The enigma of Charlie Parker is partly based on multiple inconsistencies regarding his life and the memories people have of him. The nickname 'Yardbird' or 'Bird' is no exception.....
Teddy Blume says he got the name Yardbird, because he was always found in the yard outside clubs listening to the bands inside. He was too young to go into the club, so he used to 'practice' outside with the sax. He says sometimes they found him asleep in the alley?
The Jay McShann band was on its way to play a job at the University of Nebraska. As they passed a farm, the car Charlie Parker was riding in hit a chicken that ran across the road. McShann said: Charlie told the driver, "Man, go back, you hit that yardbird." They went back, and Charlie jumped out and got the chicken. When they got to Lincoln, he asked the lady who ran the boarding house where we were staying to cook it for dinner.
Parker once mentioned that his little cousin could not pronounce 'Charlie' but could only say 'Yarlie' and this gradually transfigured into Yarl, Yard, Yardbird, Bird.
There is also his famous fondness for chicken? A chicken is a bird you keep in the yard, hence 'yardbird'.
There is the 'free as a bird' theory, which found a home with those who believed his playing was free or not constrained or confined. However, Bob Wallace remembers this anecdote:
Customer to Bird: "I hear you are Charlie Parker and in town."
Bird to customer: "That's right, man."
Customer: "Well, play me some of those good ole down-home-in-the-alley blues. And you know what I mean - Memphis Slim style."
Parker looked back at the piano player. "White Christmas', Ted." The tempo was one of Parker's best, and you can imagine the groove. Bird played bar after bar, everyone different. At the end:
Customer to Parker:"Say, here now....Don't they called you Yardbird? I see why now - man, you really fly."
Bird, with darts in his eye, packed up his horn and cut out, cursing."
Carmen McRae says, "The nickname 'Bird' comes from 'yardbird'. He did a short stint in the army, and yardbird is what they call a recruit". No disrespect to Ms McRae, but nowhere is there mention of Parker being in the army.
Buddy Collette says: "His nickname, he said went back to when he was fourteen or fifteen years old in Kansas City - not later on when he was with the McShann band - and nothing to do with the stories that were being passed around about him eating chicken or picking up a chicken and the road that had been hit by a car. He hated those stories. He told us that he used to get up about four or five in the morning to practice in a nearby park, and would always take at least one friend with him, a drummer or a bassist, or whoever would get up that early. Often they'd get high out there. The cops would drive by and wave at them. They allowed them to practice, as long as it was far enough away from the residential area. That's when the nickname came. The people heard that little alto of his so often in the park that the started calling him 'Bird'. Jazz Generations: A Life in American Music and Society. Buddy Collette with Steven Isoardi. Continuum Books. 2000
Buster Smith, combining two other suggestions of how the name 'yardbird' came about recalled, "When he'd get off work at night, he said, "I'm goin' home and knock over me one of them yardbirds." So the boys would ask him, I even asked him, "What do you mean, yardbird?" "I'm going to get me one of them chickens." […] He'd go catch one of these chickens and kill 'em. I guess he was staying with his parents, and he'd have them cook him a chicken. Middle of the night, didn't make no difference to him. And so them boys got to callin' him Yardbird, and that's the way he [unintelligible]. […] They couldn't call him "Charlie." "Yardbird!" He'd look out, "Yeah!"
In Dizzy Gillespie's autobiography, Dizzy, whilst talking about first meeting Charlie, there is a footnote saying: "Charlie Parker's bluesy, syncopated style is often attributed to the influence of 'Old Yardbird', Buster Smith, a saxophonist out of Kansas City. I never heard 'Old Yardbird' play, but I've heard about him." This suggests that Charlie inherited the name Yardbird from Buster Smith? That Charlie was once possibly 'Young Yardbird'?