Parker was born in 1920 in the jazz hotbed of Kansas City. He was a high school dropout who played his saxophone obsessively from a young age. He doubtlessly spent hours listening to fellow Kansas Citian Count Basie and developing his technique and style before joining the Jay McShann touring band at the age of 18. Within a year, he would follow the path of Jazz legends before him and find his way to Harlem.
He got a job as a dishwasher at a favorite jazz and food hangout called Jimmy's Chicken Shack on 148th Street and St. Nicholas Ave. The legendary Harlem pianist Art Tatum played regularly and had a huge influence on Parker, especially his soloing. He would continue to tour with the Jay McShann Band, even playing at the Savoy in Harlem in the early 40s. It would be with the Jay McShann Band that he would meet young Dizzy Gillespie, beginning their lifelong collaboration. It was also in these early years that Parker developed a heroin habit that would be nearly debilitating for many parts of his career.
In 1942, Parker had left McShann's band and was often found performing in Harlem with Dizzy at Clark Monroe's Uptown House. Parker was one of a vanguard of musicians changing the style of Jazz. The classic swing style of Jazz had become one of the most popular mainstream music styles in the country. It was heard on radio and at major concert halls everywhere. For many young, black musicians swing was too staid and mainstream to be cool. Their style would be based on experimental solos, unique phrasing, high-tempo playing, and generally creating a music, language, and style that listeners accustomed to swing found difficult. Even their slang was obscure, and out of that slang came the word bebop to describe the new sound.
Bebop would begin to breakout of underground clubs when Parker would begin sitting-in with the already established crew at Minton's Playhouse on 118th Street, The regular players there included Kenny Clarke, Charlie Christian, and Thelonious Monk. Dizzy would play regularly too. After Parker started joining in the reputation spread through the Jazz world as the place to see the most talented and experimental players in the world. It attracted other young players to listen, learn, and play like Art Blakely, Max Roach, and Miles Davis. In just a few years, bebop would break out of Harlem, and Parker would become its most revered performer.
While Dizzy Gillespie's affable nature helped spread bebop to the mainstream, it was Parker who did the most to spread the new jazz among intellectuals, hipsters, and the bohemians of downtown. In the late 40s and early 50s, Parker was a regular in Greenwich Village clubs like Arthur's Tavern, the Village Vanguard, and the Open Door. He even moved downtown to the distinctly untrendy, working-class area around Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. He was unpredictable in his moods and unrestrained in his passions. He continued his drug use and continued expanding his music. He called on experimental French composer Edgard Varese at his home in the Village and asked Varese to teach him all he knew about composition in return for anything Parker could offer. He even offered to cook for Varese. Parker was a legend among jazz aficionados. He even had a club on 52nd named for him, Birdland. But in the end, the drugs and hard living caught up to him. His cabaret license was revoked in '51 because of drug charges and would only be booked sporadically over the last 4 years of his life. Even when he had a booking, he often wouldn't show, or could barely make it through the set. In late 1954, a friend found him passed out on the street in the Village, and he would hole up in the friend's apartment all winter before dying 3 months later. In his exile and death, his legend had only grown. And when he passed away, one of New York's first ever example's of graffiti would appear scrawled in chalk on walls in Village and elsewhere, "Bird Lives!" Here he is playing "Scrapple from the Apple"