For the next two weeks, I am going to step aside and let Addie Parker do all the talking. As hinted at last week, her jumbed remembrance after Bird’s death males a fascinating mini-biography. I had to rearrange her words to make her story more linear. It’s possible that she was in a state of mild dementia at the time she was interviewed, because she veers from topic to topic, constantly tangling up the timeline. This would make her a somewhat unreliable narrator, and there are discrepancies between her version of events and documented facts, although nothing serious. Due to its length, I have divided her story into two parts. Part One ends just before the death of Bird’s father, and we will pick up the story there next week.
The Gospel of Adeline Part 1
He was my heart, you know. I just lived for Charles. He was the cutest and prettiest child I ever saw. He was born in 852 Freeman Street, Kansas City, Kansas. Charles‘s father was from Memphis and when I met him, he was playing the piano and singing on the vaudeville stages around Kansas City. He was musical, but I’ve never done anything of a musical kind. Later he was on the railroads as a chef. He could cook anything, he could play the piano, but he was a drunkard. I tried so many times to get him to stop but all he would say was “10 years from today I will stop drinking“. John, who is two years older than Charles, is his half brother. They have the same father but different mothers.
Charles was a fat baby and a fat child. At eleven months he walked, and he began to speak good at two. Bird was the most affectionate child you ever saw. When he was two he’d come to the door and say, “Mama, you there?“ and I’d say, “Yes, I’m here”, and he’d go on playing. Since he could talk he’d say, “Mama, I love you.“ I worked night and day for two years. Nights in the Western Union, cleaning the office, and days, cleaning and taking care of babies. He was reared at a Catholic Day school because I was working all the time. The way they teach you, it stays with you. I was a Baptist, but he’d say, “We don’t do things that way,” talking about his Catholicism.
School was too easy for him in a way. He could reel off his lessons without much effort. Only once was he sent home for fighting with another boy. Charles licked him for making fun of his face, which was broken out in pimples. He had a gang of friends and just loved movies and ice cream sodas. School did one great thing for him. He was given a tuba to play. I didn’t go for that. It was so heavy and funny coiled around him with just his head sticking out so I got him another instrument. He wanted to be a doctor and I was going to put up the money for his schooling. When Charles got put here at Lincoln High School, they didn’t have good teachers, and he didn’t care for school, and after a while he asked me to get him a horn and I did and he forgot about being a doctor. He was never interested in sports. All he cared about was music and reading. I used to find loads of books in the cellar.
I got him his instrument in 1936. The first horn I got him only cost me $45 at Mitchell’s down on Main Street, but I had it overhauled, and it ran into money. I wanted him to study in the conservatory. I put away $500 for the purpose but the bank closed and I lost the money. Robert Simpson, his friend who played the trombone died of an operation at 19, was his inseparable friend. They once tried to make a job playing at the Orchid Room at 12th and Vine but they came home a little sad and declared, “They threw us out.” He first started playing out at the Gaiety Theater with Lawrence Keyes and all of them. I don’t remember him playing with Harlan Leonard, but I remember the Gaiety Theater. It was some other fellow’s band at the Gaiety, and he had Charlie and Lawrence in it with him.
He was 16 years old when he married Rebecca Ruffin, who was a few years older than he was. They were high school sweethearts. He came to me one day and said, “Mama, I think I am in love, and I’m old enough to get married.“ He may not have been old enough but he was big enough. I told him when he felt he was sure, then it was all right. But he couldn’t get along with Rebecca. He said, “She just wants me to sit in a room all day, and I have to go out with the boys.“ You know how the girls pull on a man.
When Charles was 16 he sold my electric iron and got $.50 for it. He needed a cab to get to an appointment, he said. He always loved cabs. Rebecca did not have any money around, so he grabbed the iron and sold it to a furniture store. The electric iron prank was the only one I remember him doing. Charles got into serious trouble one night when he kept a taxi for six or seven hours and ran up a $10 bill which he couldn’t pay. The taxi driver tried to snatch his horn and Charles stabbed him with a dagger. They took him off to the farm. I told the police, “How dare you treat my son like that. Bring him back!“ He came home the next day. They had taken the dagger away from him.
Rebecca was four years older than he was and wanted to be his mother to him. He wouldn’t stand for that and started beating up on her, you know. I told him that wasn’t right and it would only cause a lot of trouble and the best thing to do was leave, and he went to Chicago. They were married two years, and then she got a legal divorce. He paid alimony to Rebecca, five dollars a week. He wanted to remarry her after they were separated five years. Rebecca has been married several times since then and now lives in California.
Ernest Daniels, the drummer, got hurt with Charles when they first started out, you know. Charles got two broken ribs, and Ernest got all his teeth knocked out. The old man playing piano was killed. Ernest was driving on that ice, and the car got turned around. They didn’t have very many bands around here after Benny Moten died. My nurse supervisor, Mrs. Driscoll, used to go to all the colored dances when she was a student nurse, to hear Benny Moten and all of them, you know. In those days they didn’t want colored and white people to mix, but it’s not like that now.
Charles was still in school when Count Basie left, and even then he used to tell everyone he was 19. He was always a big boy. The Clouds of Joy left, and then Jay McShann came along and fitted right in. Jay used to come over to our house and play on our piano, and those two used to have a time together. All the people would be crazy about Charles‘s music, but they wouldn’t know what he was playing. I used to tell them, “You’ll just have to listen.“ The only work he ever done was going to Chicago blowing his horn. He was not spoiled though, because I think a spoiled child never leaves his parents. Charles would go away weeks and weeks. He liked to see things and do things.
I was just in two towns in all my life, the two Kansas Cities. I never cared to go anyplace, either. Charles would take his watch to the pawnshop, and the pawnbroker, who was friendly, would say to me, “Tell Charlie Parker to stay out of Kansas City. It’s a stinkin’ town. They don’t want him to have a chance. Never.” They paid musicians very little, and there’s no record companies. After he went to Chicago he said, “Mama, it’s different, I want you to come here and I’ll take care of you,” but I told him, “You go ahead and live you life.“ He lived like he wanted to.
I think Kansas City is a little southern. If they saw you running around with white girls, they would take you downtown and kill you, and they did. They take you to Swope Park and kill you. I was glad that he left. I told Charles the best way to go on living, the way he was doing, he better get out of town. These girls were coming up to the house in cabs. They give you a book of matches with a name or number on it. It would burn me up. A girl in town here started Charles on reefers. I found some in his pockets. “What in the world is this stinking stuff?“ I said. Charles smiled and said, “Don’t destroy any of that, Mama, it’s too good.“
Part 2 next week!
Our musical offering this week consists of two of Bird’s earliest recordings. The first is an unaccompanied rendition of “Honeysuckle Rose” combined with “Body And Soul”. Time and place are a matter of guesswork, but 1940 is widely accepted as the year and Kansas City as the location. There is no doubt, however, that this is Bird’s very first recording. Our second offering, from 1942, is likely Bird’s very first recording of “Cherokee”, which became a standard showpiece early in his career. This duet with guitarist Efferge Ware reveals just how advanced Bird’s conception was early on.