Origins of Jazz:  Charlie Parker

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  1. Who was Charlie Parker? What did Charlie Parker change?
  2. What kind of jazz did he develop?
  3. Related imageWhat did performers of bebop do exactly?
  4. When was he born?
  5. Where was he born?
  6. Who bought him a saxophone?
  7. Did he finish school?
  8. Where did he mainly work first?
  9. What serious problems did he develop later?
  10. What did he decide to do one night in 1936?
  11. Why did he stop playing for three months?
  12. Where did he go in 1939?
  13. How long did he stay there?
  14. Did he get a job?
  15. How did he spend most of the time?
  16.  When did he develop his own jazz style?
  17. What happened in December 1939?
  18. When did he first appear in the press reports?
  19. Which two orchestras did he play with?
  20. Name two of the jazz musicians he played with.
Read the transcript of the program here


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.

(("Bird of Paradise"))CLICK HERE


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 years.

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-nineth, 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-thirty-three. 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 heroin.


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:

(("Now's the 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".

(("Scrapple from the Apple"))


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.