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Who is Charlie Parker?

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  • Written By: Garry Crystal
  • Edited By: Niki Foster
  • Last Modified Date: 16 November 2016
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Charlie Parker is considered one of the most important figures in jazz history. Born in Kansas in 1920, he was given the nickname "Bird" or "Yardbird" because of his love of chickens. Charlie Parker was a self-taught alto saxophonist. At the age of 15, he quit school and began to learn his craft in Kansas City jam sessions.

The jam sessions were a hard education for Parker. Once, while playing Body and Soul at double speed, he was laughed off the stage. Throughout his career, Parker became the master of improvisation. Building on the 12-bar blues and 32-bar American song, he would improvise far more complicated sounds from the old ballads and blues.

The sound of Charlie Parker playing the alto saxophone is unmistakable. To hear him playing and improvising a simple blues tune is to hear his mind working at an impossible speed. Parker soon moved to New York and began playing at Minton's Uptown House in Harlem. In these after-hours jam sessions with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, Bebop was born.

Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz and was hailed as the new king of modern jazz. The small group at Minton's Uptown House played some of the greatest jazz music ever heard, and Parker's fame spread quickly. Some of Parker's friends not only thought his playing was amazing but were also astounded by the fact he could play while stoned to the eyeballs.

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Charlie Parker's personal life was chaotic. He eased his personal demons with heroin and alcohol. Unfortunately, his music was not the only influence on the musicians around him. Many other musicians thought that if they used drugs like Charlie Parker they would play like Charlie Parker. A lot of them would also meet the same tragic death as Parker.

Charlie Parker had pressed his self-destruct button too many times. He died in 1955 at the age of 34. The doctor who examined him was shocked to discover that his body resembled that of a 60-year-old.

Large chunks of Parker's recorded legacy are bootleg tapes made by fans at concerts, or from radio shows. Producers said that when Charlie Parker eventually made it to the recording studio, there was always a sense of impending disaster. The persistence of record producers has left us with some of the most beautiful jazz music recordings in the world.

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