On Thursday, April 20th, 1950, Addie Parker, graduated from the National Schools Institute of Practical Nursing in Kansas City. Charlie Parker (Bird) speaks of his mother’s achievement with pride in an interview recorded not long afterward, an excerpt of which is presented along with today’s musical offering. The circumstances are informal and Bird uses his natural speaking voice, setting aside the accent he affected for bandstand announcements and radio patter. Regrettably, the interviewers are squares of epic proportions who largely waste this invaluable opportunity. The following transcription of the excerpt in question gives some indication of the stilted atmosphere they create. The location is unknown, but the little voice in the background is Chan’s five-year-old daughter, Kim.
Square #2: And how’s your mother now? She’s still alive, isn’t she?
Bird: Yeah, she’s very much alive!
Square # 1: Is she?
Bird: She’s fine, yeah.
Square #1: She got a lot of energy?
Bird: Yeah, she just graduated from nursing school a couple months ago!
Square #2: No!
Chan: No kidding?
Bird: Yeah. (Unintelligible) I sent her a watch.
Chan: How old is she, Bird?
Square #1: How old is she?
Square #1: Sixty-two years old.
Square # 2: Wonderful.
Bird: Sixty-two and graduated from nursing school! (Laughs)
Square #2: (Laughs) That’s marvelous!
Bird: And she’s active as can be, man. She don’t look it or act it at all, you know? I mean, she’s spryer than me. Very seldom ill. She lives in that good climate and country, she takes good care of herself, she owns her own home. She’s pretty well situated.
It may come as a surprise to learn that Bird called his mother every Sunday. Addie gave a jumbled remembrance to Robert Reisner shortly after Bird’s death. It appears that grief disorganized her thoughts, because she constantly jumps back and forth in time. Nevertheless, Addie offers a touching portrait that constantly flies in the face of Bird legends.
She was, as were so many, a strong willed woman who reached her goals through sheer determination. By working long and hard at menial jobs throughout the Depression, she created a stable home life for Bird and his half brother, John. Her alcoholic husband, Charles Parker Sr., was largely absent. She did what she could to help him with his alcohol problems but his reply was always the same: “Ten years from today I will stop drinking.” It can’t have been easy for an African-American woman to become a nurse in late 1940s Kansas City, especially later in life. She graduated from nursing school at age sixty-two.
Today’s musical offering is as adventurous as it is fitting. It’s the Jaki Byard composition, “Mrs. Parker From K.C.”, and it comes from Eric Dolphy’s Prestige album, “Far Cry”, recorded on December 21st, 1960. Bird wasn’t there, of course, but he is everywhere. The band (Eric Dolphy, bass clarinet, Booker Little, trumpet, Jaki Byard , piano, Ron Carter, bass, Roy Haynes, drums) is deeply involved in expanding Bird’s conception in every way. Jaki’s composition is a blues (Bird’s favorite medium) and echoes many of his melodic devises. Booker Little plays the first solo with supernatural poise and intelligence. He is less than a year from his own death at age twenty-three, one of the most frustrating losses in jazz. Jaki Byard’s delicate touch is instantly recognizable, as is his harmonic imagination, both an extension of Bud Powell. Eric Dolphy spent his career adapting Bird’s conception to his own polyphonic purposes, and his often speech-like results can be startling. Ron Carter frees himself brilliantly from the prevailing quarter note conventions and bows his solo like Slam Stewart on mushrooms. Roy Haynes, who played in Bird’s working quintet in the early 50s, pushes that vocabulary to new levels of abstraction.
Getting back to Addie Parker, the following remarks concern Bird’s telephone calls, but her remembrance, with some rearranging, stands on its own as a mini-biography. I will give Addie the last word.
“Twenty years I’ve had a telephone line, not a party line, for that boy to call me. Whenever he needed anything, all he had to do was call, and it was there. That’s what I lived for and what I worked for, that boy. He used to phone for money, and I always had $150 to $200 around the house for his emergencies. He always paid back whatever it was with interest. If he borrowed $100 I’d get back $150. When I graduated Nursing School he sent me $300 and told me it was for uniforms or whatever I needed. He called me all the time when he was in California. He said, “Mama, our music doesn’t go over so fine out here.” One day he called me out at the hospital, when his little girl Pree died. Sunday was his day to call, and he’d call me every weekend. He called me just before he died. He called that Sunday and said he was fine. I can hardly talk about Charles, it hurts so much. If you break an arm or a leg you can fix it, but there’s no mending a broken heart.”