Charlie Parker, the man known as Yardbird, or Bird for short is, with the possible exceptions of Louis Armstrong or John Coltrane, perhaps the most awesome virtuoso instrumentalist jazz has ever produced. The facility he achieved on the alto saxophone remains the elusive holy grail of everyone who strapped on a saxophone in his wake. Despite his brief life and storied flame-out, Bird was capable of a level of playing that had arguably not been achieved before or since his untimely demise at age 34.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Parker’s odyssey began in earnest during a summer gig with the George E. Lee band. His earliest big job was in the Jay McShann band. He became restless with big bands and quickly outgrew them, though his first recordings came with McShann. A trip to New York with McShann introduced him to the cauldron of jazz creativity, where he met Dizzy Gillespie. They went on to be credited as the two musicians most responsible for the development of bebop, entry point of the modern jazz era. Parker became a fixture on the early 40s nightly jam sessions uptown at places like Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House. He wasn’t quite finished with big bands, as stints with the Earl Hines, Cootie Williams, Andy Kirk and Billy Eckstine bands suggest. But thereafter the quartet or quintet became Bird’s unit of choice.
Compositionally Parker showed a knack for using the chord changes of standard songs and crafting new tunes around those changes. Songs like “I Got Rhythm”, “Embraceable You,” “Indiana,” and others became fair game for Parker’s machinations as he wrote modern jazz classics like “Now’s The Time” from such modernizations. His bands became proving grounds for young trumpeters, like Miles Davis, Kenny Dorham, and Red Rodney. Later his experimentations would slake his thirst for Afro-Cuban rhythms, and his sessions with strings -- though often derided by critics for supposed pretension -- were manifestations of his developing immersion in European classical orchestral music. The tragedies of his life are well-documented, but his virtuosity triumphs nonetheless.
Here is Bird playing with Dizzy Gillespie, from 1952. Parker's blistering solo starts at approximately 0:45.