by Mike Guy
Do you know how Charlie Parker came to be known as Yardbird or Bird? I didn’t for a very long time. After listening to jazz for years, I was eventually able to understand how the often primitive recordings of his playing make sense in the context of the more modern recordings that we are all much more comfortable with. I read of his exploits (some of which are fit to pass on today, but the good ones are more suited to barroom whispers and chuckles) and just accepted the commonly used nicknames of Yardbird and Bird. Lazily and naively, I just assumed they were somehow related to jail time or his playing and I never looked into it.
A couple of years ago, while reading unrelated and quite boring material, I learned that the term yardbird is commonly used for chickens in the rural south. Around that same time, while laughing at one of the barroom whisper and chuckle stories from a Miles Davis biography, I became intrigued enough to look into Charlie Parker’s nicknames. It turns out that there is no shortage of published lore supporting the fact that the man really liked to eat chicken.
We'll never know when chicken might have shown up on Charlie’s favorites list, but several sources report that when coming to New York City from Kansas City in the late 1930’s that he worked for a time at Jimmie’s Chicken Shack in Harlem. Trombonist Clyde Bernhardt wrote in his autobiography, I Remember, that "[Charlie] told me he got the name Yardbird because he was crazy about eating chicken: fried, baked, boiled, stewed, anything. He liked it. Down there in the South, all chickens are called yardbirds." I won’t burden you with a long list of examples, but there are far more anecdotes and references tying the nicknames Yardbird and Bird to Charlie’s enjoyment of chicken than any other justification.
Jennie just asked me about ideas for the upcoming weekend meals. I think it’s time to roast a chicken.