Weekly Posting, April 10th, 2020

Bird and Doris at Birdland, spring 1950, in the twilight of their marriage.

Charlie Parker (Bird) must have been relieved to fly out of Los Angeles on April 4th, 1947, doubly so to be rid of Ross Russell. Russell provides many details about driving Bird and his future wife, Doris Sydnor, to the airport, and even about checking their luggage and watching them board the plane, but he gets their destination wrong. The flight was taking them to Chicago, not New York City. Bird had an Easter Sunday gig with trumpeter Howard McGhee on the 6th, at the Pershing Ballroom.

McGhee reports that Bird made $750 for the night (1947 dollars) and the next day he didn’t have a dime! As McGhee points out, it would have been impossible for Bird to spend that amount of money on drugs alone. Furthermore, his heroin habit was still at bay after his release from Camarillo, so how could he possibly have spent it all? Bird’s attitude toward money defies comprehension. McGhee admits defeat, saying, “That was Bird, what can I tell you?”

If anything, Bird’s attitude resembles that of a young child’s. Is it possible that he was genuinely childlike, in the deepest sense of the word? It would help explain many things, including his relationship with Doris. For the sake of argument, let’s imagine that Bird’s state of consciousness was akin to that of a four-year-old. He was very aware, very curious, very open, always learning, always completely in the moment, unless he was out of sorts, in which case he was withdrawn and sullen. At times, he felt wounded by those around him, even when they were reacting to his own misbehavior. At other times, he hurt those close to him, without giving any thought to their feelings. All he really wanted to do all the time was play, and that was his focus to the exclusion of anything that didn’t interest him, particularly the realities and responsibilities of adulthood.

Was Bird any more capable of looking after himself than a four-year-old? Possibly not. His mother, Addie, was said to have spoiled him as a child, and she and his first wife, Rebecca, took care of him until he left Kansas City at age 18. Little is known about his precise movements for the next few years. He rode the rails to Chicago, arriving disheveled, played a few gigs on borrowed instruments in borrowed clothing, then caught another freight train to New York. This seemed to be his means of transport as he roamed between cities, and the hobo lifestyle is somewhat lax in promoting self-care. He arrived in New York (feet badly swollen) and stayed there for a few months, crashing with his mentor, Buster Smith, and his wife. He slept in their bed by day and jammed through the night in Harlem, earning almost nothing.

He returned to Kansas City for his father’s funeral, then took off again. By this time, he was much sought after by bandleaders and lived almost continuously on the road, where accommodations were always provided. Tales from this era have him sleeping for three nights on a table. He once spent the night underneath a bandstand so he wouldn’t miss the gig, but managed to sleep straight through it anyway. Settling in New York in 1943, he went back to playing for tips in Harlem and had no home worthy of the name. And yet it was during these years that he created a revolutionary musical language that would transform jazz.

Doris Sydnor (who was white) was strikingly unexceptional. She was a tall and gangly young woman from Rock Island, Illinois, by no means glamorous, who met Bird around 1944 when she was working as a hatcheck girl on 52nd Street. Bird’s considerable charm and charisma explains what she saw in him, but it’s difficult to pinpoint what he saw in her. They lived together long before they married (in 1948, almost as an afterthought), and she came to Los Angeles in August of 1946 to support him after his incarceration at Camarillo. She saw Bird through his ascendancy in New York in the late 1940s and deserves unlimited credit for the artistic heights he reached, which never would have happened had she not taken care of all the necessities to which Bird was oblivious.

Upon their return to New York in April of 1947, Doris and Bird lived at the Dewey Square Hotel in Harlem for a year, then moved downtown to the Marden Hotel. Her description of their life during this period is so prosaic that it’s almost disorienting, and it refutes many of the Bird legends that still live on.

“When Charlie came back from the Coast, he was really on his feet. Check the records he made. Charlie was not always deeply in debt. From the period when we came back from California, until late 1949 or 1950, he was doing well. We had money in the bank. The Cadillac we had was paid for out of the money we saved that Charlie made. I am very punctilious about bills and allied responsibilities, and some off this rubbed off on him. He had many suits, and went to work always neatly dressed and on time. In the beginning of our relationship, the differences in our psychological make-ups and upbringing were very cementing, and we had some real good years together. Also, I had a very wonderful childhood, and Charlie had no childhood whatsoever, and it was fun taking him on picnics and ballgames to try to give him some of the childhood he missed. I had all the good years, the years when he was the straightest. I had many tears with Charlie, but we had some grand moments, too. He may have been weak, but he never wanted to hurt anyone but himself. I loved him for what he was, good or bad, musician or not. He was not Bird to me. His genius was only incidental. To me the name was nothing. I didn’t know anything about jazz when I met Charlie. So it wasn’t his music, only him.”

It’s condescending at best to imagine Bird as a small child whom Doris had to care for like a mother. This notion may not hold up well under scrutiny, but at least it offers an alternative to all the armchair psychoanalysis promulgated since Bird’s death. Such analyses don’t hold up any better. In their rush to pigeonhole Bird, these stuffed shirts never account for the limitless beauty that flowed from his horn, a beauty that sprang from deep within him, from a source so pure perhaps only a childlike mind could tap into it. The following analysis (from one of Ross Russell’s pals, of course) may be the most hateful and racist of its kind, but it’s not that far from the common consensus, and I have to believe we can do better than this.

“A man living from moment to moment. A man looking for the pleasure principle, music, food, sex, drugs, kicks, his personality arrested at an infantile level. A man with almost no feeling of guilt and only the smallest most atrophied nub of a conscience. One of the army of psychopaths supplying the populations of prisons and mental institutions. Except for his music, a potential member of that population. But with Charlie Parker it is the music factor that makes all the difference.”

Please.

Today’s musical offering is Bird’s tribute to the Dewey Square Hotel (“Dewey Square”), where he and his wife Doris lived upon their return from California. I apologize to all non-fanatics, but I am including all three takes of this original Bird composition so you can, if you wish, experience the fact that Bird played unique solos on every take. He seldom repeated any ideas, so each solo is a world unto itself. This is true of all his recordings, but Bird’s playing on this date is particularly serene and joyful. The performance is by his working quintet, comprised of Bird, Miles, Duke Jordan, piano, Tommy Potter, bass, and Max Roach, drums, and was recorded in NYC on October 28th, 1947.

Dewey Square Take A
Dewey Square Take B
Dewey Square Take C

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