Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. Known also as Yardbird, or simply Bird, Charlie was an early bebop pioneer; many of his songs remain standards to this day.
It might surprise you, but Charlie Parker started playing the saxophone at age 11, but wasn’t a child prodigy by any stretch of the imagination. He joined the school band at age 14, and by one account, was kicked out because of his bad playing as a result of his lack of formal training. Charlie didn’t let setbacks bother him though, and an in interview once said that for three to four years he practiced 15 hours a day. Part of this practice regime included playing the blues songs he learned in all 12 keys. During this time, Parker’s improvisational skill flourished, and he began to develop some of the musical ideas that would give birth to bebop.
In the late thirties, Charlie played with local jazz bands in the Kansas City area. Ensembles led by Count Basie and Bennie Moten were popular in the area around this time and influenced Charlie’s playing. By 1938 Charlie Parker had joined pianist Jay McShann’s band, Jay McShann’s Territory Band. The band played all over the southwest and occasionally travelled to bigger markets such as Chicago and New York.
It was with Jay McShann that Parker would play on his first professional recording. Bird moved to New York in 1939 and took a job as a dishwasher at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack to supplement the income he made with Jay McShann’s Territory Band. Pianist Art Tatum frequently played at the venue and his use of fast paced arpeggios would have an influence of Parker’s playing.