American jazz saxophonist. Known for a virtuoso
style of improvisation that was fundamental to the bebop style of jazz.
Kansas City, Missouri, where Charlie Parker grew up, was an important center
for jazz in the 1920s and 1930s. Parker began his musical life playing baritone
horn in his school band, but soon bought a used alto saxophone and taught himself
to play, listening to the many fine jazz musicians in the city. By age fifteen
he had quit school in order to pursue his musical calling. In 1939 he moved
to New York and established himself by playing with bands led by Jay McShann,
Earl Hines, and Billy Eckstine. Playing in these large groups did not allow
the kind of freedom that Parker and others were looking for, and they often
met after hours to play together in jam sessions. It was here that the bebop
style was born—where players could focus on improvisation and experiment
with new harmonic and melodic ideas. Parker, along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie
(who played with Parker in the Hines and Eckstine bands), formed a small group
and took it to the West Coast in 1945, helping to launch the bop revolution.
The group broke up when Parker was committed to Camarillo State Hospital because
of heroin addiction. He returned to New York in 1947 and formed a new band,
featuring trumpeter Miles Davis. He continued his groundbreaking work in performances
and recordings, but by 1951 his problems with drugs and alcohol were beginning
to take a severe toll on him. In 1954 he had himself committed once more, and
within a year he was dead.
In his brief life, Parker made one of the strongest contributions to the art
of jazz of any musician. The style he helped create was one of complex, sophisticated
improvisation and virtuosity. More conservative players of the time saw Parker's
solos as a jumble of notes with no coherence—Louis Armstrong, for example,
was a strong critic in bop's early days. But in retrospect it is clear
that the melodies he created had an exquisite musical logic, and since his time
new generations of jazz musicians have used his solos as a starting point in
creating their own style. A popular rallying cry of jazz musicians in the 1960s
and 1970s was "Bird lives!" and it is true even today.