Charlie Parker loved chicken as a young man, and got the nickname “Yardbird,” later shortened to “Bird.” He wanted to be a musician from an early age, so he picked up an alto sax while in his teens. He got good enough at it to drop out of school and believe he could make a living as a musician.
He played at clubs in his hometown of Kansas City, and often spent twelve to fifteen hours a day practicing, mastering his instrument. He finally joined a band in 1938 that toured big cities, exposing Parker to Chicago and New York. He moved to NYC, and after a year joined Earl Hines’s band with another musician named Dizzy Gillespie. But he developed his technique after hours, in jam sessions with Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and others.
The sound that evolved from these sessions, and which Parker is largely responsible for, is called bebop. While this uptempo style didn’t sit well at first with the music establishment, it soon took hold not only within the musician community, but with the jazz-listening public as well.
Unfortunately, Parker had a self-destructive side to his personality. He became addicted to heroin early in his life, and it eventually led to a six-month commitment to Camarillo State Mental Hospital in California. He often missed gigs, resorted to pawning his instrument to afford his habit, and sometimes turned friends and family against him.
Even so, he became an idol and an icon in the jazz community. But he wouldn’t live long enough to take advantage of that status. Badly in debt and in failing health, he twice attempted suicide in 1954. This led to another voluntary commitment. His final performance was, ironically, at Birdland – the jazz club in New York City named after him. He died way too young, at the age of 34.
Four of Parker’s recordings have been enshrined in the Grammy Hall of Fame. And Bird himself was honored posthumously with a Lifetime Grammy Award in 1984.