Charles Parker Jr. (August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955), nicknamed "Bird" and "Yardbird", was an American jazz saxophonist, band leader and composer. Parker was a highly influential soloist and 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 introduced revolutionary harmonic ideas into jazz, including rapid passing chords, new variants of altered chords, and chord substitutions. Primarily a player of the alto saxophone, Parker's tone ranged from clean and penetrating to sweet and somber.
Parker acquired the nickname "Yardbird" early in his career on the road with Jay McShann. This, and the shortened form "Bird", continued to be used for the rest of his life, inspiring the titles of a number of 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.
Charlie Parker Jr. was born in Kansas City, Kansas, at 852 Freeman Avenue, and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, near Westport and later – in high school – near 15th and Olive Street. He was the only child of Charles Parker and Adelaide "Addie" Bailey, who was of mixed Choctaw and African-American background. He attended Lincoln High School in September 1934, but withdrew in December 1935, just before joining the local musicians' union and choosing to pursue his musical career full-time. His childhood sweetheart and future wife, Rebecca Ruffin, graduated from Lincoln High School in June 1935.
In the mid-1930s, Parker began to practice diligently. During this period he mastered improvisation and developed some of the ideas that led to the later development of Bebop. In an interview with Paul Desmond, Parker said that he spent three to four years practicing up to 15 hours a day.
In late spring 1936, Parker played at a jam session at the Reno Club in Kansas City. His attempt to improvise failed when he lost track of the chord changes. This prompted Jo Jones, the drummer for Count Basie's Orchestra, to contemptuously take a cymbal off of his drum set and throw it at his feet as a signal to leave the stage. However, rather than discouraging Parker, the incident caused him to vow to practice harder, and turned out to be a seminal moment in the young musician's career when he returned as a new man a year later.
In 1939 Parker moved to New York City, to pursue a career in music. He held several other jobs as well. He worked for nine dollars a week as a dishwasher at Jimmie's Chicken Shack, where pianist Art Tatum performed. It was in 1939 in New York that Parker had his musical breakthrough that had begun in 1937 in the Missouri Ozarks. Playing through the changes on the song "Cherokee", Parker discovered a new musical vocabulary and sound that shifted the course of music history.
One night in 1939, Parker was playing "Cherokee" in a practice session with guitarist William "Biddy" Fleet when he hit upon a method for developing his solos that enabled one of his main musical innovations. He realized that the 12 semitones of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key, breaking some of the confines of simpler jazz soloing. In December 1945, the Parker band traveled to an unsuccessful engagement at Billy Berg's club in Los Angeles. Most of the group returned to New York, but Parker remained in California, cashing in his return ticket to buy heroin. He experienced great hardship in California, eventually being committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital for a six-month period.
Parker died on March 12, 1955, in the suite of his friend and patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter at the Stanhope Hotel in New York City, while watching The Dorsey Brothers' Stage Show on television. The official causes of death were lobar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, but Parker also had an advanced case of cirrhosis and had suffered a heart attack. The coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker's 34-year-old body to be between 50 and 60 years of age.