Jazz musician. Born: August 29, 1920, Kansas City, Kan. Died: March 12, 1955, New York City.
At times it was difficult to separate Charlie Parker from the alto saxophone he played. The instrument and the man became as one when the jazz music in his soul took control. Parker's musical innovations changed the Kansas City jazz he played to a form called "bebop."
Charles Christopher Parker, Jr., was born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1920. Just as the Harlem Renaissance was coming of age and native Kansan Langston Hughes was making his mark in literature, Parker found a place in Kansas City jazz. Most called him "Yardbird" or just "Bird." Others called him genius. In his short yet turbulent life, Parker became recognized as one of the most creative musicians in the history of jazz.
Early musical training for Parker came from the streets of Kansas City, Missouri. Parker's mother raised him alone; his father left early in Charlie's life. In school, Parker discovered band, but was discouraged when the teacher assigned him to play the tuba. His mother scraped together enough money to purchase a used alto saxophone and Charlie taught himself to play. From an early age he was drawn to the music he heard in the alleyways from jam sessions in the Kansas City "joints."
Parker's head resounded with a different tune from the popular jazz of the day. Although he played basic chords and harmonies with the other musicians, Parker began to experiment with higher intervals of chords to produce the tunes that filled his imagination. This sound, known as "bebop," or simply "bop," took form in Harlem jazz clubs in the 1940s and became the trademark that separated African American musicians from other swing bands. With bebop, the musician became the artist and the music his canvas.
"Bird" Parker lived his life on the edge. He married Rebecca Ruffin when he was only 15 and played in Kansas City entertainment clubs while his friends studied in school. Parker began taking heroin following an auto accident, a habit that eventually cost him his life. Parker's musical genius drove him down a dangerous path. Parker died March 12, 1955. The coroner estimated the 34-year-old Parker's age to be closer to 55.
From his childhood in Kansas City, Parker became a legend in the world of jazz. Without the Kansas City jazz scene, "Bird" might never have brought to life the tunes that lived in his head.
Entry: Parker, Charlie
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2010
Date Modified: April 2015
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.