On Saturday, March 6th, 1954, Charlie Parker’s two-year-old daughter, Pree, died from what may have been undiagnosed cystic fibrosis. Bird was out on the road in California when she died, and not by choice. After a grueling road trip with Stan Kenton, during which Bird was in constant pain from his ulcers, the Moe Gale agency booked a one-week appearance at theTiffany Club in Los Angeles, preventing him from returning to New York.
This was a disaster in every conceivable way. Pree’s condition was critical, and during the week Bird learned that she had been placed in an oxygen tent. On opening night, after playing two short sets, Bird left the Tiffany club to call Chan, and was arrested without cause by the LAPD narcotics squad. He spent the next 24 hours in jail and was bailed out just in time to play his second night.
Things did not go well. Throughout the road trip with Kenton, Bird had been masking the pain from his ulcers with alcohol and prescription codeine pills, and he continued to do so at the Tiffany Club, drinking triple Brandy Alexanders at the bar and nibbling pills onstage. Distressed over his daughter and seriously ill himself, he was physically and mentally incapable of playing for any length of time. But Bird’s defiant behavior made matters worse, causing the manager, Jack Tucker, to fire him on Thursday night. The Gale Agency then instructed him to return on Friday and renegotiate the contract, a hopeless waste of time. Bird was still in California early Sunday morning when word reached him that Pree had died.
Biographers never fail to dwell on the three anguished telegrams Bird sent Chan over the next few hours. It is implied, and sometimes stated, that these are proof of Bird’s deteriorating mental health. There is no question that Pree’s death was a turning point. Afterward, Bird entered a period of profound depression which was only relieved by his own death, almost one year later to the day. When assessing someone’s mental health, however, I’m willing to give a pass to anyone who has just learned that their two-year-old daughter is dead. Bird was a complex and paradoxical man. I’m not convinced he was suffering from any form of mental illness (his stay in Camarillo included) until his last few years of life. But that’s another story entirely.
What about his behavior at the Tiffany Club, and his clashes with Jack Tucker?
It’s hard to fully grasp how many gigs Bird played in his lifetime. He was a working musician from the age of 15 onward, and from the beginning his behavior was remarkably consistent: he was utterly unreliable. He would show up late or not at all, or, occasionally, on time. In the early days of his career, everyone seemed to accept this as a given, but problems began to mount after his return to New York from California in 1947. Over the next three years, he would rise from cult figure to acknowledged genius, his fame culminating with the opening of Birdland, a nightclub named in his honor. With this fame came greater accountability, and his irresponsible behavior caused increasing damage as the stakes rose.
It’s impossible to know exactly when Bird realized he was on his way back down. Having his cabaret card revoked was certainly ominous. Unable to work in New York City nightclubs without it, he found himself on the road again as a single, playing with local rhythm sections in second class clubs. His recording contract with Norman Granz, which initially held the promise of real artistic achievements, beginning with “Charlie Parker with Strings“, had devolved into shapeless mediocrity. Gigs with pickup string sections imprisoned him in relentlessly trite arrangements. Worst of all, Bird, absent a new musical environment, was doing the one thing he could not bear as an artist: he was repeating himself.
It’s also hard to fully grasp the many varieties of racism that Bird faced in clubs owned by whites, who expected servility from African-American musicians in exchange for the privilege of playing their dumps. How often did Bird’s unreliability as an entertainer stem from his pride as an artist and his belief that he was inferior to no one, beginning with the weasels and thugs he was forced to deal with on the nightclub circuit? And how galling was it when he realized, in the early 50s, that his future was going to play out in one dive after another, despite all he had accomplished?
By then, Birds reputation for unreliability spanned the globe, and it would seem that Jack Tucker, manager of the Tiffany Club, was lying in wait for him. On the last night of the Kenton tour, he approached an exhausted and ailing Bird at Shrine Auditorium, insisting that he rehearse with the house band at noon the next day. This was an inconsiderate, if not disrespectful, demand, not to mention unnecessary. Bird obliged by showing up on time and rehearsing for 15 minutes, then leaving, obeying the letter of the request, if not the spirit, whatever that may have been.
Tucker was much affronted by this, and it was the first of many charges in his March 11th letter to the American Federation of Musicians, requesting damages for Bird’s behavior at the club and his subsequent firing. Curiously, he makes no mention of Bird’s arrest. In his cover letter to the Gale Agency, he asserts that Bird “kept three rooms going at the hotel with hot running women, liquor and what not right up to Saturday”. Whether this formed the real basis for his complaint isn’t known, but I wonder if he would have made the same fuss about, say, Frank Sinatra. His cover letter also makes mention of a phone call he made to the Gale Agency, during which Joe Marsolais apparently chewed him out for bothering them about minor infractions. Tucker writes, “Joe, I do appreciate that it is not just peachy to represent Parker but I should feel free to call on you to straighten him out when I have trouble.” The condescension evident here isn’t necessarily racist, but it certainly has the overtones. It’s also worth noting that he is talking about one of the true geniuses of 20th century music.
One biographer reports that Bird, as he prepared to return to New York, poured a fifth of scotch down the toilet and gave away his heroin. Julie MacDonald, a sculptor and close friend who drove Bird to the airport, claims he told her, “I hope I can be a good husband, at least until this is over.” It would appear that he succeeded, supporting Chan throughout the nightmare of Pree’s funeral arrangements and burial. But their marriage crumbled in the ensuing months. She was bitter about Bird’s absence during Pree’s final days. He was tormented by the same thing, and soon was bent on literal self-destruction.
Jack Tucker’s complaint to the AFM was added to the pile of legal disputes with other club owners, many of whom had withheld Bird’s wages. Some of these were eventually resolved in Bird’s favor, but the Tiffany Club’s went the other way, and the AFM began docking Bird’s pay at every gig.
Pree Parker was laid to rest at Mount Hope Cemetery, in upstate New York, next to Chan’s father. Or so they thought. They discovered later that she had been buried instead in the section restricted to African-Americans only.