On August 20th, 1953, Charlie Parker (Bird) sent a Western Union Money Order to his wife Chan from St Louis, Missouri, with the following message:
HOLD ON TIGHT AND BE GOOD AND CALL ME
There is a chain of such telegrams stretching from June, 1952, to October, 1954, and they form a narrative of sorts, snapshots of time, place, and–to the extent that it’s reasonable to infer–the state of Bird’s marriage.
All these messages accompanied money orders that Bird sent Chan from the road to support their family. Bird was making an attempt at financial responsibility, a concept foreign to him in every way, the idea being to send Chan a portion of his income immediately, before the rest vanished into thin air. To say money burned a hole through Bird’s pocket is inaccurate, because it never made it as far as his pocket in the first place. Biographers assume the majority of it went to drugs, but this certainly isn’t a documented fact.
Bird’s messages are always affectionate and display one of his traits as an improviser: he refused to repeat himself. The following is a random sample:
(Seattle) LOVE YOU MORE EACH DAY
(Chicago) DARLING THERE ARE NO WORDS TO DESCRIBE THE VASTNESS OF MY LOVE FOR YOU
(Baltimore) A KISS COMES WITH THIS WIRE
(Los Angeles) I LOVE YOU BELIEVE IN ME
(Boston) DARLING KEEP IN TOUCH WITH ME ALL MY LOVE
(Seattle) THANK YOU FOR MAKING A MAN OF ME I WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU
(Detroit) ALL MY LOVE EVERY BIT OF IT YOUR HUSBAND BIRD
Chan may not have been as taken with this mode of communication as Bird was, but she used it in 1950 to send a message to him in Stockholm:
PUDDIN YOUR CABLEGRAM THRILLED ME KIM AND I MISS YOU TERRIBLY IM ONLY HALF ALIVE I ADORE YOU CHAN
If knowing that someone–anyone— referred to Bird as “Puddin’” doesn’t change how you think about him, nothing will.
Bird and Chan’s marriage suffered a drawn out decline during the period covered by these telegrams. Knowing this makes it tempting to read between the lines. The later ones hint at trouble and seem as though he’s trying to reassure Chan of his love in spite of things he’s said or done. One simply reads FORGIVE ME MY MISTAKES.
On August 18th, 1954, seven months before his death, he sent a 4:08 AM telegram that offers the clearest evidence we have of disturbed thinking. (The telegrams he sent from Los Angeles in the hours following his daughter Pree’s death, on March 6th of that year, don’t qualify.) Bird’s alcoholism was out of control, and Chan and the children had taken temporary refuge in her mother’s apartment on 52nd Street, which explains why the telegram was sent from New York City to New York City. No money order accompanied it, and was clearly written by a grief stricken and drunken Bird:
MY DARLING I JUST WANTED TO LET YOU KNOW REGARDLESS OF THE THINGS WE HAVE TO EXPERIENCE IN LIFE I WANT YOU TO KNOW I AM IN THE GROUND NOW I WOULD SHOOT MYSELF FOR YOU IF I HAD A GUN BUT I DONT HAVE ONE TELL MY WIFE THE MOST HORRIBLE THING IN THE WORLD IS SILENCE AND I AM EXPERIENCING SAME. IM TIRED AND GOING TO SLEEP
Bird was not in his right mind when he wrote those words, and on August 30th, he was admitted to the Psychiatric Division of Bellevue Hospital. He told doctors he couldn’t control his drinking and feared for his own safety. They diagnosed him with “undifferentiated schizophrenia” and recommended electroshock therapy, asking Chan, “Which do you want, a musician or a husband?” She refused and he was released nine days later, untreated.
The decline in Bird’s marriage was inextricably linked with the vicissitudes of his professional life. When the telegrams began, in 1952, Bird was without a cabaret card, which had been revoked in June of ‘51. This prevented him from performing in New York City nightclubs for a period of fifteen months. Prior to that, he and Chan had found a measure of real stability. Bird was enjoying the commercial success of “Charlie Parker with Strings”, generally playing more prestigious gigs and spending less time on the road, and this allowed him to take on the responsibilities of family life. When his cabaret card was revoked, it had the immediate effect of preventing him from performing at Birdland, the cornerstone of this stability, and forced him back out on the road to survive. This proved to be a turning point, but exactly when Bird realized this is impossible to know. He had every reason to expect his success to be more lasting than it was, and the realization that he was already on his way down may have been slow to arrive.
By 1952, however, it’s safe to assume that Bird could read the writing on the wall: he had reached the limits of his success in a racist society, and the plateau he found himself on was no bed of roses. It still required constant toil to survive financially, often in nightclub settings that demanded the kind of servility Bird felt he didn’t owe anyone. Furthermore, he believed himself an artist, not an entertainer, a distinction beyond the grasp of any club owner anywhere. Norman Granz and other enlightened members of the white establishment understood that Bird’s music was worthy of the concert hall, but it had become obvious that racism would consign it, for the most part, to the purgatory of nightclubs. As Bird reportedly put it, “One night I’m at Carnegie Hall and the next night I’m somewhere in New Jersey at Sloppy Joe’s.”
Bird’s very first Western Union Money Order was sent on June 5th, 1952, while in Los Angeles for a two-week engagement at the Tiffany Club (which included a twenty-two year old Chet Baker). The message accompanying it read: LOVE MISS AND NEED YOU WILL WRITE SOON. Without a cabaret card, he was out on the road as a single, performing with a local pickup band, and this was the pattern that would play out as his career rapidly devolved. His financial struggles increased to the point where he and Chan applied to the ADCB (Aid to Dependent Children Board) for assistance, but they were turned down. As Chan put it, “The woman who took our application at the relief board must have thought we were crazy when we told her we had a Cadillac and a maid. But we had no money.”
There are many conflicting stories about Bird’s Cadillac. Doris, Bird’s third wife, claims they bought it themselves out of their savings. Another story has Billy Shaw giving it to Bird as a surprise. The entertainingly unreliable Teddy Blume, one of Bird’s managers, claims he gave it to Bird, and claims Bird pawned it for drug money. According to Chan, however, they sold the Cadillac shortly before Christmas so they could buy their daughter Kim a bicycle.
The day he sent the first money order, Bird made an extraordinary recording date that only Norman Granz could have produced, featuring Bird with three legendary Swing Era saxophonists: John Hodges and Benny Carter on alto, and Ben Webster on tenor (along with the unnecessary Flip Phillips). Charlie Shavers, trumpet, was tossed in for good measure. The rhythm section consisted of Oscar Peterson, piano, Barney Kessel, guitar, Ray Brown, bass, and J. C. Heard, drums.
The era of the long-playing record had arrived, permitting tracks that averaged about 16 minutes apiece. The album, simply called Jam Session, was intended to replicate the spirit of Granz’s live Jazz at the Philharmonic performances. It may have succeeded, in that the result is a similar all-you-can-eat buffet of forced excitement and overplaying. But hearing these great saxophonists together is a rare opportunity. On Funky Blues, the feeling is relatively understated, with Hodges, Bird, and Carter (all on alto) soloing in that order. It may be contrived, but it’s also historic, and it’s today’s musical offering.