The Early Years of Charlie Parker

For better or worse, for many Charlie Parker epitomises the jazz life. The wayward genius whose life was marred and ultimately cut short by his addiction to narcotics.

The truth as always is a little different, and with a character as strong as Parker the truth also depends on who you talk to.

There have been various accounts about his life and career by various biographers over the years since his death, and while most follow a similar path and conclusion there are some that will add a little glamour to a tragic life.

What is irrefutable is the musical  legacy that Parker left behind, all crammed into a relatively short period of time. While musically active as a professional musician from 1937 to 1955, it can be said that his major contribution to the development of bebop and modern jazz was just ten years between 1939 and 1949.

By then Parker had perfected his harmonic theories that formed the basis for bebop and put them into practice.

He had recorded prolifically for both Savoy and Dial Records laying down some of the definitive small group recordings since the innovations of Louis Armstrong’s Five and Hot Seven Recordings.

It can also be argued that by 1949 he had pushed bebop to his limits and was unable to find anything new to play within the idiom.

In this article we look to explore Parker’s beginnings and development as a musician in his formative years leading up to the breakthrough when jamming on ‘Cherokee’ that led to the birth of bebop. All this was achieved by 1939 when Parker was still a teenager.

Born Charles Parker Jr on August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. Parker was exposed to music at an early age as his father was an entertainer, dancer and pianist with a travelling theatre group. 

A younf Charlie Parker took up the alto saxophone at the age of eleven. Three years later at the age of fourteen he was playing in the high school band and studying with Alonzo Lewis who was the bandmaster.

His mother Adele had also saved up enough money to buy a new alto saxophone and Parker became seriously interested in pursuing music full time. As a result, his educational career did not last long and a year later he had left high school to focus on his music. 

By now, Parker was studying intensely and practicing upito 15 hours a day, and maintained this cruelling practice routine for three or four years.

Major influences on the young musician at this time were trombone player Robert Simpson who taught him the rudiments of improvisation and fellow alto saxophonist Buster Smith (also known as Professor Smith).

Smith was a seasoned professional and his use of double and triple time would have a profound effect on Parker. Playing in local bands around Kansas City, Missouri was certainly helping Charlie gain valuable playing experience, and he would have the opportunity to hear the leading bands of the time including those of Bennie Moten and Count Basie.

If Parker’s confidence was now growing, ambition often outstripped his theoretical knowledge and technique. This became a painful lesson for the teenage altoist when in 1936 he attempted to sit in at a jam session at the Reno Club in Kansa City.

Getting lost during his improvisation he was unceremoniously ‘gonged’ off stage when drummer Jo Jones threw one of his cymbals at Parker’s feet. Being humiliated this way galvanised Parker into practicing even more and vowing that such an embarrassing moment like that would never catch him out again. 

It is often reported that Parker involvement with narcotics coincided with his interest in music, but again this is not quite true. In 1937 when travelling to a gig in the Ozarks he was involved in a car accident.

Suffering injuries in the crash including several broken ribs and a fracture to the spine. Given painkillers to ease his suffering and help his recovery, Parker became dependant on the drugs, and this would lead in turn to his use and dependency on other drugs including heroin and alcohol.

After recovering from the accident, Parker continued to work at his music. Returning to the Ozarks in 1937 he spent time woodshedding. It was during this intense time of practice that he began to develop in unique tone on the alto saxophone and the seeds were sown that would lead to the beginnings of bebop. 

In 1938 Parker had met the pianist and band leader Jay McShann and travelled with them through the Southwest, Chicago and ultimately ending up in New York. By 1939 the saxophonist had relocated permanently to New York City determined to establish himself as a professional musician.

He woud often take other less glamourous work to support himself, including washing dishes at Jimmie’s Chicken Shack. The pay might not have been great at $9.00 per week, but he did get to hear Art Tatum at close quarters who played at the club.

It was around this time that Parker’s musical breakthrough came to him, and he discovered how to play the ideas that he could hear in his head. In a practice session with guitarist Biddy Fleet.

While playing on the changes of the standard ‘Cherokee’ by Ray Noble, Parker discovered that by using the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale and the relationship to other keys he was able to free up his solos. By using the upper intervals of the chords as a melody line and the use of appropriate chords to back them he could finally play what he had been hearing.

This fundamental discovery was made when Parker was still just nineteen years old. Further refinement and meetings with likeminded musicians at Minton’s Playhouse in 52nd Street in the early forties with take Parker’s ideas and lead to the new revolutionary music called bebop.

How the music would develop and Charlie Parker’s role in the history of the music is another story altogether, yet while still in his teenage years and in only a few short years of playing he had established a new set of rules for jazz improvisation

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