Friday, February 14, 2020

A Bird’s Life

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird is an opera told in 21 scenes, told from the story of the women in his life. Here are some of the events in his life that are helpful to know before heading into the opera.

1920, Kansas City

Charlie Parker is born on August 29. He teaches himself to play saxophone. Listening from nightclub backdoors and alleys, he hears musicians performing the music he will later master.

1936, rural Missouri

A serious accident fractures Charlie’s spine and breaks three ribs. Bedridden for three months, he is prescribed heroin and is soon addicted. For the rest of his life, Parker struggles with narcotics and alcohol addiction.

1940, rural Nebraska

While Parker and his bandmates are traveling to a gig at the University of Nebraska, their car hits a stray chicken. Parker demands they take it to their rooming house, where he has it fried for supper. From then on, those who know him call him “Yardbird,” and later just “Bird.”

Charlie Parker and Miles Davis

1942, New York City

Pianists Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell, drummers Kenny Clark and Max Roach, trumpeter Miles Davis, and others join Charlie and John “Dizzy” Gillespie for afterhours jam sessions. They develop faster tempos, complex chord changes, and new improvisations. Later, Gillespie coins the word “bebop” to describe the new music.

1945, New York City

Parker and Gillespie make their first recording together, performing “Dizzy Atmosphere,” “Groovin’ High,” “Salt Peanuts,” and “Shaw Nuff”—tunes that will become jazz standards.

Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie

1947, Los Angeles

On tour in California with Dizzy, Parker's addiction lands him in Camarillo State Hospital. He’s hospitalized for six months. Doris, whom he will later marry, helps care for him.

1948, New York City

Jazz at the Philharmonic, a series of sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall, brings nationwide acclaim to bebop players and launches new tours across the country.

1949, Paris

Parker is crowned the “High Priest” of bebop by Metronome magazine. His arrival in Paris creates a sensation. Sold out performances and throngs of admiring fans follow his every footstep. The talk of the town, he meets philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and classical saxophonist Marcel Mule. He attends a concert by guitarist Andrés Segovia.

Hoping to broaden bebop’s popular appeal, record and concert producer Norman Granz records Charlie Parker with Strings, an album featuring Parker accompanied by classical musicians. The album’s success results in a second recording the following year.

Charlie Parker and Chan Richardson

1950, New York City

Chan Richardson and Bird renew acquaintances. Doris leaves him, moving to Illinois. Chan and Charlie move in together, sharing a common law marriage. In fact, Charlie doesn’t divorce any of his four wives. His health worsens, the result of his constant touring and extreme drug and alcohol abuse. Birdland, a new club named in Parker’s honor, opens on Broadway at 52nd Street. Several years later he is banished from the club for public drunkenness.

1954, Seattle

Parker performs at the Civic Auditorium–now McCaw Hall–sharing the stage with Dizzy Gillespie and other groups. The Seattle Times reports Parker’s performance “rates special mention.”

1954, Los Angeles

On March 6, Chan's daughter Pree dies at the age of 2. Parker drinks himself into a stupor and sends Chan a series of increasingly confusing telegrams—one a desperate cry for help.

1955, New York City

On March 12, after several frightful days in Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter’s hotel suite, Parker dies from acute pneumonia and life-long heroin and alcohol addiction. He is 34 years old.