Charlie Parker

CHARLIE PARKER Born Aug 20th 1920 Kansas City;  Died Hollywood May 12th 2005.

Charlie Parker, the only film music composer to ever win 11 Academy Awards, died last week at Cedars Sinai Medical Center, aged 84.  Cause of death was listed as heart and kidney failure.

If Parker had died in 1955 (he was in a coma for a week before miraculously recovering), he would instead be remembered chiefly as one of the co-founders of bebop, a new and freer style of jazz playing.  Beginning in 1944, the Kansas City native put out an amazing series of small band records (often alongside fellow bop creator Dizzy Gillespie) that influenced thousands of jazz players and revolutionised the music.  

In the early ‘50s, Parker recorded two dozen standards with a small string orchestra, records he later told interviewers was “the best music I ever produced”.

A drug addict and very heavy drinker, Parker barely survived a brush with death in April 1955, when he was just 34.  After taking a year off to recover, Parker moved in 1956 from New York to a small farm in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania, where, away from the temptations of night club heroin dealers, he rested and composed several long jazz suites.  Fellow altoists Phil Woods, Jackie McLean and Charles McPherson would often join him for all-night jam sessions in an acoustically-ideal barn named for its odd colour,‘The Big Purple.”   Bootleg recordings of this music eventually found their way to Hollywood, where director Vincente Minelli heard them and commissioned Parker to write the score for his new film Backstage.   More film score offers followed, and in 1961, Parker won the first of an amazing 11 Oscars for music from The Apartment

In 1962, Parker moved permanently to Los Angeles and continued to write for films while studying at night with his composing idol Igor Stravinsky, who wrote three suites with orchestra for the veteran altoist to play at the Hollywood Bowl.  Throughout the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, Parker gradually reduced his playing gigs, by now restricted to jazz festivals and concert halls.    

“I hate playing in night clubs and I never will again,” he said. “I predict that in my lifetime, jazz in its proper setting of the concert hall will supercede the clubs. That’ll be a good thing.”

Parker did make an exception to his no-night clubs rule, visiting Melbourne’s Embers Night Club in 1959 to play for a week alongside local alto star Frank Smith and pianist Bob Sedergreen. “Man, that cat’s amazing!,” Parker famously said of Smith. “If he came to the States, he’d cut everyone.”

In 1988, after winning his 11th Oscar for the music in the film ‘Bird’ (loosely based on his own life), Parker chose the Academy Awards podium to announce his retirement from both jazz and cinema writing.  He spent his final years giving long and witty interviews to documentary film makers, writing provocative essays on a variety of topics for The New Yorker, and overseeing a scholarship fund with Milt Hinton to educate young black photographers, a hobby he took up in his 70s and which, characteristically, he mastered instantly.  He died in his sleep, his wife Chan and their five children at his side.