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 14 at the time, and it seemed to be love at first sight for both of them.
At that point, he was already serious about becoming a musician, but wasn’t being taken seriously by the Kansas City jazz world. He 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 few 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 would indeed be 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 became a barber, served in the Air Force, and died in 2004 without fanfare. Happy Birthday, Leon!