Charlie Parker: His Life & History

Birdland is deeply rooted in our respect and appreciation for jazz icons, musicians from many eras who had a hand in shaping the music. Our biggest inspiration, and the man behind the Birdland name, is Charlie Parker. Known for both his incredible technique and his harmonic innovations, Charlie “Bird” Parker is arguably the greatest saxophonist of all time.

You can’t really get to know Birdland without knowing Charlie Parker. Whether you are just discovering jazz or are an aficionado, learning about Charlie Parker means learning about a man who helped invent modern jazz.

An Early Passion for Music

Charlie Parker was born August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas. From the age of 7, his childhood was spent just across state lines in the Missouri city of the same name. He was an only child, born to Charles Parker and Adelaide Bailey. Charles Parker also possessed musical talent, and was an African-American stage performer, specializing in piano, dancing, and singing. Although he was often absent from young Charlie’s life, it may be that this love of performing was nevertheless passed down.

Some believe that it was a stroke of luck that Parker grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, because during that time, the city was incredibly rich with African-American music, including jazz, blues, and gospel. With this music hotspot as his everyday surroundings, it wasn’t long before he discovered his passion, first picking up a saxophone at the age of 11. By 12 or 13 years old, he had joined his school band, learning his way with just a simple rented instrument.

Before too long, Parker was appearing in local dance halls, which is where his introduction to jazz would take place. After that, he couldn’t get enough – frequenting a variety of Kansas City clubs, he made it his mission to soak up as much jazz as possible. Parker’s early list of musical idols included Louis Armstrong, Jimmy Dorsey, and Coleman Hawkins. At the age of 14, he had dropped out of school to pursue his dedicated passion for music. For a young Charlie Parker, jazz was the only future he cared to imagine.

charlie parker playing sax in club by band

The Beginnings of a Musical Career

Between 1935 and 1939, Parker kept busy playing in the Kansas City club scene with a variety of local bands, and began to really get serious about developing his talent. In an interview with Paul Desmond, he mentioned that during this period, he was practicing for up to 15 hours every day.

1937 would bring about a pivotal moment in Parker’s early career, when he was playing a session at Kansas City’s Reno Club. After a failed attempt at musical improvisation left him lost in the chord changes, he became determined to hone his craft even further. By the next year, his incredible growth and development was apparent to anyone who saw him. Parker began touring with Jay McShann in 1938, touring New York City and Chicago amongst other locations, as well as beginning to record.

A Career Blossoms in New York City

Parker made the decision to move to New York City permanently in 1939, though he found the transition challenging. Among the jobs he took to survive was a position washing dishes at a chicken restaurant, a location that, interestingly enough, hosted performances by pianist Art Tatum. A few years after his arrival in the Big Apple, Parker was performing with Earl Hines and Dizzy Gillespie.

Soon after, he joined a musical group that played late-night shows at Minton’s in Harlem, working with guitarist Charlie Christian and drummer Kenny Clarke. This period is often considered the time during which “bebop” was invented. In late 1945, Parker recorded a set of tracks with a young Miles Davis Parker’s compositions “Billie’s Bounce” and “Ko-Ko.”

From there, the music kept flowing. The albums he released are among the greatest in the history of jazz, including Charlie Parker with Strings, a fulfillment of his dream to play alongside an orchestra. For many of his devoted fans, it is considered the best of Charlie Parker’s recordings.

An Honored Life

Charlie Parker battled addiction for much of his life, with resulting complications eventually leading to his passing in 1955, at the age of 35. Although he was gone, the music industry made sure that he was certainly not forgotten. A long list of accolades has accumulated behind his work, including a 1974 Grammy for Best Performance by a Soloist, and 4 different Grammy Hall of Fame Awards. In 1979, Parker was inducted into the Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame, and was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1984 for his weighty contributions to the music world.

Countless tributes have also been made in his name, with Parker being honored in literature, music, film, an original opera, and a number of festivals and celebrations.

BIRDLAND: A Tribute to a Jazz Great

When the doors to Birdland opened in 1949, it was well-known that the club was named after Charlie Parker. The original Broadway location was run by twin brothers Irving and Morris Levy and managed by Oscar Goodstein.

Birdland would go on to play host to countless jazz greats, including John Coltrane and Art Blakely, both of whom recorded albums at the club. Other notable names – both performers and celebrity guests alike – included Frank Sinatra, Johnny Smith, Miles Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland.

Over the years, Birdland has changed owners and relocated twice but still hosts the most incredible performers in jazz. We are proud of our rich, storied history, and never forget our original inspiration: Charlie Parker.