Lincoln, Nebraska when the car Parker was riding in hit a chicken that had run onto the road. Parker told the driver “Hey, man, go back, you hit that yard bird.” Once back at the site, Parker picked up the dead bird and got back in the car. When they arrived in Lincoln, he asked the woman at the boarding house where the band was staying to cook the chicken for him for dinner. She complied and Parker’s amused associates started calling him “Yardbird” or simply “Bird” from then on.

charlie parker 2

Off and on with McShann for four years, Bird would make his first recordings with McShann’s group as well as play an eight month residence in Earl Hines’ band, where Parker would meet his musical soulmate, Dizzy Gillespie. A later loan-out to Billy Eckstine’s big band, where Gillespie was in the trumpet section, cemented their musical friendship. On a swing back through New York, Parker decided to leave McShann for good. He had found his new home.

Minton’s Playhouse was a small club next to the Hotel Cecil in Harlem that was the laboratory for modern jazz. Gillespie was a regular and the house band included drummer Kenny Clarke and pianist Thelonious Monk. While Parker was working out the basics of his modernist style with McShann, Gillespie, Monk and others were going in the same direction at Minton’s.

Bird quickly became a regular at Minton’s jam sessions. Bird and Dizzy would work out new arrangements of original compositions as well as adapt pop songs to the new style. The pair played at multiple clubs on 52nd Street, where seemingly every doorway fronted some type of jazz club.

Their first recordings (under Gillespie’s leadership), made for the Guild label are considered the recordings that established the modern jazz style, though Parker’s first sessions as a leader for Savoy Records five months later would ultimately be considered the first definitive modern jazz recordings.

Savoy was one of the larger independent labels of the post-war period. Specializing more in R&B than jazz, they were nonetheless quick to capitalize on whatever the musical trend of the moment was — and Bird was ready to take advantage of the situation.

Parker’s first Savoy date, on November 26, 1945 yielded five 78rpm sides featuring (among others) Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie and an eighteen-year old Miles Davis. Davis had come to New York with the stated purpose of studying at Julliard, but with the actual purpose of finding Charlie Parker and study be-bop under Bird. This mix of newcomers and established artists laid down “Billie’s Bounce,” Thriving on a Riff,” “Meandering,” “Now’s the Time” and arguably modern jazz’ first masterpiece “Ko Ko.”  Based on the chords of “Cherokee,” “Ko Ko” literally explodes with musical invention. What initially seems like a collision of scrambled notes reveals, upon repeat listening, an extremely logical coherent statement. 

Bird’s musical statements would — for the moment — remain unanswered. Within weeks of recording his first session for Savoy, he and Dizzy would bring their new music to Los Angeles for an extended stay at Billy Berg’s Hollywood jazz club. Located at 1356 North Vine Street at the corner of De Longpre Avenue (the building still stands and is currently a restaurant), Berg’s was one of the first integrated jazz clubs in Hollywood.

Initially, the club was packed with fellow jazz musicians and hipsters eager to hear the new sound. For several weeks, the club was full nightly, but by January, the crowds had thinned and when the engagement ended the first week of February, the quintet was playing to a near empty room.  There had been other work, including Bird’s first concert appearance at an early Jazz at the Philharmonic concert in downtown L.A., but the West Coast gig was over.

When it was time to fly home to New York, Parker was nowhere to be found. He had cashed in his plane ticket and had gone on a bender. Gillespie and the group searched all over for Bird, but in the end had to fly home without him.

Alone, broke and increasingly strung out, Parker spiraled out of control. Record dates for the tiny Dial label were only partially successful as many times Bird was too out of it play. Desperate for his daily heroin fix, Parker signed over half the publishing rights to his songs to his pusher “Moose the Mooche.” This did not work out very well as “Mooche” was arrested and jailed soon after.

After one aborted Dial session, Parker made his way back to his hotel room before coming down to the lobby twice stark naked demanding to use the phone. Finally back in his room, Bird collapsed in bed and set the room on fire with the cigarette he had been smoking. Once firemen rescued him, Bird was arrested and later sentenced to six months psychiatric evaluation at at Camarillo State Psychiatric Hospital. Camarillo turned out to be the best thing to happen to Parker in a long time. He successfully dried out, regained his health and, after being released in early 1947, finished his contract with Dial and returned to New York.

Returning to Savoy on May 8th, 1947, a newly refreshed Charlie Parker again recorded with Miles Davis on “Donna Lee,” “Chasin’ the Bird,” “Buzzy” and “Cheryl” All four sides show a renewed strength and musical invention, signa-ling that Parker had truly triumphed over his personal problems.

Later Savoy sessions that year found Parker and Davis recording “Milestones,” “Little Willie Leaps,” “Half Nelson” and “Sippin’ At Bells” on August 14th, and four more sides on December 21st (“Another Hair Do,” “Bluebird,” “Klaunstance” and “Bird Gets The Worm”). By early 1948, Parker would once again record for Dial, as the company had relocated to New York, specifically to record Parker again. Legal fireworks ensued as, unbeknownst to both labels, Parker had signed exclusive contracts with Dial as well as Savoy.

Savoy would not record Parker again until September 18, 1948, when he returned to their studios with Miles on trumpet, John Lewis on piano, Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums to record “Barbados” “Ah-Leu-Cha” “Constellation” and “Parker’s Mood.” A week later on September 24, the group would reconvene to record “Perhaps,” “Marmaduke,” “Steeplechase” and “Merry-Go-Round.” These would be Parker’s last recordings for Savoy. 

By this time, the vinyl long playing record (LP) had just been introduced and, like all record companies, Savoy was making plans to release their catalog of 78rpm singles in the new format. By the start of the 1950s, Savoy would issue all of Parker’s recordings in four 10” LPs — each with six to eight Parker 78s per 20-minute LP.

Now available in perfect reproductions of the original albums, Craft Recordings has made these early Parker albums available again in Charlie Parker – The Savoy 10” Collection. Complete with the original LP cover art and a book of extensive notes by Neil Tesser as well as rare photos, listeners can hear Parker’s mastery and brilliance in newly remastered sound that brings these 78rpm-era masters into the 21st Century.

By 1949, Parker’s influence in the jazz world would start to be publicly recognized. Steady work at New York’s Royal Roost jazz club would be regularly broadcast and in 1950, the city’s largest jazz venue would be named Birdland in his honor. This led to new management for Bird’s career.

Bird had previously done a couple of recordings for producer Norman Granz, whose Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts had led to Granz’ own labels Clef and Norgran (later to be consolidated into Verve Records). Granz would produce all of Parker’s studio recordings during the saxophonist’s last five years — even as Parker’s addictions and erratic behavior caused his health and personal life to further deteriorate.

As a producer, Granz would often record his artists in different musical situations or formats, thus expanding the jazz form as well as broadening the scope of the artists themselves. When Bird suggested recording an album with backing by a string orchestra, in November 1949 Granz booked the studio and orchestra for what became “Bird with Strings.”

While it’s a seemingly odd pairing, the juxtaposition of Parker’s alto and a tasteful string backing on a set of standards made for what amounted to Bird’s only hit album. Parker himself considered it his masterpiece and hoped to further study classical composition for future orchestral recordings.

Granz’s management would stabilize Parker’s career, keeping Bird busy with Jazz at the Philharmonic tours, jam session recordings and individual albums including a reunion LP with Dizzy Gillespie (“Bird and Diz”) that also featured Parker’s only studio recording with Thelonious Monk. Still, this was not enough to slow Parker’s decline.

Bird was aware of the toll that heroin was taking on both his life and career as it cost him performance and recording dates as well as ruining his health and personal life. He also watched in horror as younger musicians mistakenly took up the habit thinking that if they took the drugs Parker took, they too could play like Bird. In one such encounter with a young Jackie McLean, who idolized Parker, Bird berated McLean for using heroin and demanded – in full public view in front of Birdland – that the teenage McLean literally kick Parker in the ass for Parker’s being such a fool to use drugs in the first place. McLean reluctantly complied, while Bird demanded repeated kicking – hoping word would get out about his disapproval of his own habit.

When occasionally trying to quit heroin, Parker would substitute pills and extremely large quantities of alcohol. The resulting drunkenness, unreliability, mood swings and arguments with fellow musicians and club managers were rapidly ending his career – even the normally patient and indulgent Norman Granz had to cancel many proposed recording and concert dates.

Once again broke and strung out, on March 9th, 1955 Parker made his way to the New York hotel suite of Baroness Pannonica (“Nica”) de Konigswarter, a wealthy descendant of the Rothschild family and a patron and protector to jazz musicians. Upon Parker’s arrival at the suite, she could see that Bird was extremely ill.

De Konigswarter called a doctor, but Parker refused medical attention. He would remain in Nica’s suite until March 12, when he died at approximately 8pm while watching TV. The coroner’s report listed Parker’s age as being fifty-three years old. He was actually thirty-four. Word of Parker’s death immediately spread in the jazz community and the graffiti “Bird Lives” began to be seen as the sun came up in the morning.

Parker’s influence on jazz was so profound that jazz history can be divided into two parts. Jazz before World War II can be said to flow almost entirely from Louis Armstrong, while all post-WWII jazz comes from Charlie Parker. Bird changed the course of jazz in ways that nobody has matched. Having freed up chord structure, time, rhythm and complexity, every jazz modernist, no matter what their personal style, derives their music from Parker. Upon hearing of Bird’s death, bassist Charles Mingus commented, “The musicians at Birdland had to wait for Charlie’s next record to find out what to play. What will they do now?”

Within that question lies Parker’s legacy. The entire jazz world — Mingus included — would carry Parker’s music into new realms that Bird himself may not have been able to imagine. Be-bop, hard-bop, West Coast cool, soul-jazz, avant-garde/free, jazz/rock fusion; all of it takes Charlie Parker’s musical innovations as their basic starting point.

Bird lives. His music lives. And the recordings Charlie Parker left behind on Savoy, Dial and Verve will continue to live and influence the world of jazz and popular music for hundreds of years to come.

Armand Lewis buys and sells rare Jazz LPs. He can be reached at


Be the first to comment!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *