Charlie Parker

Author: 
Kansas City Public Library
  • Date of Birth: August 29, 1920
  • Place of Birth: Kansas City, Kansas
  • Claim to Fame: "bebop" jazz musician, alto saxophonist
  • Also Known As: "Bird"
  • Spouse: Chan Parker (common-law spouse)
  • Date of Death: March 12, 1955
  • Cause of Death: pneumonia
  • Place of Death: New York City
  • Final Resting Place: Lincoln Cemetery, Jackson County, Missouri

On March 12, 1955, famed jazz musician Charlie "Bird" Parker died, following a 15-year addiction to heroin and alcohol. The Kansas City native had become one of the greatest alto saxophonists in the world thanks to his innovations in the "bebop" jazz style.

Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker. Courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he played in jazz clubs as a teenager and young man. The local jazz culture based in the Vine Street nightclub district cultivated his talents as a teenager. Indeed, it was during this period that Kansas City made notable contributions to jazz with hometown artists such as Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Buster Smith.

With these artists, the Kansas City jazz of the 1930s and 1940s ushered in the era of bebop, a style that Parker came to epitomize. It was an upbeat style that emphasized random harmonic structures rather than adhering to the melody-based compositions used in the traditional big band style.

He only began to accumulate fame after moving to New York City in 1938 at the age of 18. Odd jobs such as dishwashing sustained his musical career until 1942, when he met Dizzy Gillespie, a talented trumpet player. In 1945, Parker and Gillespie joined Max Roach and Miles Davis to record what some believed was the best recording session in jazz history. Among the best-known songs were "Koko," "Now's the Time," "Thriving on a Riff," and "Billie's Bounce."

Unfortunately, much adversity accompanied Parker's meteoric rise to fame and glory. While recovering from injuries sustained in a car accident as a teenager, he became addicted to morphine. He later switched to heroin, and during several rehabilitation efforts he indulged more heavily in alcohol.

Racial tensions also contributed to his drug abuse. When not performing in front of enthusiastic crowds, he was subjected to the same daily indignities of racism as any other black person of the time. Most notably, the media failed to recognize his accomplishments despite his enormous influence on other jazz musicians. Reporters instead chose to focus on the non-conformist culture surrounding bebop musicians, portraying Parker as something of a spectacle rather than a serious musician.

His stardom finally improved considerably after a sensational 1949 trip to France, where the media noted his popularity with their audiences and musicians. By 1950, Parker had finally gained attention in America as perhaps the greatest alto saxophone player of all time.

Still, the belated recognition only temporarily lifted Parker's spirits. The death of Parker's 2-year-old daughter in 1954 and his subsequent split with his common-law wife, Chan Parker, led him into a deep depression. Suffering from depression, ulcers, and severe cirrhosis of the liver, Parker contracted pneumonia at the age of 34 and died a week later in his hotel room.

Shortly following his death, graffiti around New York paid homage to Charlie Parker with the simple message, "Bird Lives." Today this quaint phrase serves on monuments, biographies, websites, and documentaries to remind future generations of Parker's extraordinary contributions to the history of music.

Acknowledgement: 

This article has been adapted from an article published at KChistory.org.

KANSAS CITY PUBLIC LIBRARY | DIGITAL HISTORY
Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict,1855-1865.
The Pendergast Years, Kansas City in the Jazz Age & Great Depression.
KC History, Missouri Valley Special Collections at the Kansas City Public Library.