Tonight, we are celebrating the birthday of Francis Leon Parker, the first of Charlie Parker’s two sons, who was born eighty-two years ago today. It’s the least we can do, given that he lived out his life in obscurity.
Charlie Parker (Bird) married Rebecca Ruffin just short of his 16th birthday, when she was equally young. They met when the Ruffins moved into the second floor of his mother’s house on Olive Street, in Kansas City, Missouri. Bird was 13 at the time, and it seemed to be love at first sight for both of them.
At the time of their marriage, in 1936, he was already serious about becoming a musician, but wasn’t being taken seriously by the Kansas City jazz world. He had dropped out of high school to focus on alto saxophone, but by most accounts he was terrible, and he endured a variety of humiliations. It’s impossible to know how he viewed himself in those early years. Presumably, though, his only ambition was to be a working Kansas City musician, and his marriage to the beautiful Rebecca was consistent with that. He was impatient to reach manhood in other ways, as well, and generally seemed older than his years.
On January 10th, 1938, Rebecca gave birth to a baby boy. Bird was out on the road, but when he returned home he named his son Francis Leon Parker. Francis (allegedly) after Francis Scott Key (?!?) Leon (undoubtedly) after saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, one of his idols.
Most of what is known about young Bird’s personal life comes from Rebecca, and many details are impossible to confirm through other sources, yet these details are often presented as fact. She paints a portrait of a lazy, sweet-natured boy turned cold hearted and abusive by his heroin addiction. It’s never been clear exactly when or how Bird was introduced to narcotics, and Rebecca doesn’t shed much light on that. Kansas City was a lawless town, but heroin use among jazz musicians was far from common in the 1930s.
Also missing from her account is the period of intensive practicing Bird spoke of himself:
I put quite a bit of study into the horn, that’s true. I used to put in at least eleven, eleven to fifteen hours a day. I did that for over a period of three or four years.
This may be an exaggeration, but something occurred that transformed him from jam session pariah to the darling of Kansas City. The story goes that it happened over the course of a single summer, when he was out of town on an extended gig. It‘s possible, however, that this timeline got compressed in the retelling. Bird was frequently away on extended gigs during this period.
Bird hopped a freight train to Chicago in 1939, and continued on from there to New York City, where he stayed for a period of months. It was the death of his estranged father in 1940 that brought him back to Kansas City and Rebecca. That was when he asked for a divorce, saying (according to Rebecca), “If I were free, I think I could become a great musician.” As we all know, that was indeed his destiny, but he couldn’t have been certain of it or known what it would entail.
In any case, he left Rebecca and his mother, Addie, to raise Francis Leon Parker, which is what they’d been doing anyway. Leon served in the Air Force, became a barber, and died in 2004 without fanfare.
Happy Birthday, Leon!
Today’s musical offering is the inevitable follow up 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.