In Bird Lives, Ross Russell relates a 1948 incident in which Charlie Parker (Bird) cornered Marshall Stearns, a Cornell professor and poetry scholar, in the men’s room at the Onyx Club and hit him up for cash. Stearns was at the urinal and Bird allegedly came up behind him, at the moment of maximum vulnerability, and opened negotiations regarding a small loan. After some back and forth, Stearns handed over $5. If true, this would have undoubtedly been a traumatic moment for Stearns. Two years later, it seems he still hadn’t made a full recovery.
In May of 1950, Stearns had the invaluable opportunity to interview Bird at length, and his uneasiness, papered over with much nervous laughter, made the entire conversation feel awkward and jittery. It also seemed to compel him to pepper Bird with yes-or-no questions, instead of letting him talk. The result is a squandered opportunity that makes Bird fanatics tear out their hair. John Maher, who accompanied Stearns, proved better at engaging Bird in actual conversation, but the situation is beyond all helping.
The location and circumstances of this interview seem unknown, even to experts, despite the fact that Chan was there and would have been able to shed some light. It’s possible no one ever asked her. The little voice in the background throughout is Chan’s five-year-old daughter, Kim, which suggests a domestic setting. Did the comedy team of Stearns and Maher come to Bird’s apartment for the interview? Unlikely. Bird’s relationship with Doris Syndor, his third wife, was on its last legs at that point. She may have even gone back to Illinois by then, leaving Bird all to himself in the apartment, but the exact timing is unknown. Chan and Kim would move in over the summer. All in all, though, it probably wasn’t the most suitable place to hold the interview at the time.
There’s another puzzling aspect that contributes to the weird atmosphere. The pitch of the recording on playback is clearly too high, a result of the tape machine running below speed during the interview. Either that or there was a massive helium leak in the building. The real question is why no one has ever corrected the pitch. Bird’s voice was fairly deep, as evidenced by other interviews and live recordings. During this interview, he forgoes the stage voice he used on more formal occasions, reverting to his natural speaking voice, which even has a slight drawl at times. In that regard, the difference is a little disorienting, but that doesn’t change the fact that everyone’s voice is clearly approaching munchkin range. (Interestingly, Bird was quite capable of speaking articulate, grammatically flawless English, and there are many examples of this. Here, however, he pulls the plug on perfect grammar, allowing for double negatives and similar violations.)
I have provided a pitch corrected (best guess) version of selected parts of the interview, focusing on moments in which Bird is actually given a chance to talk. The very first excerpt is not pitch corrected, providing an example from the Alvin-and-the-Chipmunks edition, which has remained uncorrected for seventy years now.
The interview seems to have been already underway before recording began, another oddity. Stearns is asking about Bird’s 1936 Thanksgiving Day automobile accident, which killed one musician, injured another, and fractured Bird’s spine. Had Stearns let Bird talk, I’m sure it would have been a compelling tale. Any car accident story is, and this one involved two cars driving long distance in tandem and encountering an icy stretch of highway. The first car made it across safely, but Bird was in the second car, which lost control. Stearns cross-examines Bird incessantly about the details, obliterating any kind of narrative. To be fair, this process did lead to a compilation of verified facts and an overall timeline that has been helpful to Bird scholars in many ways. Still.
Fortunately, Bird gets a chance to tell the epic tale of Rubberlegs Williams and the Mixed Up Coffees. Bird’s fondness for amphetamines dates back to his mid-teens, when he discovered they were readily available inside benzedrine inhalers. He and Diz and a cadre of modernists had been assembled to back up a crooner by the name of Rubberlegs Williams. How and why this happened is unclear. The recording session was just getting underway when someone sent out for coffee. It was passed out in identical cardboard containers and Bird dropped a benzedrine tablet into his. He set down his cup, giving the tablet time to dissolve, and somehow Rubberlegs got hold of it and polished it off. Whether or not he understood what was happening to him is unknown, but Rubberlegs was soon transformed into a ball of blues-shouting fire. As Bird put it, “Ants don’t do nothing the way Rubberlegs! Rubberlegs really got busy!”
This provides the opportunity for a musical offering like no other. I have included two tracks from this session, I Want Every Bit Of It and That’s The Blues. The former still retains traces of Rubberlegs’ unimpaired singing style, and contains one of the earliest recorded examples of Bird’s ballad playing. On the latter, however, Rubberlegs is feeling his oats in no uncertain terms. Nevertheless, Bird plays a very meaningful 12-bar chorus. Exactly who lets out a scream behind Rubberlegs in unknown, but my vote goes to Dizzy.
It’s worth noting what might be subconscious racism. Stearns blunders onto the touchy subject of Bird’s father, who more-or-less abandoned his family. Bird gamely answers question after question, displaying some admiration for his father, but Stearns is on a fool’s errand, searching for some genetic explanation for Bird’s genius. As he dithers on about both parents, Bird seems to shut down completely. Perhaps it’s just that the questions are too personal, not to mention idiotic, but it seems to me that they brush up against the stereotype that all African-Americans have “natural rhythm.” Stearns says, “Your dad was a dancer, you see, that has the rhythm, so, that could explain part of that, you know?” Answering eloquently by leaving everything unsaid, Bird softly replies, “Yeah, he was a dancer, all right.” Immediately after that, the tape cuts to Maher asking Bird about his first musical experiences. Something has been edited out, but we’ll never know what.
The brief “Mop Mop” excerpt contains a rare gem. Musicians close to Bird say he had a way of humming the rhythm of a melody, more than the pitch. In the course of discussing this “Mop Mop” device (used by Coleman Hawkins in a tune of that name) Bird provides the only example we have of this.
The interview ends mid-conversation, much as it began. Maher actually lets Bird talk, and Bird displays his enthusiasm for the subject of acoustics and recording techniques. This gives us an example of another observation made by those who knew him: he could speak knowledgeably on almost any topic. This would seem to be at odds with the image of Bird as a mentally unbalanced heroin addict driven by demons. Trombonist Eddie Bert, who worked with Bird during this time period, speaks to this in plain English. “You know, people think of Charlie Parker as this drug addict and all that kind of stuff, but he was a really great guy. He would talk to anybody, he was friendly and very knowledgeable, and he could talk on any subject.”
Amen to that.