Undoubtedly one of the most famous alto saxophone players in history, Charlie Parker was a central figure on the 1940s jazz scene – as well as an influence on much of what has come since.
In this article we’re going to look at 10 of the best Charlie Parker albums and dive into the short but remarkable life of a true jazz legend.
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1920, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri.
The alto saxophonist was a pioneer of the bebop movement that emerged in the United States in the 1940s, laying the groundwork for much of the jazz that was to follow in the subsequent decades.
His short life was beset by well-publicised personal problems and addiction, but still he can claim to be among the most important musicians of the 20th Century and one of the greatest improvising soloists in jazz history.
From his early days playing with big bands in Kansas, to classic studio sessions and stunning live recordings, this article will take a look at ten great albums that tell the story of the music and life of Charles “Yardbird” Parker.
Early Bird – with Jay McShann and his Orchestra
Charlie Parker began playing the saxophone aged 11, and in the mid-1930s began to practise diligently.
In 1937 an incident took place that would become the stuff of legend. Aged 16, whilst playing in a Kansas City jam session, he lost his place during a solo on a Rhythm changes (a tune based upon the chord sequence to George Gerswhin’s “I Got Rhythm”).
Jo Jones, one of the most important drummers of the swing era and a long-serving member of the Count Basie Orchestra, took a cymbal from his drum set and threw it at the saxophonist’s feet in contempt.
The experience only made the young musician more determined, as he developed a brilliant technical foundation with marathon daily practice sessions of up to 15 hours.
In 1938 Parker joined Jay McShann’s big band, which played for dancers across the southwest and in Chicago and New York City.
On these early recordings, made when he was in his early 20s, we hear a brilliant soloist with a deeply infectious swing feel.
He already sounds recognisably Bird-like, although the influence of Lester Young, whose solos he transcribed extensively, is perhaps more overt than in his later work.
His 1942 solo on “Cherokee”, a tricky up-tempo number and one of Bird’s favourite chord sequences, is a particularly good look at the stylistic direction in which he was headed.
The Complete Savoy Masters
In 1939 Parker moved to New York City, jazz’s epicentre, initially working odd jobs including a stint as a dishwasher.
It was that same year that he had something of a breakthrough in discovering the improvisational vocabulary now known as bebop, by utilising passing tones to connect the upper extensions of the chords:
“Now I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time at the time, and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else.
I could hear it sometimes but I couldn’t play it…
Well, that night I was working over “Cherokee” and, as I did, I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.”
The new music was developed in the early 1940s at late-night jam sessions in Harlem with other forward-thinking young players like pianist Thelonious Monk, guitarist Charlie Christian and drummer Kenny Clarke.
Sadly, this period is under-documented due to a strike by the American Federation of Musicians, which meant that recordings were barely made between 1942-44.
Parker’s recording career really kicked off in late 1944 when the New York-based Savoy label began to document his work.
This predates the dawn of the album era, but The Complete Savoy Masters brings together all of Bird’s classic early studio work for the label made between then and 1948.
Things get off to a light-hearted start, with Parker contributing perfect interjections and short solo interludes to a group led by guitarist and vocalist Tiny Grimes on “I’ll Always Love You Just the Same” and “Romance Without Finance”.
With Parker now leading the band, a 19 year-old Miles Davis appears on a 1945 session, which includes the classic blues heads “Now’s The Time” and “Billie’s Bounce”.
This double-disc set also features classic solos on tunes like “Donna Lee”, “Parker’s Mood” and “Ko-Ko”, and appearances by the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Bud Powell across various brilliant sessions.
The Complete Dial Masters
Parker was supposed to be under exclusive contract with Savoy, but nevertheless he began to record for the west coast-based label Dial during roughly the same period (1946-47), with many of the sessions taking place in Hollywood.
There is a plethora of brilliant work here, with Bird taking incredible solos on “Moose the Mooche” and “Yardbird Suite” (both of which are his original compositions) and plenty of others, and playing a scarcely believable four-bar break into his contribution to Dizzy Gillespie’s “A Night in Tunisia”.
But Parker’s personal problems were starting to become apparent.
He had developed an addiction to opiates following a prescription for painkillers after a car crash in the 1930s. On one of the sessions here, from July 1946, he was reportedly suffering from heroin withdrawal and had drunk heavily.
On “Lover Man” and “The Gypsy” there are moments of genuine beauty, but he is clearly not himself, and he never forgave producer Ross Russell for releasing them to the world.
The blues “Relaxin’ at Camarillo”, meanwhile, refers to a six-month stint he spent in the Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California in the mid-1940s.
These and the Savoy tracks are also available as a complete three-disc compilation titled The Complete Savoy and Dial Masters.
Charlie Parker With Strings: the Master Takes
Parker took a deep interest in classical music, with Stravinsky, Brahms and Bartok amongst his favourites, and it was a long-held ambition of his to record with an orchestral ensemble.
This dream was realised in 1949 when he made Charlie Parker with Strings, accompanied by a string section including harp, plus oboist Mitch Miller and a standard jazz rhythm section.
As featured soloist, Bird soars above the ensemble on a selection of standards arranged by Jimmy Carroll.
After this brilliant Charlie Parker album found commercial success a second recording, also included on this Master Takes edition, was made the following year. The double time-filled alto solo on the opening track “Just Friends” is a particular highlight, and continues to be transcribed by awe-struck students learning jazz today.
“When I recorded with strings, some of my friends said ‘Oh, Bird’s getting commercial.’ That wasn’t it at all. I was looking for new ways of saying things musically. New sound combinations.’
Complete Live at Birdland, May 17 1950
The studio recordings are probably a good place to start for those wishing to experience the world of Bird for the first time, the superior sound quality and bite-size track lengths making them more accessible to the casual listener.
However, aficionados know that it is on the live recordings that the altoist really stretches out, arguably crafting some of his finest work.
This 1950 concert from Birdland, the midtown Manhattan jazz club that took its name from Yardbird himself, sees Parker sharing the frontline with Fats Navarro, a wonderful trumpeter who, tragically, would die of tuberculosis within a few months of this recording.
Bud Powell, a key character in the development of bebop and another brilliant but somewhat tragic figure, is on fantastic form at the piano here.
Bird plays a fiery solo on “Ornithology”, a composition based on the chord sequence of the classic jazz standard “How High the Moon”.
Bird and Diz
One of Bird’s closest musical allies was Dizzy Gillespie who, like Parker, helped birth bebop and establish it as a proudly intellectual, distinctly African American art form, in contrast to much of the music of the preceding swing era, which primarily existed as music for dancing.
As well as being a virtuoso trumpeter who was famed for his puffed cheeks and distinctively-angled trumpet bell, Gillespie was a composer, educator and a public advocate for jazz.
This 1950 Charlie Parker album places the two artists in the studio together, with material including a lovely version of the old standard “My Melancholy Baby” and some lesser-known Parker originals like “An Oscar For Treadwell”, a dedication to Oscar Treadwell, an American jazz radio journalist and presenter.
The slightly unexpected rhythm section includes eccentric genius Thelonious Monk at the piano, and Buddy Rich, who is better known for his virtuosic big band features, at the drums.
“We eventually got so close in our musical minds that we could phrase just like each other. Attack, breathing, articulation and all the phrasing could be in total unison.” – Dizzy Gillespie
Fiesta: The Genius of Charlie Parker #6
Parker recorded a number of “Latin”-flavoured recordings in the late 1940s and early ‘50s, as part of a long history of jazz musicians exploring a “Spanish tinge” that has been present in the music since pianist Jelly Roll Morton coined the term in New Orleans in the 1920s.
The majority of these tracks are from a 1951 session on which the standard jazz rhythm section is augmented by Jose Manguel on bongos and Luis Miranda on conga.
“Tico Tico” is a Brazilian favourite and “La Cucaracha” is a famous Spanish folk song, while Parker’s own “My Little Suede Shoes” betrays a Caribbean, rather than Latin, influence.
There are also percussion-laden versions of two Songbook standards: “Why Do I Love You?”, from Jerome Kern’s Showboat and Cole Porter’s long-form “Begin The Beguine”.
Bird Is Free
The sound quality on this live date isn’t great, but the pure, glorious melody that Parker begins his solo with on Gerry Mulligan’s “Rocker” makes this very much worth a listen.
Indeed, Bird is on great form throughout a programme that includes the traditional Jamaican tune “Sly Mongoose” and the standards “Star Eyes” and “This Time The Dream’s On Me”.
Recorded at Rockland Palace in New York City in 1952, an unidentified large ensemble with strings is heard on “Rocker” and the closing ballad “Laura”.
Other classic live albums include Charlie Parker at Storyville, which features a young Red Garland on piano, and Diz ‘n’ Bird at Carnegie Hall.
Now’s The Time: The Genius of Charlie Parker #3
Parker had been recording for Norman Granz’s Verve label since 1949 and while the earlier Savoy and Dial sessions are generally considered to be the best of his studio work, this is an enjoyable set. It’s made up of two quartet sessions, from 1952 and ‘53 respectively, and features relatively high fidelity in the sound department.
The uptempo opener “The Song Is You”, with Hank Jones at the piano, is particularly joyous.
Virtually all of Parker’s studio recordings from 1949 onwards, including this, Charlie Parker with Strings and Bird ‘n’ Diz, appear on the exhaustive 10-CD compilation The Complete Charlie Parker on Verve.
Jazz at Massey Hall
From 1953, this concert recording is probably the most famous of the live Charlie Parker albums.
It certainly features an all-star cast, with Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Bud Powell on piano. Max Roach, who along with Kenny Clarke helped invent the modern jazz drumming style, is in the rhythm section alongside double bassist Charles Mingus, who would go on to become one of the great bandleaders and composers himself.
Parker would often pawn his saxophones for money to buy drugs, meaning that he played a whole host of instruments, of varying quality, across his career.
Famously, on this occasion he was playing a white acrylic plastic Grafton alto.
He also could not be listed under his real name for contractual reasons, so was credited as “Charlie Chan” – a reference to his common-law wife’s name, as well as the name of a fictional detective – on the original album cover.
The show was poorly attended due to a scheduling clash with boxing prize fight, but the recorded document is now considered a classic and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1995.
Charlie Parker died in 1955, having suffered from a shocking selection of ailments: he had lobar pneumonia, a bleeding ulcer and cirrhosis, and had also had a heart attack.
Famously, the coroner performing the autopsy estimated his age to be between 50 and 60 years old. In fact, he was just 34.
Bird’s music has inspired generations of players, and the influence of his supreme artistry can still be heard throughout the jazz world today.
As defiant graffiti artists daubed on brick walls in Harlem after hearing the sad news, “Bird Lives!”
Thanks for reading and we hope this gave you some extra listening tips for the great Charlie Parker.
You can find a whole bunch of sax-related articles and guides, both the legends and the gear, on our jazz saxophone homepage.
Sam Braysher is an alto saxophonist based in London. His debut album was a critically acclaimed duo recording with New York pianist Michael Kanan. A new trio album, with bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Jorge Rossy, is due for release soon.