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Charlie Parker: Musical Legend

March 2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the death of one of jazz music’s most highly lauded musicians: Charlie Parker, the renowned saxophonist and composer who passed away all too soon, at the age of 34, from health issues spurred on by a life filled with drink and drugs. In this post we pay tribute to a man who brought great fame to Kansas, shining as one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed musicians.

Charlie Parker Jr. was born in Kansas, City, Kansas, and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. He left high school in 1935 to join a local musician’s union, though he had shone with his saxophone talents since the tender age of 11. By the late 1930s, Parker had decided to dedicate his life to music, learning the tricky art of improvisation and developing the seeds of what would blossom into the musical genre he invented: bebop. Parker spent 15 hours daily practicing for various years, honing his skill alongside greats like Count Basie and Bennie Moten, nudged along by Buster Smith, whose crafty transitions to double and triple time instilled a penchant for the fast, free style that would characterize Parker’s later work. Parker began touring the big cities in 1938, as part of Jay MacShann’s territory band. By 1939, he had moved his permanent residence to New York City, playing in Earl Hines’ band alongside Dizzy Gillespie, whom he would later form a duo with.

By the time Parker’s name began to shine, he was already deeply addicted to heroin, the drug which he began to use in his teenage years. Indeed, he was well known on the national jazz scene for two things: his immense talent and his crippling addiction, which led him to miss many performances (he would often busk to make ends meet). Parker was also heavily dependent on alcohol, the results of which can be appreciated by listening to particular tracks on his recordings, Charlie Parker on Dial: The Complete Sessions, during which he misses some bars and is heard to struggle on others.

Parker hit rock bottom during a tour of California, completing a six-month stay at a rehabilitation clinic in Los Angeles, sobering up but returning to New York, where he began consuming heroin once again. In 1954, he learned that his two-year-old daughter had died, and his decline was dramatic from this point onwards. Charlie Parker died on March 12, 1955, in the hotel room of the Baroness Pannonica de Koennigswarter at the Stanhope Hotel in New York. The official cause of death was pneumonia and an ulcer, yet Parker already had cirrhosis and had survived a heart attack.

Charlie Parker developed bebop music one fateful night in 1939, when he was jamming alongside guitarist William “Biddy” Fleet. He began disregarding the four- and eight-bar jazz standards to create much more fluid solos. Despite his immense talent, he was largely ignored by critics. Leonard Feather notes, “There was no serious attention paid to Charlie Parker as a great creative musician … It was just horrifying how really miserably he was treated. And this goes for the way Dizzy Gillespie was treated — and everybody.” It wasn’t until he landed in Europe that Parker received the treatment in deserved; during a visit to Paris in 1949, he was treated like a star. Despite his tragic demise, Charlie Parker is still recalled as one of the great musicians who defined jazz as we know it today.

Entry: Charlie Parker: Musical Legend

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2015

Date Modified: September 2015

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.