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 improvisation. Parker 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. Many Parker recordings demonstrate his virtuoso playing style and complex melodic lines, sometimes combining jazz with other musical genres, including blues, Latin, and classical.
Parker acquired the nickname "Yardbird" early in his career and the shortened form, "Bird", which continued to be used for the rest of his life, inspired 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 an entertainer.
Parker began playing the saxophone at age 11, and at age 14 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
Bands led by Count Basie and Bennie Moten undoubtedly influenced Parker. He played with local bands in jazz clubs around Kansas City, Missouri, where he perfected his technique, with the assistance of Buster Smith, whose dynamic transitions to double and triple time influenced Parker's developing style.
In 1938, Parker joined pianist Jay McShann's territory band. The band toured nightclubs and other venues of the southwest, as well as Chicago and New York City. Parker made his professional recording debut with McShann's band.
As a teenager, Parker developed a morphine addiction while in hospital after an automobile accident, and subsequently became addicted to heroin. He continued using heroin throughout his life, which ultimately contributed to his death
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.
In 1942 Parker left McShann's band and played with Earl Hines for one year, whose band included Dizzy Gillespie, who later played with Parker as a duo. Unfortunately, this period is virtually undocumented, due to the strike of 1942–1943 by the American Federation of Musicians, during which time few recordings were made. Parker joined a group of young musicians, and played in after-hours clubs in Harlem, such as Clark Monroe's Uptown House and Minton's Playhouse. These young iconoclasts included Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, guitarist Charlie Christian, and drummer Kenny Clarke. The beboppers' attitude was summed up in a famous quotation attributed to Monk by Mary Lou Williams: "We wanted a music that they couldn't play"– "they" being the white bandleaders who had usurped and profited from swing music. The group played in venues on 52nd Street, including Three Deuces and The Onyx. While in New York City, Parker studied with his music teacher, Maury Deutsch.
According to an interview Parker gave in the 1950s, one night in 1939, he was playing "Cherokee" in a jam 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 twelve tones of the chromatic scale can lead melodically to any key, breaking some of the confines of simpler jazz soloing.
Early in its development, this new type of jazz was rejected by many of the established, traditional jazz musicians who disdained their younger counterparts. The beboppers responded by calling these traditionalists "moldy figs". However, some musicians, such as Coleman Hawkins and Benny Goodman, were more positive about its development, and participated in jam sessions and recording dates in the new approach with its adherents.
Because of the two-year Musicians' Union ban of all commercial recordings from 1942 to 1944, much of bebop's early development was not captured for posterity. As a result, it gained limited radio exposure. Bebop musicians had a difficult time gaining widespread recognition. It was not until 1945, when the recording ban was lifted, that Parker's collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell and others had a substantial effect on the jazz world. One of their first (and greatest) small-group performances together was rediscovered and issued in 2005: a concert in New York's Town Hall on June 22, 1945. Bebop soon gained wider appeal among musicians and fans alike.
On November 26, 1945, Parker led a record date for the Savoy label, marketed as the "greatest Jazz session ever." Recording as Charlie Parker's Reboppers, Parker enlisted such sidemen as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis on trumpet, Curly Russell on bass and Max Roach on drums. The tracks recorded during this session include "Ko-Ko", "Billie's Bounce" and "Now's the Time".
Shortly afterwards, the Parker/Gillespie 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.
AddictionParker's chronic addiction to heroin caused him to miss gigs and lose work. He frequently resorted to busking on the streets, receiving loans from fellow musicians and admirers, and pawning his saxophones for drug money. Heroin use was rampant in the jazz scene and the drug could be acquired easily.
Although he produced many brilliant recordings during this period, Parker's behavior became increasingly erratic. Heroin was difficult to obtain when he moved to California, where the drug was less abundant, and Parker began to drink heavily to compensate for it. A recording for the Dial label from July 29, 1946, provides evidence of his condition. Prior to this session, Parker drank a quart of whiskey. According to the liner notes of Charlie Parker on Dial Volume 1, Parker missed most of the first two bars of his first chorus on the track, "Max Making Wax." When he finally did come in, he swayed wildly and once spun all the way around, away from his microphone. On the next tune, "Lover Man", producer Ross Russell physically supported Parker. On "Bebop" (the final track Parker recorded that evening) he begins a solo with a solid first eight bars. On his second eight bars, however, Parker begins to struggle, and a desperate Howard McGhee, the trumpeter on this session, shouts, "Blow!" at Parker. Charles Mingus considered this version of "Lover Man" to be among Parker's greatest recordings, despite its flaws. Nevertheless, Parker hated the recording and never forgave Ross Russell for releasing it. He re-recorded the tune in 1951 for Verve.
When Parker was released from the hospital, he was clean and healthy, and proceeded to do some of the best playing and recording of his career. Before leaving California, he recorded "Relaxin' at Camarillo", in reference to his hospital stay. He returned to New York, resumed his addiction to heroin and recorded dozens of sides for the Savoy and Dial labels, which remain some of the high points of his recorded output. Many of these were with his so-called "classic quintet" including trumpeter Miles Davis and drummer Max Roach