I'm Shirley Griffith.
And I'm Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program,
People in America. Today, we tell about one of America's greatest jazz
musicians, Charlie Parker. He influenced the direction of jazz music during his
short lifetime. His influence continues today.
Charlie Parker forever changed the performance and
writing of jazz music. He developed a new style of jazz called "bebop."
It was different from the dance or "swing" style that was popular for
Performers of bebop left the traditional musical melody
and played a song freely, with the music and rhythm that was felt at the time.
So, the same song could be played in a different way each time it was
performed. Charlie Parker said: "Music is your own experience, your
thoughts, your wisdom. If you don't live it, it won't come out of your horn.
Charlie Parker was born August twenty-ninth, nineteen
twenty, in the middle western state of Kansas. He had his first music lessons
in the local public schools. His mother bought him a saxophone in nineteen
Two years later, he decided to leave school and become a
professional musician. For the next four years, he worked mainly in Kansas
City, Missouri, where jazz music had become popular. Charlie developed as a
musician by playing with different groups in public eating and drinking places
called nightclubs. He also
learned by listening to older local jazz musicians.
During this time, Charlie developed serious problems that were to affect him
the rest of his life. He became dependent on alcohol and the illegal drug,
One night in nineteen thirty-six, the young musician
decided to take part in a "jam session." Musicians from all over
Kansas City would play for fun during these unplanned performances. These jam
sessions often became musical battles. The better, the faster, the stronger,
the more creative musician would win.
Charlie began to play the saxophone that night. He played
well for a while. But he then became lost in the music. The drummer threw down
his instrument and brought Charlie to a halt. Charlie later said: "I went
home and cried and didn't play again for three months." The incident,
however, made Charlie work even harder to improve his playing.
In nineteen thirty-nine, Charlie went to New York City.
He stayed for almost one year. He was able to get a few paying jobs playing the
saxophone. Most of his time, though, was spent playing in unpaid jam sessions.
It was during this time that he began to develop his own style of jazz.
He said later that this was when he made a big discovery.
He was unhappy playing songs the same way all the time. He thought there had to
be another way to play. He said: "I could hear it sometimes, but I
couldn't play it." He began working on the song "Cherokee." He used
the higher notes of a chord as a melody line and made other changes. He now
could play the things he had been hearing.
It was in December, nineteen thirty-nine, that Charlie
Parker made this discovery. He later said that with it, he "came alive."
Here he is playing "Cherokee":
Charlie Parker's name first appeared in the press reports
about music in nineteen forty. During the next five years, he joined different
bands. He played with the Earl Hines orchestra and the Billy Eckstine
orchestra. He also played with other young jazz musicians who helped make the
new sound known. Trumpet players Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and pianists
Thelonius Monk and Bud Powell were some of them. Parker was considered the
greatest of the bebop jazz musicians. This song, "Now's the Time," is
one of his hits during this time:
Parker's continuing drug habit was affecting him. He
often was late for performances. Or he missed them. He had decided he did not
like the music of the big bands. He apparently did not feel at ease playing
with a big band, even one that followed his own musical ideas.
In nineteen forty-five, he returned to New York City. He
had the idea of starting a small jazz group. In New York, he joined Dizzy
Gillespie. Their work together was among the greatest in American music
history. They enjoyed the support of younger musicians. Yet, they had to fight
the criticism of those opposed to any new development in jazz.
That year, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie took the
new jazz sound to California. Charlie continued to record and perform in Los
Angeles, even after Dizzy returned to New York. It was during this time that
Parker recorded "Ornithology:"
In nineteen forty-six, Charlie Parker suffered a nervous
breakdown. His dependence on heroin and alcohol led to this severe mental condition.
He was sent to a hospital and stayed there for six months.
He returned to New York City in nineteen forty-seven. The
following four years are considered his most successful. He formed his own
small bands and played with other groups. He visited Europe three times, where
he recorded about half of the albums he ever made.
In July, nineteen fifty-one, New York City officials took
away his right to play in nightclubs because he used illegal drugs. His debts
greatly increased. His physical and mental health began to fail.
Charlie Parker was given a permit to play in New York
again two years later. Jobs, though, were difficult to find. He finally got a
chance to play for two nights in March, nineteen fifty-five. It was at
Birdland, the most
famous jazz nightclub in New York City. Birdland had
opened in nineteen forty-nine. It was named after "Bird," as Charlie
Parker's followers called him.
Parker knew those performances might be his last chance
to re-claim the success he had gained only a few years earlier. His last public
appearance was on March fifth, nineteen fifty-five, at Birdland. It was not a
success. He died seven days later of a heart attack. He was thirty-four.
Charlie Parker's influence on modern jazz music continues
to live. He led many artists to "play what they hear." Jazz musicians
continue to perform his music, often copying his sound and style. But, experts
say, no one has ever played the same as "Bird".
This Special English program was written by Vivian
Bournazian. I'm Steve Ember.
And I'm Shirley Griffith. Join us again next week for
another People in America program on the Voice of America.