1951 was a year of change for Charlie Parker (Bird), and not necessarily for the better. 1950 had seen its share of triumphs, including the commercial success of “Charlie Parker with Strings” and, in December, a tour of Sweden, where he was treated as an artist, not as an entertainer. But Bird canceled a final performance in order to fly straight back to New York. He was suffering from severe stomach pains and was, it would appear, trying to get back to his new wife, Chan. After a couple of agonizing days at home, he was convinced to go to the hospital, where he was diagnosed with an acute peptic ulcer.
It’s safe to assume that this was brought about by Bird’s tendency to consume staggering quantities of straight spirits. Ulcers would plague him for the rest of his life, as he never successfully stopped consuming anything, let alone alcohol. In fact, he snuck out of the hospital one night and dropped in at Birdland, where he drank double shots of whiskey until someone talked him into going back. Whenever Bird was trying to stay off heroin, he turned to alcohol. To be fair, he also used both at the same time, along with amphetamines. As Lennie Tristano once said, “Bird’s thing was chemical.“ But his struggles with substance abuse are another story entirely.
By 1951, Bird was a celebrity and this brought with it greater scrutiny by the powers that be, especially the musicians’ union. His tendency to show up late or not at all was legendary. Although accepted as a given around New York City, it was underappreciated by club owners in more distant quarters, and protracted legal disputes would become a constant in Bird’s life.
He was dealt another blow that summer when his cabaret card was rescinded, which prevented him from working in New York City nightclubs for the next 15 months. This forced him to go out on the road, which he had come to hate, often as a single backed by local players. This only made matters worse and led to more disputes.
All this was happening as Bird was, for the first time in his life, trying to settle down and lead a normal, domestic existence. In July of 1950, Chan had moved into Bird’s apartment on East 11th Street, and he became a stepfather to her five year old daughter, Kim, who has very fond childhood memories of him. On July 17, 1951, Chan gave birth to a baby daughter, Pree, Bird’s first child since Leon, now 13 and living with Rebecca in Detroit.
Despite his declining health and the loss of his cabaret card, Bird’s playing remained inspired. The hospital stay helped him regain ground, and the recording session on January 17th, an unplanned reunion with Miles Davis and Max Roach, produced the classic “Au Privave”. He was still near the peak of his fame and artistry, and so, on balance, 1951 wasn’t a bad year. But we are in a position to know what Bird and Chan couldn’t. It would be Pree’s death from cystic fibrosis two years later that would send Bird into his final tailspin of self destruction.