This four-part exhibit, co-curated by the American Jazz Museum and Chuck Haddix of UMKC Libraries and the LaBudde Special Collections, provides an in-depth look at Parker's brilliance and charisma which features groundbreaking research, album covers, sheet music, and rare audio selections. Sponsored in part by Spotlight Charlie Parker and Bird 100 Charlie Parker.
Yardbird at Savoy
After wrapping up the season at Fairyland Park, Jay McShann moved the band's headquarters to New York City. The band played a string of one-nighters leading to New York. During the band’s journey east, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, sweeping the United States into World War II. The band arrived in New York ahead of the full repercussions of the War.
The Savoy Ballroom ad by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
On February 13, 1942, the band opened at the Savoy Ballroom on a double bill with the popular Lucky Millinder Band. The Savoy, known as the Home of Happy Feet, was Harlem’s leading ballroom. The McShann band arrived road weary and late for their debut in New York. Nevertheless, that evening the McShann band bested the Millinder band in a bare-knuckle battle of the bands.
Souvenir from The Savoy by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
Gene Ramey recalled, “From the time we hit that first note until the time we got off the bandstand, we didn’t let up. We heated it so hot for Lucky Millinder that during his set he got up on top of the piano and directed his band from there. Then he jumped off and almost broke his leg.”
Jay McShann Band at The Savoy by James F. Condell Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
The McShann band signed with the Moe Gale Agency, one of the nation’s top booking agencies. In between tours of the South, the band played at the Savoy. Broadcasts from the Savoy over the NBC Blue radio network introduced Charlie to listeners across the country. Dazzled by Charlie’s solos, musicians crowded the bandstand. Dizzy Gillespie frequently sat in with the band at the Savoy.
Thelonious Monk and others outside Minton's Playhouse in New York, NY (1947-09) by William Gottlieb Collection, The Library of Congress |American Jazz Museum
Charlie and Gillespie became fast friends and musical rivals. After hours, they jammed with other young modernists at Minton’s Playhouse, a popular bar and restaurant. Minton’s back room served as a laboratory for the development of bebop. Charlie and Gillespie joined Thelonious Monk, Charlie Christian, Kenny Clarke and other young progressive musicians who were experimenting with new harmonic expressions and phrasing that led to the development of this new movement in jazz.
Charlie and Dizzy soon emerged as leaders, becoming the first to bring bebop to a broader audience.
Yardbird with Earl "Fatha" Hines
In December 1942, Earl “Fatha” Hines raided The McShann Band, taking Charlie and two other band members. Vocalist Billy Eckstine convinced Hines to bring Charlie and Dizzy into the band. Eckstine and other band members lured Dizzy into the band by promising that Charlie would soon join. They told Charlie the same thing about Dizzy. Charlie replaced tenor saxophonist Budd Johnson in the Hines band. Charlie effortlessly switched to tenor. His sound assumed a richness of Lester Young.
Billy Eckstine at the Apollo by LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
The band toured widely, navigating wartime restrictions on gasoline, rubber and other material deemed essential to the war effort. While on the road, Charlie and Dizzy challenged each other on and off the bandstand. After hours, they hunkered down in hotel rooms, woodshedding and refining their new musical ideas. They came together in what Dizzy later described as “one heartbeat.”
Caricature illustration for Earl Hines by David Dexter Jr. Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
Traveling across the south, the band encountered racial prejudice at every turn. Band members were glad to return to New York. When Hines announced another tour of the south, Eckstine, Charlie, Dizzy and other band members quit the band. They went their separate ways, but soon reunited in a big band led by Eckstine.
Autographed publicity photo of Charlie Parker by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
In the summer of 1944, Eckstine formed the first big bebop band. He brought Dizzy aboard as music director and recruited Charlie to lead the saxophone section. Dizzy created arrangements of his compositions, giving the band a distinctive modern style. “Our breathing and phrasing were different from all the other bands and naturally we sounded different,” Dizzy related. “There was no band that sounded like Billy Eckstine’s. Our attack was strong, and we were playing bebop, the modern style. No other band like this one existed in the world.”
Poster for Jazz Festival International (1949) by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
The Eckstine Band was short-lived. Unable to tour widely because of wartime restrictions on gas and rubber, Eckstine’s big band gradually fell apart. In September 1944, Charlie left the band and joined saxophonist Ben Webster’s band at the Onyx Club on 52nd Street. Shortly after, Dizzy left the band and formed a small combo with Charlie. Together they sparked a bebop revolution.
Yardbird and Dizzy at Three Deuces
In the spring of 1945, Charlie and Dizzy formed a quintet and opened at the Three Deuces, on 52nd Street in New York City. Known as “Swing Street” to fans and simply the “street” to musicians, 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues thrived during the war years.
52nd Street in New York City by William Gottlieb Collection, The Library of Congress |American Jazz Museum
Jazz fans flocked to the clubs, crowding the basements and ground floors of the dingy four-story brown stones lining either side of the street. The swank exteriors of clubs, sporting neon signs and colorful awnings, jutting out to the curb, belied the close, smoky interiors.
Exterior of Club Downbeat by Buck Clayton Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
The quintet featuring Max Roach on drums, Curly Russell bass and Bud Powell piano, defined and set the standard for the still-emerging bebop style. Charlie led the way. Dizzy recalled “Before I met Charlie Parker my style had already developed, but he was a great influence on my whole musical life. The same thing goes for him too because there was never anybody who played any closer than we did . . . Sometimes I couldn’t tell whether I was playing or not because the notes were so close together . . . The enunciation of the notes, I think, belonged to Charlie Parker because the way he’d get from one note to another . . . Charlie Parker definitely set the standard for phrasing our music, the enunciation of notes.”
Charlie Parker at Three Deuces in New York, NY (1947-08) by William Gottlieb Collection, The Library of Congress |American Jazz Museum
In July 1945, the quintet closed at the Three Deuces. Dizzy and Charlie temporarily parted ways. Dizzy assembled a big band and Charlie formed a small combo, becoming the leader of his own group for the first time. The next month, the Charlie Parker Quintet opened at the Three Deuces to rave reviews. Metronome columnist, Leonard Feather proclaimed, “Parker is the most phenomenal and frantic alto man ever.”
"Now's The Time" by Charlie Parker by LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
Charlie’s critical acclaim led to his first recording session as a leader. In November 1945, Charlie recorded six sides in a hastily arranged session for the Savoy Label. “Now’s the Time,” featuring Miles Davis on trumpet and Dizzy Gillespie on piano highlights Charlie’s Kansas City roots and deep feeling for the blues. Having opened on 52nd Street and recorded with his own group, Charlie had truly arrived in New York.
Yardbird In Los Angeles
In early December 1945, the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet featuring Charlie opened at Billy Berg's Supper Club in Hollywood, introducing bebop to West Coast jazz fans. The band included drummer Stan Levey, along with two newcomers, vibraphonist Milt Jackson and bassist Ray Brown. Al Haig, the band’s pianist, had already arrived in Los Angeles.
Ashtray for Billy Berg's in Hollywood by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
Los Angeles jazz fans were not ready for the new music. Crowds of hipsters and musicians flocked to the club for the first week to check out the new music. Attendance during the second week slumped. Dizzy recalled, “We hit some grooves on the bandstand at Billy Berg’s…but the audience wasn’t too hip. They didn’t know what we were playing, and in some ways, they were more dumb-founded than the people down South. Just dumb-founded.”
Matches for Billy Berg's in Hollywood by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
When the quintet closed out at Billy Berg’s in February, Dizzy generously bought band members tickets to New York. Charlie cashed out his ticket and stayed in Los Angeles. He found work with trumpeter Howard McGhee’s band at the Streets of Paris, Finale Club, and the Hi-De-Ho Club. Charlie encouraged and inspired young players at after-hours jam sessions.
Charlie struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction. He developed a taste for heroin while recuperating from his car wreck in the Ozarks. When heroin became scarce in Los Angeles, Charlie began drinking heavily. His health declined rapidly, manifested by mental disorientation and sudden jerky movements of his limbs.
Jazz Tempo Magazine article about Charlie Parker and Gillespie's showcase at Billy Berg's (1945-12) by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
During a recording session for Ross Russell’s Dial Label, Charlie suffered a mental breakdown that landed him in Camarillo State Mental Hospital, located 45 miles north of Los Angeles. Charlie settled into the routine, tending to a lettuce patch and playing in the band on Saturday nights. After six months of therapy, the staff at Camarillo discharged Charlie to the custody of Ross Russell.
"Relaxin' At Camarillo" by Charlie Parker All Stars by Marr Sound Archives, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
Russell, eager to launch his fledgling Dial Record label, ushered Charlie into the studio. Charlie and the band cut four sides including a 12-bar blues Russell dubbed “Relaxing at Camarillo.” Once released, “Relaxing at Camarillo” won Charlie his first international acclaim―the prestigious Grand Prix du Disque award in France.
In early April 1947, Charlie returned to New York and formed a Quintet featuring Miles Davis on trumpet. The quintet opened at the Three Deuces appearing on a double bill with pianist Lennie Tristano’s trio.
Charlie Parker Band playing at Three Deuces (1947) by William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress |American Jazz Museum
Charlie, glad to be back on 52nd Street, graciously worked the room charming patrons and musicians alike. Crowds packed the Three Deuces, cementing Charlie’s reputation as the “High Priest of Bebop.”
Potrait Photo of Norman Granz (1947-05) by William Gottlieb Collection, The Library of Congress |American Jazz Museum
In between playing club dates on 52nd Street, Charlie toured nationally with his own quintet and as a star soloist with Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic, a traveling concert featuring top jazz stars. Since Jazz at the Philharmonic’s inception in Los Angeles, the concert series had grown from a free-wheeling jam session into an institution, playing stately halls and auditoriums giving jazz the same dignity afforded to classical music. Granz paid musicians well and insisted they be respected as artists and individuals regardless of the color of their skin.
"Charlie Parker with Strings" by Charlie Parker (1950)American Jazz Museum
Charlie’s relationship with Norman Granz paid off handsomely for both men. In November 1949, Granz recorded Charlie with a string section. Charlie, who loved classical music, excitedly embraced the project feeling that recording with strings legitimized his music. Sticking closely to the 32-bar popular music form, Charlie recorded six of his favorite standards accompanied by a chamber ensemble and a jazz rhythm section. With the exception of his solo on “Just Friends,” Charlie ironically played the melody straight instead of improvising on the changes.
Exterior photo of Birdland in New York, NY by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
In mid-December, Charlie’s quintet opened at a new nightclub on Broadway at 52nd Street named Birdland in his honor. Patrons entered under a canopy and descended a flight of stairs to a dark, smoky crowded room that held just under 500 fans.
Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie at Birdland by William Gottlieb Collection, Library of Congress |American Jazz Museum
Serious jazz fans perched on stools at the long bar that stretched along the left wall, nursing drinks while listening intently to the music. From his home base at Birdland, Charlie toured with his rhythm and string sections playing top clubs in New York and theaters across the country.
Yardbird's Final Flight
In December 1953, King Pleasure recorded a vocal version of Charlie’s composition “Parker’s Mood.” Pleasure’s version prophesied Charlie’s death and final return to Kansas City. Receiving strong play on radio and jukeboxes, “Parker’s Mood” became a big hit nationally. Charlie, still alive but in failing health, was outraged by King Pleasure’s version of his song.
Charlie Parker's performance contract at Municipal Auditorium (1951-07-19)American Jazz Museum
Charlie’s reaction to Pleasure’s version of Parker’s Mood led to speculation among jazz fans and friends that he was unappreciated in Kansas City and did not want to be buried in his hometown. Nothing could be further from the truth. After leaving Kansas City, Charlie often returned home to be with Addie, play gigs and spend time with friends in the 18th and Vine area, where he was revered.
A close childhood friend Jeremiah Cameron recalled, “The last time I saw Parker he was coming from his mother’s house on 15th & Olive, a year before his death. If he hated Kansas City, it was not reflected in his friendship with me.”
Charlie Parker playing in the background at Three Deuces in New York, NY (1947-08) by William Gottlieb Collection, The Library of Congress |American Jazz Museum
The year 1951 began with great promise for Charlie—professionally and personally. His career flourishing, Charlie had just started a family with Chan Richardson, the love of his life. Over the next four years, Charlie’s struggles with addiction, alcoholism, and mental health unraveled his life and career. Cut loose from his stable domestic anchor, Charlie drifted off into the New York nightlife, drinking excessively and sleeping wherever he could.
On March 12, 1955, Charlie died in the suite of the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter in the Hotel Stanhope located on 5th Avenue across the street from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Parker's final resting place in Kansas City, Missouri by LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
Chan wanted to bury Charlie in upstate New York next to their daughter Pree, but Charlie’s third wife Doris and Addie intervened and brought Charlie’s body back to Kansas City. A simple granite headstone adorned by two small birds marked Charlie’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery. Unfortunately, the stone bore an incorrect date of death as March 23.
Bird LivesAmerican Jazz Museum
Back in New York, a more fitting epitaph scrawled in crayon and chalk on fences, sidewalks and buildings appeared across Greenwich Village. Led by poet Ted Joans, the hipsters, writers and poets who followed Charlie in life immortalized him in death with the bold declaration―BIRD LIVES.
Each online exhibit of Saxophone Supreme ends with two songs played by Charlie Parker. Go to the next slide to listen to a couple of his great hits.
Saxophone Supreme . April In Paris by The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
The seventh song is "April in Paris," written in 1933 and played by Charlie Parker in 1957.
Saxophone Supreme . Parker's Mood by The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum
The last song featured in the Charlie Parker exhibit is "Parker's Mood," played in 1948 in New York City.
Content provided by the American Jazz Museum and Chuck Haddix of UMKC Libraries and LaBudde Collections.
Curation: Geri Sanders & Chuck Haddix
Installation and Research: Katharine Molnar
Exhibit Design: Sean McCue & Marissa Baum
Digitization: Luke Harbur