On June 29th, 1951, Down Beat magazine published a brief piece in its My Best On Wax series, featuring the words of Charlie Parker (Bird), which ran as follows:
I’m sorry, but my best on wax is yet to be made. When I listen to my records I always find that improvements could be made on each one. There’s never been one that completely satisfied me. If you want to know my worst on wax, though, that’s easy. I’d take Lover Man, a horrible thing that should never have been released. It was made the day before I had a nervous breakdown. No, I think I’d choose Be-Bop, made at the same session, or The Gypsy. They were all awful.
For Bird enthusiasts, July 29th, 1946, is a date that lives in infamy. After a recording session that should have never gone forward, and an aftermath that might have been prevented, Bird had a surprisingly benign encounter with the Los Angeles Police Department and the California criminal justice system, leading to a six-month incarceration at Camarillo State Hospital.
Ross Russell, owner of Dial Records, was deeply entwined in these events, which he recounted at length in his subsequent Parker biography, Bird Lives, noted for its staying power and outright fabrications. His fictionalized portrait of Bird predates the work of more responsible biographers, exerting an influence that seems almost subliminal. His portrait of Bird as a horrible man who created transcendent music became the point of departure for future writers, and persists to this day.
The events of July 29th lend themselves to an excess of melodrama, and many writers have answered the call. The term “nervous breakdown” Bird uses to describe them was probably a euphemism. The real culprit was his heroin addiction, which couldn’t be acknowledged publicly. The standard narrative of his time in California tracks a downward spiral that bottomed out at the infamous July 29th recording session, and it tacitly assumes that Bird was indeed mentally ill. Oceans of ink have been spilled concerning his halting performance of Lover Man, which is submitted as Exhibit A of this narrative. But the pitfalls of psychoanalyzing artists through their work are legion. There’s no disputing that Bird was physically impaired that day, but his mental state remains a matter of conjecture.
Interviewed by Phil Schaap in 1974, trumpeter Howard McGhee provides a counter-narrative of these events. He depicts Bird as a man deeply in the throes of heroin withdrawal and using straight spirits to cope with it, who was then given an overdose of barbiturates in a misguided attempt to help, and was then expected to somehow perform music worthy of being recorded. Ross Russell had a lot on the line financially, having paid for the musicians and the studio time. Still, any sense of human decency should have compelled him to pull the plug. Instead, the recording session proceeded, the results were humiliating for Bird, and Russell issued all four sides, making them part of Bird’s canon for all eternity. Bird never forgave him for this.
There’s a related narrative about an African-American musician’s treatment at the hands of the white power structure. To Russell’s credit, he advocated for Bird, along with Howard McGhee and Doris Sydnor, which explains why Bird wasn’t simply thrown in prison. But thrown in prison for what? His main offense was wandering down to the lobby of his hotel without any clothes on, in search of a payphone. These are clearly the actions of a disoriented individual. The sympathetic (African-American) hotel owner sent him back to his room twice, but Bird, it’s generally reported, fell asleep smoking a cigarette and set his mattress on fire. This is allegedly when the police broke down his door and hauled him away.
Howard McGhee disputes this version of events in the 1974 interview (the first half of which is part of today’s offering) and his words carry a great deal of weight. He did more than anyone else to help Bird throughout his California period, at great personal expense, and knew Bird as well as anyone could. Meanwhile, Russell is a known liar who tried to use his Bird biography to exonerate himself from his own questionable behavior.
It’s unclear why anyone would have let Bird go back to his hotel alone, given the state he was in. McGhee says he just disappeared from the studio, leaving his horn behind. Russell claims he was escorted back and put to bed. In any case, McGhee was unable to accompany him. Out of the kindness of his heart, he stayed on at the recording studio, trying to quickly produce additional sides for Russell, thus giving him something to release. Soon after, he received a call from the Civic Hotel and hurried over, arriving shortly after Bird had been carted off. McGhee claims there was no evidence of any fire to be seen, and witnesses at the hotel told him that Bird had wandered through the lobby naked and continued out to the street, coming to rest on the hood of a car. This was when the LAPD took notice.
It’s a bit maddening that Russell’s version (again, his biography was first) is now gospel. He describes a self-serving, heroic three day (one week? ten day? biographers differ) search for Bird. In stark contrast, McGhee claims he found Bird in a matter of hours, without the assistance of Russell, and that Bird was his normal self, having been given an injection of narcotics at the hospital. Bird naively expected he would be released immediately, having done nothing criminal, but the wheels of justice, Los Angeles-style, had already been set in motion.
It’s fair to suspect McGhee of his own ulterior motives, and to question the accuracy of his memories from decades earlier. Perhaps his melodrama-free descriptions of events, which argue against the ubiquitous “nervous breakdown” narrative, are distortions of the real truth. Perhaps his matter-of-fact acceptance of Bird’s heroin addiction and other forms of substance abuse, without attendant judgments concerning Bird’s value as a human being, downplays the damage they caused. If so, then his ulterior motives are clear: he is trying to honor the memory of a man he loved. If only Ross Russell had done the same.
Today’s musical offering includes the infamous July 29th, !946 recording of Lover Man, paired with a second version Bird recorded on August 8th, 1951. (Did the My Best On Wax piece inspire him to rerecord it?) Howard McGhee makes reference to these two recordings in the interview, and draws his own comparisons. Few people are more qualified to make such judgment, but there are no right or wrong answers.