Charles Christopher Parker, Jr. was born on August 29, 1920 in Kansas City, Kansas to Charles and Addie Parker. He was given the nicknames "Bird" and "Yardbird". Since a chicken is a "yard bird" and Parker was quite fond of chicken, Parker was given the nickname Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. He was also nicknamed "Bird" for his tendency to "live free as a bird". His parents separated, and in 1927, Charlie and his mother moved to Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City was where jazz and other forms of black music were flourishing. His father was never around much at all after the separation, and Charlie led a lonely childhood. Their house on Olive Street was just a short walk from Kansas City's wide open entertainment district where Charlie found his place in the world. Charlie's mother, Addie, worked nights and after she would leave for work, Charlie would begin his nightly rounds getting his musical education in the alleyways behind the clubs where Kansas City jazz was flowering. His favorite place to hang out, coming of age in Kansas City, was the balcony of Sol Stibel's Club Reno. Parker would sit there and listen to his idol Lester Young blowing chorus after chorus with the Count Basie band.
At age seven, Parker came to Kansas City and began studying music, but school wasn't his only thing. He played the baritones in high school. In the ninth grade, Parker joined the marching band at Lincoln High. This was under the leadership of Alonzo Lewis. Thus, he became obsessed with music and practiced diligently. Parker then joined the Deans of Swing, a group founded by Lawrence Keyes. By age 15 he was serious about the alto saxophone. Soon, Parker was playing with local bands until 1935, when he left school to pursue a music career.
Parker was not "musically proficient" at this time, but that didn't discourage him from attempting to participate in Kansas City's jam sessions. In the Spring of 1936, Parker sat in on a jam session conducted by Jo Jones. Parker faltered musically and Jones showed his displeasure by throwing his cymbal at Charlie Parker's feet. Jones indicated that Parker should get off the stage and let someone else take over. Charlie Parker was humiliated and vowed to return.
During the Summer of 1937, Parker played an extended engagement with a band led by Tommy Douglas and George E. Lee at a resort at Eldon, Missouri. Parker did a considerable amount of woodshedding (to commit serious study or work to a specific task. In Charlie Parker's case, to get down to business and seriously practice his saxophone technique until it was perfect.) with Buster Smith and Gene Ramey during this period and returned to Kansas City a musically changed man.
Parker joined a small "jump" band group led by Jay McShann (pianist) at Martins on the Plaza in 1938. He toured with McShann around Southwest Chicago and New York. One year later, Parker went to Chicago, where he played at a club on 55th Street. From there, Parker moved briefly to New York. He washed dishes at a local food place, where he met guitarist Buddy Fleet, who taught him about instrumental harmony. Shortly afterwards, Parker returned to Kansas City to attend his father's funeral. Once there, he joined the Harlan Leonard's Rockets, with whom he stayed for five months. In late 1939, Parker rejoined McShann and was placed in charge of the reed section.
In December, while experimenting with different chord changes on "Cherokee" during a jam session at a chicken shack in Harlem, Parker discovered a fresh approach to improvisation. These changes in the flatted fifth and harmonic substitutions in the chord progressions, advancements that coupled with the emerging sounds of Harlem would later provide the foundation for bebop.
Parker joined the McShann big band in 1940. During the four years that Parker stayed with McShann, he got the opportunity to perform solo in several of their recordings, such as "Hootie Blues", "Sepian Bounce", and the 1941 hit "Confessing the Blues". Recorded in 1941, "Hootie Blues" featured Parker's first recorded solo on a commercial recording. His twelve bar solo proved to be a landmark in jazz history that electrified musicians who heard it. In January of 1942, the McShann band opened at the Savoy Ballroom. The evening's show-stopper was Parker's solo on his favorite tune, "Cherokee". The dancers at the Savoy pranced with wild abandon while Parker pulled trick after trick out of his musical hat.