The most famous saxophone players #2 - Charlie Parker
When we did our survey on Google to find out which saxophonists are searched for the most, it was almost a relief to find that two of the true sax greats tied in second place, averaging 33,000 hits each every month. Let’s take a look at Charlie Parker today (saving John Coltrane for next time).
Charlie Parker (1920-1955)
The jazz world lost an absolute superstar when Charlie Parker died at the age of just 34. But even though his active years were brief, he changed the world of jazz forever, as one of the pioneers of bebop.
Born in Kansas in 1920, he began playing sax at the age of 11, joining his high school band at 14 before leaving school at 15 to pursue becoming a musician playing with local bands and soaking up all the influences he could. Even at that young age though, he knew the benefit of practising, apparently playing for up to 15 hours a day, developing his improvisation skills and his virtuoso speed techniques, which would later become part of bebop.
He injured his spine in a car accident in 1936 on the way to a gig; the painkillers for this were to lead the way towards his later drug problems, but Parker bounced back and joined the band of Jay McShann who gave him his nickname of ‘Yardbird’ which got shortened to ‘Bird’.
It was while playing in McShann’s band that Parker met trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and it was when they set out on their own together with pianist Thelonius Monk, Kenny Clarke on drums and guitarist Charlie Christian, that bebop came of age. Monk said, "We wanted a music that they couldn't play" - ‘they’ being the white band-leaders. A two-year Musician’s Union ban on recordings however, meant that the world at large didn’t get to hear much bebop until 1945 when they were able to make albums again and got more radio coverage, which helped bebop’s growing popularity.
Parker had a fiercely intellectual attitude towards his music, being a keen student of classical composers like Stravinsky. In his compositions, he often took a chord progression from another song and put a new melody on top - known as “contrafact” - which is what he does on the track “Ornithology” based on the chords of jazz standard “How High the Moon”.
He also developed several 8-note bebop scales, and his own “Bird Blues” 12-note blues scale as used in “Blues for Alice.”
Parker changed the face of jazz with his bebop style of playing. The Charlie Parker Omnibook has been one of the standard study books for all jazz saxophonists since its publication in 1978. It is a collection of transcribed compositions and improvised solos and Parker’s licks and phrases have been used by most saxophonists in their improvisations.
Charlie Parker saxophone setup
He used many types of alto saxophone and a few different mouthpieces including the Brilhart Tonalin, Runyon Model 22 and metal Berg Larsen.
Parker died in New York’s Stanhope Hotel in 1955, in the suite of his friend and jazz patron the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (one of the Rothschilds).
The coroner famously overestimated his age, which was neatly dramatised in Clint Eastwood’s 1988 biopic “Bird” (quoted below). A sixteen-year-old Clint saw Parker perform in Oakland in 1946.
Doctor at Nica's : [while Bird's body is being retired] "Charles Christopher Parker, Junior. Preliminary diagnosis: heart attack. Stocky, male, negro. Approximately 65 years of age."
Baroness Nica : [with a sad look] "He was 34.”