Charlie Parker ( Bird) had four wives, three of whom he legally married and none of whom he legally divorced. He married his childhood sweetheart, Rebecca Ruffin, when he was not quite 16 years old. During the period when he was bouncing back-and-forth between Kansas City and New York, he married Geraldine Scott. He married Doris Sydnor in 1948, in the midst of his most productive period artistically. (They had been a couple since 1945.) By 1950, that marriage had run its course and Bird began a romantic relationship with Chan Richardson.
Chan was young, beautiful, intelligent, hip, and a vocal proponent of the new music. Born and raised in New York City, she was a constant presence on the 52nd St. scene and first met Bird when she was 18. In the mid-40s, she considered him her “confidant and best friend”. She traveled to California when Bird was struggling there, but returned to New York to give birth to her first child, Kim (out of wedlock to another musician).
In July of 1950, without ceremony it would seem, Chan moved into Bird’s apartment and they begin living together as husband and wife. We know more about this common-law marriage than we do about the legal ones, largely because Chan wrote a memoir, My Life In E-Flat. The tragic period she describes leading up to Bird’s death formed the basis for Clint Eastwood’s execrable film, Bird.
In a 1981 interview with Coda magazine, Chan reminisced about the positive aspects of their marriage.
”Bird was very private. Nobody knows Bird as a father and as a family man. He was very childlike himself. He loved toys and magic games and bringing presents to the kids, bringing me ice cream, things like that. He liked television westerns. His attitude towards Kim was very tender. Bird had old-fashioned ideas, but he wasn’t a religious person at all, not in the sense of believing in a supreme being or going to church. And he had an incredible sense of humor, very dry. He would leave me little notes, like ‘Was by your house. You weren’t.’ With me he was always extremely considerate, and always overflowing with imagination. He would write an entire page in reverse, so that you had to hold it up to a mirror to read what he had written. He often expressed himself in an old-fashioned kind of English, on purpose. He had knowledge of very obscure things. He had a very retentive memory, but I don’t know where he picked up some of it. He had little bits of obscure knowledge which would always amaze me.”
On Saturday, February 18th, 1950, Bird played a gig at the St. Nicholas Ballroom, NYC, which Chan attended. This was the first time they were seen publicly as a couple, making it a special occasion. Perhaps that explains why Bird was on fire that night. We know this because amateur recordings were subsequently issued as the LP “Bird at St. Nick’s”. The sound quality is raw, but it stands as a prime example of Bird pushing the limits of bebop to the breaking point, giving us glimpses of where he might have gone had he lived into the 1960s. At times, he foreshadows John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and perhaps even Albert Ayler.
On Valentine’s Day, 1954, Bird sent Chan a telegram from the road. He was out on a series of one-nighters with Stan Kenton that were more grueling than glamorous. From Chicago, he wrote a poem that reveals a side of his nature seldom seen. Taken in conjunction with a lengthy interview the month before, it conflicts with the common narrative of deteriorating mental health. On January 18th, seven weeks before the death of his two-year-old daughter, Pree, and about a year before his own death, Bird took questions from Paul Desmond in a radio broadcast, sounding as sane and as lucid as anyone who has ever walked this earth. Just by listening to the warmth and humor in his voice, and the enlightened intelligence of his answers, you may learn more about Charlie Parker than any biographer can tell you.
Here’s the Valentine’s Day (1954) poem he sent Chan by telegraph:
WHILE SEARCHING MENTALLY FOR WORDS IN MY VOCABULARY
I CHOSE THE MEANING OF THE BIRDS. I’M PROUD IT’S YOU I MARRIED.
I’M ALSO GLAD TO LET YOU KNOW IN WORDS THAT GENTLY RHYME
I’M VERY MUCH IN LOVE WITH YOU SO BE MY VALENTINE.