Leon Francis Parker, Charlie Parker’s first son, was born on January 10th, 1938. Charlie Parker (Bird), born August 29th, 1920, was just seventeen years old at the time his wife Rebecca gave birth. Bird had been a working Kansas City musician since age fifteen, and he generally associated with older players, many of whom were married with children. This is probably what inspired him to start a family. Although he bonded with his infant son, he was already outgrowing his marriage, and his musical ambitions conflicted with fatherhood in every way.
It’s not unfair to say that he gradually abandoned his family, just as his own father had, but the circumstances were different. He was genuinely in love when he married Rebecca, and his desire for a family was sincere. We perceive Bird’s life as predetermined, but he couldn’t see into the future. Getting married and starting a family both made sense at the time, when his musical destiny was far from certain. It’s hard to say when he recognized his own genius. He may have had an inkling by the time Leon was born, and it may have come as a surprise.
The most detailed accounts of Bird’s teenage years come to us through biographers Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch, both of whom relied heavily on the recollections of Rebecca (Parker Davis) Ruffin, who first met Bird when he was thirteen. In April 1934, her entire family (recently divorced mother, four sisters and a brother) moved into the second floor of Bird’s house on Olive Street, in Kansas City, Missouri. The Ruffin children quickly adopted Bird as one of their own, and a romance soon blossomed with Rebecca.
In the acknowledgements to Celebrating Bird: the Triumph of Charlie Parker, Gary Giddins’ 1987 biography, the author writes:
My first debt is to Stanley Crouch, friend and colleague, who has been working since 1982 on an exhaustive study of Parker’s life and art. In what was surely an unusual if not unprecedented act of scholarly comradeship, Stanley made all of his research available to me so that I could “get it right.“ His extensive interviews with Rebecca Parker Davis convinced me that she knew the story I wanted to tell.
From 1934 to 1938, Rebecca Ruffin was as close to Bird as anyone. They were married on July 25th, 1936, one month before Bird’s sixteenth birthday. Biographers differ on Rebecca’s age, but she was probably a year or two older. They were clearly in love, and, although Rebecca’s mother had a low opinion of Bird, no one objected to their marriage. After they were wed at the Jackson County courthouse, Bird’s mother, Addie, hosted a reception at their home. Cake, ice cream, and punch were served, and guests included her estranged husband, Charles Parker, Sr. Given his lack of involvement in his son’s life, it’s surprising he was there. It may have been the last time they saw each other. Charles Sr. was stabbed to death in 1940.
Stanley Crouch gets full credit for recognizing Rebecca as a valuable source and doing the legwork to track her down. She had certainly been neglected by previous biographers, such as they were.
British jazz critic Max Harrison gets the prize for earliest biography, publishing his synopsis of Bird’s life and music in 1960. (It was published in the US a year later.) It’s safe to assume that Harrison was in no position to locate and interview Rebecca. Robert Reisner’s book, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, came next. This 1962 collection of firsthand accounts was never intended as a biography, and didn’t even aspire to veracity. Why Reisner failed to solicit a remembrance from Rebecca is unknown. It would appear that he travelled to Kansas City to conduct interviews, but Rebecca was long gone by then, having remarried and moved to Detroit. In general, though, the book’s spiritual home is New York City, and, with so much material close at hand, Reisner may have lacked the impetus to travel to Michigan.
These two books aside, the only biography prior to Giddins’ book was Ross Russell’s Bird Lives, published in 1973. This exceedingly irresponsible book not only twisted the truth, it drove a stake through its heart. In recounting Bird’s early years, Russell is so preoccupied conjuring up fictional characters and events that he gets Rebecca’s last name wrong. Introducing her as Rebecca Ruffing, he proceeds to dismiss her in a paragraph that brims with sexist/racist cliches while adding nothing to our knowledge.
Stanley Crouch’s Bird biography, Kansas City Lightning, was long overdue in at least two senses: it was finally published in 2013, approximately twenty-five years after he shared his research with Giddins; and Crouch is the first African American writer to tackle Bird’s life. Why it took so long I wouldn’t presume to guess, but we at last have a Charlie Parker connected to the African-American culture of Kansas City. Crouch, however, doesn’t stop there. He diverts from the narrative whenever the mood strikes, giving us mini-biographies of important Kansas City musicians and guided tours through African-American history and sociology. At times, you have to check the dust jacket to make sure you’re reading a book about Charlie Parker. As a result, Crouch only makes it to 1942. This means his second volume will have a huge amount of ground to cover, and he may not have the luxury of digression. (As I update this post, I must note with sorrow that Staney Crouch died on September 16th, 2020, at age 74. It’s doubtful there will be a second volume.)
In case you’re wondering, the point here is that Crouch and Giddins shared information, and this raises issues of journalistic integrity. Not to accuse them of bad faith, but both have mapped out Bird’s personal life based almost entirely on Rebecca’s recollection of events. The most intimate and shocking of these revelations occurred between husband and wife alone and can’t be corroborated by other witnesses. The risks here are obvious: although the stories themselves are uncorroborated, Giddins and Crouch’s matching accounts, published independently, create the illusion of corroboration.
My main concern here is a 1937 story in which Bird allegedly puts a gun to Rebecca’s head, after she discovers a love letter from another woman. Putting a gun to your wife’s head is among the lowest forms of human behavior, and I’m not willing to believe Bird actually did this based solely on Rebecca’s testimony. The only person capable of corroborating at least some of Rebecca’s story would have been Bird’s mother, Addie. She died in 1967, shortly after Giddins turned nineteen, so it’s safe to say he never interviewed her. It’s unlikely Crouch did, either. So all we have is Rebecca’s word, passed on to us by Giddins and Crouch. Their stories concerning this incident line up exactly, although Crouch adds more detail, including fictitious dialog. They are so close to identical that I have to wonder if Giddins raised this subject with Rebecca himself, or relied entirely on Crouch’s research in this matter. For purposes of comparison, I have edited out a lot of Crouch’s fictionalizing.
Giddins: He called her upstairs and told her to sit on the bed and look out the window. She heard a click. Charlie was holding a gun to her temple and demanding the letters. She told him to look in his bureau where he usually put his mail, and there they were. As he descended the steps, Rebecca threw a flatiron at him, which crashed through the glass panes near the front door. Mrs. Parker walked to the bannister and asked, “What is it, dearie?”
Crouch: Rebecca was downstairs talking to Parkey [Addie] when Charlie called her from upstairs. His eyes empty, he spoke to her in a dark and imperial fashion. “Go sit on the trunk and look out the window.” She did. She heard a click; cold metal was pressed against her temple. “Rebeck, where is the letter?” “Look in the drawer,” she answered, not knowing why. As he turned away, Rebecca reached for a flatiron that was on the floor. She picked it up and threw it at him, sending the iron through one of the long, slender windows flanking the front door. “What’s the matter, dearie?” asked Parkey from the parlor.
I don’t mean to impugn Rebecca’s honesty, but memory is a tricky thing, especially fifty years after the fact. In her telling, as channeled through Giddins and Crouch, Bird went from a sweet-natured, thoughtful young man to a heartless and abusive drug addict. While there is no doubt some truth in this, it tends to contradict the testimony of musicians who knew Bird in those years. For all his excesses, it’s generally agreed that Bird was disarming, charming, and all too easy to love. He would shamelessly trade on that love for cash (“What good is love if you can’t take it?”) but there are few anecdotes, if any, involving cruelty or brutish behavior. As his third wife, Doris Sydnor, put it, “He never wanted to hurt anybody but himself.”
This isn’t entirely true. Rebecca didn’t seem to mention it to Crouch or Giddins, but, according to Addie, Bird wasn’t above striking Rebecca. This would have been toward the end of their marriage, around 1939. There is no indication of violent behavior during their courtship or early marriage. Far from it, in fact. In general, though, Addie had nothing but praise for her son, so we have to take her at her word. As she put it in Reisner’s book:
Rebecca was four years older than he was and wanted to be his mother to him. He wouldn’t stand for that and started beating up on her, you know. I told him that wasn’t right and it would only cause a lot of trouble and the best thing to do was leave, and he went to Chicago.
There’s no defending this behavior, but it’s a far cry from putting a gun to her head. It’s worth noting that two of Bird’s subsequent biographers did not see fit to repeat Giddins’ claim. Chuck Haddix, author of the well researched Bird: the Life and Music of Charlie Parker, published in 2003, mentions the love letters but not the gun. In his 2005 Chasin’ the Bird, Brian Priestley makes no mention of either. On the other hand, Carl Woideck, in his estimable 1996 biography, Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, recaps the gun-to-the-head story in a single sentence, along with a footnote referencing a 1994 telephone interview with Rebecca. It’s unclear who conducted this interview. I would love to see a transcript but there’s no indication it has ever been published. In any event, all we have is Rebecca’s word again.
When he requested a divorce In 1940, Bird asked Rebecca to free him so he could “become a great musician.” If it seemed like a flimsy pretext at the time, he did, in fact, do exactly that. I imagine she came to understand that she had been competing with destiny. That doesn’t lessen the fact that Leon grew up without a father. Not much is known about his life, but I happened across a surprising 1959 article published in Jet magazine that, in the space of two paragraphs, gives us a much clearer sense of Leon than any Bird biography, and sheds a little more light on Rebecca. The authors didn’t seem to have any trouble locating her, and she is quoted twice, if somewhat incoherently. Believe it or not, guns also make an appearance! The article deals with the battle for Bird’s estate, and they catalog his four wives in order, starting with Rebecca:
The first of these was Rebecca, whom he married in Kansas City in 1936 when he was just 15. She was 16, and bore him a son, Leon, in 1938. But Bird left her, then divorced her in June, 1941, because “Charlie said he was going to become a great musician and he couldn’t have a wife and family to hold him back. He used to make me watch him take the dope, would lock me in the room. I told his mother and she took a gun and started to kill him because she said she’d rather see him dead than on dope. He wasn’t a cruel man, though. We parted amicably, but I still loved him, he was such a nice man.”
At the article’s end, they turn their attention to Leon, twenty-one at the time of publication. A remarkable photograph accompanies the text. We have a couple of pictures of Leon as a child, but none as a young man.
Probably the most confused of the litigants is Leon Parker, a pre-law student at Lincoln (Mo.) University and an Air Force veteran. Like all of the litigants, he has no anger and naturally wants anything due him. But he seemed more inclined to talk about the man who was his father than anything else. The antithesis of his fabled father, Leon, a non-smoker and non-drinker, said: “Even if he were not my father, I would have to say he was the greatest jazzman who ever lived. I was a child when I heard his Laura, but I understood everything he was saying. It was as if I had a built-in understanding. But I never wanted to be a professional musician because I feared I would never be accepted because of him. I only saw him twice in my life and was always sorry I could never be around him. I gave up trying to play alto at 15.“
Whatever the outcome of the court battle for the Bird’s estate, Bird, unlike most of the dead, can return again. For while Leon will not admit it, his mother Rebecca insists: “Leon not only walks, talks, smiles, eats like his father, when he plays the alto, his hands move with the same lightning, he plays with the same fire and has the same sound.“
The caption that accompanies Leon’s picture reads: “Leon Parker says he wants to make his contribution in law.” But his brief obituary in the Kansas City Star (June 12th, 2004) reads as follows:
Parker graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City and the Kansas City Business College. He was a licensed barber by trade and was CEO of his company, Three Sisters Inc. Parker served in the Air Force.
It would seem, then, that he ended up a barber, not a lawyer. Does this indicate that his life was as conscribed by racism as that of his father or grandfather? Let’s hope not.
The obituary continues: He is survived by his wife, Wanda Parker, a son, Bryan Parker, and two daughters, Kristal Parker and Korey Parker, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
In Reisner’s book, Addie relates a conversation she had with Bird about his children, during which he said, “Mama, after I’m gone, the Parkers will still live.”
Happy birthday, Leon, your father would be proud.
Today’s musical offering is the inevitable followup to Bird’s first recording, which was an unaccompanied, do-it-yourself medley of Honeysuckle Rose and Body and Soul, recorded, as near as can be determined, in May 1940. We know the date for the so-called Wichita Transcriptions presented here, which were recorded November 30th, 1940. The Jay McShann Orchestra, Bird’s home and family for about three years, was passing through Wichita on one of its barnstorming tours. Four jazz enthusiasts, with ears to understand the significance of what they heard, arranged an informal recording session at the studios of KFBI radio in Wichita.
Volumes can be written about the music that was captured, but instead I will say nothing, aside from apologizing for excerpting Bird’s solos. The complete performances are invaluable, but these are also the first Bird solos we have, and they stand on their own if you want to hear Bird’s conception in its formative stages. All the elements of his mature style are there, and his debt to Lester Young couldn’t be clearer, although Prez is by no means Bird’s only influence. I’ve included his solos from four of the seven tunes recorded, all as a single track, in the following order: I Found A New Baby, Moten Swing, Lady Be Good, and Honeysuckle Rose. I have named it the Wichita Medley, for lack of a better title. I sincerely hope you do enjoy it.