Today is Pree Parker’s birthday.
If you consult the indexes of the many Charlie Parker (Bird) biographies, you will always find an entry for Pree, Bird’s first child with his fourth wife, Chan. There are always a few individual page numbers listed. They take you to the event of her birth, on July 17th, 1951, and then jump to the event of her death, on March 6th, 1954. Biographers don’t devote a lot of attention to what happened in between, aside from noting that Pree had a number of chronic health issues.
Chuck Haddix has more to say about their new apartment than their first child. That’s not meant as a dig, actually. His biography, Bird: the Life and Music of Charlie Parker, is unquestionably one of the best. He provides a lot of interesting details that no one else thought to research. Here’s what he says about the apartment:
The three-story Gothic revival Brownstone apartment building at 151 Avenue B was located across from Tompkins Square Park in an ethnically mixed neighborhood on New York’s lower eastside. Their spacious apartment spanned the ground floor. The back entrance opened onto a concrete courtyard with a swing set, where Kim played with other children who lived in the building.
He also quotes Chan, in reference to her pregnancy with Pree and the move to Avenue B:
“Bird was joyous. My having his baby assured him of my love. For the first time in his life Bird had a stable family life. He played his role as husband and father to the hilt. He adored Kim [Chan’s daughter from a previous marriage] and took his paternal duties seriously.”
Haddix then moves on to other subjects with no further details about Pree’s birth and short life. This isn’t a dig, either. After all, how much information actually exists about Pree Parker?
There’s one obvious place to look, and I confess that I don’t own a copy of Chan’s autobiography, “My Life in Eb”. This may be a valuable source, but I don’t see any evidence that recent biographers have drawn on it for information about Pree. There is also a rare and expensive coffee-table book, put together by Chan, called To Bird With Love, published in 1981. It’s long out-of-print and currently selling on Amazon for $734.55.
This book could be the ultimate resource for many things, especially additional photographs of Pree. The Internet only provides us with one, but it’s quite evocative. It was allegedly taken at a Sunday dinner at Bird & Chan’s apartment in 1953. The child in Bird’s lap is identified as Pree. I first mistook her for Baird, their second child, but there’s a little face peering at the camera from a highchair to Chan’s right, and that must be Baird. He was born on August 10th, 1952, thus putting him in the highchair stage of life at the time the picture was taken.
What can we glean from the only photograph we have? Everyone will see something different, but it’s striking to me how thin and frail Pree’s arms look, making her head appear much bigger than her body, which may well have been the case. Although doctors at the time were at a loss to explain her many health problems, evidently she suffered from cystic fibrosis. Kim Parker, who grew up to be a jazz vocalist, alluded to this in one of many interviews. Before moving to that, I have to say that the sight of Bird with Pree in his lap speaks volumes to me about his feelings for his only daughter, and seems to contradict Kim’s observations, which are depressing at best. It’s difficult not to veer into tragedy, even when trying to acknowledge Pree’s birth and the joy it brought Bird and Chan.
As Pree’s birthday approached, I contacted fellow Bird enthusiast, Jay Brandford, knowing he lives near her burial place at Mount Hope Cemetery, Croton-on-Hudson, NY. We spoke of trying to keep this tribute optimistic, and he was kind enough to take birthday flowers to Pree’s grave and shoot a brief video that is as celebratory as any video of gravestones can be. He set it to an excerpt from “Parker’s Mood”, Bird’s magnificent slow blues that transcends the tragic to speak of something universal. As today’s musical offering, I have included the complete take, recorded for Savoy records in NYC on September 18th, 1948.
I have also included the link to a Google Drive folder containing Jay’s video and a number of still photographs he took. I know everyone will think twice about clicking on this link, as they should, but this isn’t a phishing scam and I assure you it’s really worth it.
Given the paucity of information about Pree Parker, I feel obliged to present whatever I find, and so I will close with Kim’s quote, depressing though it may be. And, while I’m at it, let me repeat this dismal anecdote:
Bird and Chan believed that Pree would be buried next to Chan’s father at Mount Hope, but discovered later that she had been buried in the “Negro section” instead. Obviously, the cemetery is no longer segregated, but note how stunted all the gravestones are in Pree’s section. You can’t erase history.
Asked about Bird’s relationship with Baird and Pree, Kim said: “My mother was very upset because Pree was sickly. They didn’t know what cystic fibrosis was then – they hadn’t given it a name. At that time, cystic fibrosis had not been isolated as a disease, so it had no name. She died at 2½ of pneumonia. My mother would be upset at Bird because he would pay attention to Baird and me, and he would not pay attention to Pree. I think he was afraid of her vulnerability because she was sickly. My mother said to him, ‘Baird has a middle name. You wrote a song for Baird. You wrote a song for Kim. Why didn’t you write a song for Pree? Pree doesn’t have a middle name.’ You know, he died almost a year to the day after Pree died.”
Link to Jay’s Folder: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=1AuqFU4-nnePPbDVmXJ5IA7ASCPU1HqTY