I was particularly short on time this week, so I can only offer a bite-sized interview and my usual rants. Next week comes the third and final full length Bird interview, with Paul Desmond and John McClellan, and there will be much to say about that. But today’s interview is an oddity that was brought to my attention by fellow Bird fanatic, Jay Brandford.
It’s a brief radio interview conducted by telephone on WOV by Leigh Kamman, a DJ who went by the inexplicable nickname of “the Little Band Master”. On the Clueless White Guy Scale, from 1 to Marshall Stearns, he’s about a 5. He obviously means well, but he can’t get enough of his own voice and tends to ask yes or no questions.
As one of the great geniuses of 20th century music, and a man whom biographers portray as consumed by demons, Bird sounds breathtakingly normal. He is poised and articulate, as usual, and quite sincere, despite the farcical circumstances. He doesn’t say anything that adds to our knowledge, really, but it’s well worth listening just to hear what his voice sounded like over the phone.
The date is estimated at 1954, but I have my doubts. Mention is made of an ongoing engagement at Birdland, of which there was only one in 1954, and it was a doozy. On August 29, his 34th birthday, Bird got drunk and publicly fired his string section, then went home and tried to commit suicide by drinking iodine. Chan called an ambulance and he was taken to Bellevue.
Although I don’t subscribe to the notion that Bird was mentally ill, there’s no doubt he became severely depressed following the death of his two-year-old daughter, Pree, on March 6th. 1954. That alone would account for both of these impulsive acts.
There’s a dispiriting anniversary from late June, 1952, that I didn’t have the time or inclination to write about. It involves an ill-fated engagement at the Say When nightclub in San Francisco, which was not unlike the 1954 debacle at the Tiffany Club in LA, although significantly earlier. It revolved around the usual clashes over unreliability, money, and Bird’s apparent intention to make life miserable for the club owners, the musician’s union, and any other related powers that be. These particular clashes led booking agent Billy Shaw to sever his longtime relationship with Bird. As someone who supported Bird through many tribulations, Shaw would not have done so without genuine provocation, and his angry letter is also full of hurt and disappointment.
Bird’s behavior at the Say When can be looked at in various ways, but it falls somewhere between counterproductive and self-destructive, and it resulted in a protracted legal battle that Bird eventually lost.
But it’s timely to point out that systemic racism and Bird’s inability to abide it should be given a great deal of weight when assessing his behavior and mental health. Our newly minted epiphanies concerning substance abuse and America’s intractable racism should give every former Bird biographer cause to reflect.
And yet Bird is a total pussycat in this silly radio interview. It defies belief that he was suffering from undifferentiated schizophrenia, his diagnosis at Bellevue. Nothing about it points to mental illness, and in a setting of implicit inequality, Bird’s sincerity and warmth are magnanimous. He even goes out of his way to praise a white jazz musician, Chet Baker. (This reference suggests that 1953 is a more plausible date.)
The interview with Paul Desmond, irrefutably dated January, 1954, displays these same qualities in greater depth and range, But just two months later, Pree would die in a New York hospital while Bird was trapped in California, in dire need of money, trying to fulfill his contract at the Tiffany Club, surrounded and harassed by enraged white authority figures. How much systemic racism was involved? How deep is the ocean.