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Charlie Parker

(1920—1955) American saxophonist


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1920–1955)

Black US jazz saxophonist, often nicknamed ‘Bird’. In spite of his short life, he was one of the most important jazz musicians of his generation.

He grew up in Kansas City, during the time it was incubating new jazz talent. After humiliation on the bandstand, he taught himself to modulate instantly from any key to any other, an accomplishment that stood him in good stead for the rest of his life. In the late 1930s he played and recorded with the band of Jay McShann (1909– ), and played the tenor saxophone with Earl Hines, but in 1944 he moved to New York and freelanced or led his own small groups. A new jazz style was being born, led by Thelonius Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and others; by the time Parker took part in the now highly regarded recording sessions in 1945, he was already a legend – one of the most creative and technically fluent musicians of the period.

Unfortunately Charlie Parker was a heroin addict all his adult life; he tried, but often failed, to persuade younger hero-worshipping musicians not to imitate him in that respect. He also drank to excess. When he died he had pneumonia, perforated ulcers, cirrhosis of the liver, and a weak heart. A medical examiner estimated his age at fifty-three – he was thirty-four.


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