Charlie Parker (Bird) died of old age at 34. His life was not cut short. When he died at the Stanhope Hotel on March 12th, 1955, the arc of his existence was complete.
By the close of 1954, after his two-year-old daughter had died and his marriage to Chan had disintegrated, Bird was living in poverty in Greenwich Village, waiting for death to claim him. He was well aware that his heart, liver, and stomach were finally giving out. Roaming the streets on New Year’s Day, he remarked to a friend, “I never thought I’d live to see 1955.”
Bird was an old man at 34 because he blazed through life at twice the speed: married at 15, father at 17, master of the saxophone at 20, leader of a revolution at 25, acknowledged genius at 30. Would he have lived longer if he hadn’t overindulged himself in narcotics, amphetamines, alcohol, food, and every other source of gratification? Of course. Would he still have been Charlie Parker? I seriously doubt it.
There was a simple algorithm to Bird’s life: he did whatever he felt like doing it at any given moment, regardless of the consequences. This approach works well up until about age 5. After that, it’s a recipe for disaster. Fortunately, the thing Bird wanted to do most was to create a new musical language. This required the full and sustained engagement of his intellect, heart, and soul, for the better part of twenty years, and the possibilities implicit in this new language still haven’t been fully explored. Whatever else he did with his time is really none of our business. In my opinion, his centennial year would be a good time to stop passing judgment.
In the age of the opioid crisis, perhaps we can revisit Bird’s addiction without demonizing it. There’s a possibility it originated at the age of 16, in the aftermath of a serious car accident in which he broke three ribs and fractured his spine. He was bedridden at home for many weeks, in considerable pain. It can’t be proved that he was prescribed morphine, but his race increases the likelihood. Rather than providing a young African-American man with extensive treatment, it’s possible his doctors wrote him off, literally, with an open-ended prescription for narcotics. This is all conjecture, but the injuries and addiction coincide. Furthermore, heroin wasn’t a common street drug until the 1940s, so it’s more likely that he got started with morphine. Bird said very consistently that he began using narcotics at age 15, but he was unreliable about dates, despite his photographic memory. It’s also possible that he experimented with them prior to the car accident but didn’t become addicted until afterward. Unfortunately, Bird never gave a detailed explanation that we know of.
In the early months of 1955, Bird was staying in an apartment on Barrow Street with Ahmed Basheer and poet Ted Joans. They only had heat for four hours a day, and they slept in the same bed at night for warmth. This may explain why Bird wore a hooded parka everywhere he went during this period. The Gale agency was still sporadically booking gigs for him, many of which ended badly. Always in their bad graces, he referred to his agents as “my judges”, a reference to a scene set at the gates of heaven in a movie he’d seen. (Bird loved movies.) Basheer acted as his informal manager, doing his best get him where he needed to be on time, but Bird, it seemed, could no longer abide working under nightclub conditions. Ironically, he responded by drinking heavily. In fact, Bird no longer cared to live and made no secret of it, telling Basheer, ”Nothing you can say can save me. I’m telling you, it’s best that I die.”
The narrative of Bird’s final hours was established in the immediate aftermath of his death, and has been taken as gospel ever since. By and large, the facts aren’t in dispute. On Wednesday, March 9th, as he was leaving for a gig in Boston, Bird stopped at the Stanhope Hotel to visit Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. Nica, as she was known to her friends, was a wealthy jazz enthusiast who lent support to some of the era’s most prominent musicians, Thelonious Monk in particular. While there, Bird vomited blood. Nica called her personal physician, who examined him and advised he be hospitalized for advanced ulcers and cirrhosis of the liver. Bird refused, insisting that he had to drive to Boston to make his gig. A compromise was reached and he agreed to stay at Nica’s for a few days, with daily visits by the doctor. The moment of his death, three days later, is full of specifics, clearly from Nica. We are told he was watching the Dorsey brothers’ television show (it was Saturday night). He started laughing at a comedy act, began choking, tried to get to his feet, then fell back in his chair. Nica ran to him and could find no pulse. She reports hearing a clap of thunder at that very moment. She called the police and the physician from the coroner’s office listed the cause of death as lobar pneumonia and estimated Bird’s age at 53.
I never questioned this narrative because it appears in every biography, almost word for word. About three years ago, however, a friend of mine asked me if I’d ever heard the story that Art Blakey killed Bird! I was flabbergasted. My friend had worked with jazz singer Sheila Jordan a number of times and heard the story from her. As the former wife of Duke Jordan, the pianist in Bird’s classic quintet, she has real credibility. She claims that Art Blakey, the preeminent drummer and close associate of Bird’s, arrived at Nica’s apartment, found Bird there, and flew into a jealous rage, punching Bird in his ulcer-ravaged stomach, thereby killing him, intentionally or not. In this account, Nica’s overly-specific description of his death is a fabrication, designed to protect Blakey.
This amounts to a conspiracy theory, so I was surprised to find it in print (without identifying Blakey) in Carl Woideck’s biography Charlie Parker, His Life and Music, published in 1996. Woideck also gives consideration to another rumor that Bird was shot before or after arriving at Nica’s, making the coroner’s report also a fabrication. What are we to make of all this? The bulk of Nica’s story has to be true. Bird wouldn’t have stayed for four days had his condition not been dire, and other examples of his poor health abound, on and off the bandstand. To pick a convenient one, he began staying with Basheer after collapsing in the street at his doorstep. Nica’s doctor warned her that he could die at any moment. So, even if the conspiracy theory is true, Blakey’s gut-punch only hastened the end by a matter of days. It’s a lovely fantasy to picture Bird in Paris, writing orchestral scores as his grandchildren play at his feet, but nothing about the way he lived his life could have possibly led to that outcome.
By March, 1955, Bird’s life had run its course. He had nothing left to give us musically, spiritually, or physically. In order to give us more, he would have had to regain his health somehow and then foment a second revolution. His new language had already transformed jazz in every way on every instrument, and everyone around him now spoke it with varying degrees of eloquence. He was painfully aware that he was repeating himself and could sense that another transformation was needed. He spoke of taking this on and was no doubt frustrated that he wasn’t sure how to begin and didn’t have the strength or time to carry it through.
The biggest tragedy of all may be that he expected this of himself. No single person, even a genius of his order, could have made two conceptual leaps of that magnitude. Had he lived just a few more years, he would have witnessed the next transformation emerging through Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, and other revolutionaries of every kind. What he might have thought of these new directions we’ll never know, but everything that has happened in jazz since his death amounts to a deeper exploration of the endless ideas waiting to be found in the solos he left behind.
I will give Art Blakey and Max Roach the last words.
Blakey, a former heroin addict himself, said the following in a remembrance shortly after Bird’s death. “There was no rivalry between the Baroness, Bird, and myself. Nica is just a wonderful woman. A woman first and a Baroness second. We are very good friends, but I stopped seeing her when stories got back to my daughters and they sounded on me. Bird died trying to kick his habit. He tried to kick it the wrong way, by drinking whiskey. The whiskey is the thing that killed him. After a man shoots dope for fourteen years, how you gonna stop him? His system cries for it. I know he died trying to do what society asked him to do, which is impossible. Our society has to find out that people who shoot dope are not crazy or criminal, they are sick people.”
Max Roach, who knew Bird as intimately as anyone, also gave a remembrance, which concluded as follows: “Everything else is incidental to one thing, and that is that Bird contributed more and received less than anybody.”