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Charlie “Bird” Parker manged to carve out an influential career in jazz music during his life, which was tragically cut short. Parker cemented himself as one of the leading figures of bebop jazz, and today is the legendary saxophonist’s birthday.

Charlies Parker Jr. was born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kan., and raised across the river in Kansas City, Mo. At 11, he began playing the saxophone after his mother gave him the instrument after his entertainer father left the family. By the time he was in high school, Parker was an adept player. He dropped out of school to pursue a music career full-time in 1935.

For the next four years, Parker played in the local club scene, moving away from Missouri in 1939 and eventually settling in New York. From his time playing with Buster Professor Smith and Jay McShann’s bands in the ’30’s, Parker picked up on a variety of playing styles that would later influence his later skill set.

The nickname “Yardbird” has mysterious origins, but was given to Parker when he played with McShann. Some say it was his love of chicken, but other variations say it was because he often practiced in yards like birds tweeting in the trees. The shortened version of his nickname came later and stuck throughout his career.

In the ’40’s, Parker’s playing caught the ears of Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, among others. In 1945, Parker and Gillespie became band mates and starting toying with faster rhythms to create what they called “bop” and later morphed into the widely known “bebop” style. The late ’40’s saw the bulk of Parker’s recording input and his fame as a notable jazz player grew with it.

Despite his immense talent, Parker was plagued by the demons of drugs and alcohol abuse. In 1936 when he married his first wife, high school sweetheart Rebecca Ruffin, Parker was already abusing heroin and other substances. His drug use was so severe that it caused the quick end of his second marriage to Geraldine Scott.

Although Parker tried to kick the habit, he went back to drugs which led to the end of his third marriage to Doris Snyder. In the ’50’s, he began seeing jazz fan Chan Richardson and she took his last name, although they weren’t officially married. By then, Parker’s drug use was spiraling out of control.

In 1955, when Parker suffered an ulcer attack in a New York hotel in the suite of Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, he refused medical attention. He died inside the home due to lobar pneumonia and the ravages of drug abuse.

Parker was just 34 years old.

PHOTO: Public Domain

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Little Known Black History Fact: Charlie Parker was originally published on blackamericaweb.com

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