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9.43: Yardbird Parker

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  • Though his life was brief and often tragic (he died at the same age as Mozart), Parker made a profound impact on jazz that is still felt today. In fact, Parker and Louis Armstrong are probably the most significant and influential figures in all of jazz history. Born in Kansas City, Missouri, he started playing alto saxophone at age 13, and played around his hometown for several years until taking a brief trip to New York in 1939. From 1940 to 1942, he toured with Jay McShann’s band and made several recordings. He also participated in informal jam sessions at Minton’s in Harlem and other New York jazz clubs, helping to create the music that would become known as “bebop.” In 1945 he participated in some important recording sessions with fellow bebop musician trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. His most influential and productive years were from 1947 to 1951, when he performed extensively and made dozens of recordings that have become indispensable jazz classics. Plagued by years of drug and alcohol abuse, Parker died just a week after his final performance at Birdland, a club named in his honor. As a composer of many tunes that have become jazz standards, Parker’s harmonic inventiveness and rhythmic sophistication have influenced legions of jazz musicians. His nickname, according to McShann, came from an incident while on tour, when the band’s bus hit a chicken (or “yardbird”) that Parker insisted on having cooked up by their host. But the moniker, especially in its shorter form “Bird,” seemed to fit Parker and his flights of musical brilliance perfectly.

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