Charles “Charlie” Parker, Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955), also known as “Yardbird” and “Bird,” was an American jazz saxophonist and composer.
Parker was a highly influential jazz soloist and a leading figure in the development of bebop, a form of jazz characterized by fast tempos, virtuosic technique, and advanced harmonies. Parker was a blazingly fast virtuoso, and he introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas including rapid passing chords, new variants of altered chords, and chord substitutions. His tone ranged from clean and penetrating to sweet and somber. Parker acquired the nickname “Yardbird” early in his career. Yardbird, and the shortened form “Bird”, continued to be used for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles of many Parker compositions, such as “Yardbird Suite”, “Ornithology”, “Bird Gets the Worm”, and “Bird of Paradise”. Parker was an icon for the hipster subculture and later the Beat Generation, personifying the jazz musician as an uncompromising artist and intellectual rather than just an entertainer.
Charles Parker, Jr. was born in Kansas City, Kansas, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, the only child of Adelaide “Addie” (Bailey) and Charles Parker. He attended Lincoln High School in September 1934, but withdrew in December 1935, just before joining the local musicians’ union.
Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11, and at age 14 he joined his school’s band using a rented school instrument. His father, Charles, was often absent but provided some musical influence; he was a pianist, dancer, and singer on the T.O.B.A. circuit. He later became a Pullman waiter or chef on the railways. Parker’s mother Addie worked nights at the local Western Union office. His biggest influence at that time was a young trombone player who taught him the basics of improvisation.
Parker’s addiction to heroin caused him to miss performances and be considered unemployable. He frequently resorted to busking, receiving loans from fellow musicians and admirers, and pawning his saxophones for drug money. Heroin use was rampant in the jazz scene, and users could acquire it with little difficulty.