Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City Kansas in 1920. His mother moved the family to the Missouri side when Charlie was a young boy. The house was located within walking distance of the 18th and Vine district and it wasn’t long before young Charlie was immersing himself in the sights and sounds of the wide-open nightlife scene.
By the time he enrolled at Lincoln High School he played baritone horn in the marching band and started playing a beat up alto saxophone that his mother bought at a second hand store. He joined a band called The Hottentots but was soon fired for lack of musical ability. It didn’t deter him as he continued to take part in after-hours jam sessions. In 1935 he attempted to sit in at a higher level session under the supervision of saxophonist Jimmy Keith. Things started out okay until he tried a double-time passage on Body and Soul that quickly fell apart. He was humiliated and laughed off the stage.
The experience made him work harder and he was able to do a few jobs with a band called the Ten Chords of Rhythm. He also hung out regularly behind the Reno Club to listen to his idols Lester Young and Buster Smith. Sometimes he was able to sneak inside and hide in the rafters to get a closer look. A few months later he tried once again to sit in at one of the high powered sessions. This time it was with Basie musicians from the Reno Club. Once again, Charlie wasn’t able to take the ideas in his head and execute them on his alto. Jo Jones took his cymbal off the stand and threw it at Parker’s feet, symbolically gonging him off the stand. He left in tears vowing to come back someday and “show them all.”
In the fall of 1936 he got a job at Musser’s Ozark Tavern in Eldon, Missouri. Musser’s was a Pendergast-controlled resort. Charlie never made it because the car he was in crashed. One person was killed and Charlie was severely injured. So much so that they feared he might never walk again.
He did recover but paid a heavy price by becoming addicted to the heroin that was used to alleviate his pain. The addiction remained with him throughout his entire life.
By the spring of 1937 he was fully recovered and took another job with George E. Lee at Musser’s Ozark Tavern. This time he took the first Basie recordings with him and practiced intensely. It was at Musser’s that his amazing transformation happened. When he returned to Kansas City he was a different musician. The ideas that he couldn’t execute before were now handled with ease.
He started working with Buster Smith at Lucille’s Paradise on 18th street Buster became like a father to him and was his primary musical mentor. Buster taught him everything and Charlie soaked it all in. In the summer of 1938 Buster decided to go to New York and left Charlie in charge at Lucille’s. By September that job fell by the wayside and Charlie joined Jay McShann. He stayed with Jay a couple of months then joined Harlan Leonard’s Rockets. In early 1939 he headed to New York by way of Chicago to find Buster Smith. He got a job as a dishwasher at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack which was run by ex-Andy Kirk reedman John Williams. Art Tatum was the piano player at Jimmy’s and Charlie heard him every night. The speed and agility that Tatum possessed had a big influence on Charlie. He started sitting in after hours at Monroe’s Uptown House, one of the incubators of modern jazz.
One night, while sitting in at Dan Wall’s Chili House he had an epiphany. In an interview a decade later with Down Beat magazine, Parker recalled that he had tired of the stereotypical chord voicings then in use. “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else,” he said. “I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.” One night in 1939, improvising over the Ray Noble tune “Cherokee” it all fell into place. It was the big bang of modern jazz.
Soon after, he got word that his father had passed away and returned to Kansas City for the funeral. In January of 1940 he re-joined Jay McShann. The McShann band was starting to get a lot of attention and soon signed a recording contract with Decca Records. Charlie, now known as Yardbird or Bird, was the band’s star soloist next to McShann. On a trip to Nebraska the car Charlie was in hit a chicken in the road and Parker insisted they stop and pick it up. He took it to where they were staying in Nebraska and had someone cook it for him. From then on he was known as Bird.
When the McShann records hit the market the jazz world heard Bird for the first time.
Everything about him was different. He possessed a unique sound, his harmonic concept was advanced, his creativity was never ending and his dexterity on the alto was unprecedented. Bird was the great genius to emerge from the glory days of Kansas City. He absorbed the best of all that had come before him and added his own originality. Once he hit the national scene nothing would ever be the same.