Who was Charlie Parker? The first book to attempt an answer was Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, by Robert Reisner, published in1962. It’s a collection of firsthand accounts from people who knew Bird personally, from the famous to the forgotten, and it raises more questions than it answers. In fact, one central question hangs over the entire enterprise: how much of it is true? There were no attempts to verify these accounts, and there are no disclaimers to be found as to their questionable veracity. On the other hand, the book’s title serves as fair warning. These accounts are indeed the stuff of legend, and perpetuate the mythology that arose around Bird, before and after his death. While there was certainly value in preserving them, putting them into print lent them more credence than they deserved.
Chan Parker, Bird’s fourth wife, had nothing good to say about this book and railed against its misrepresentations in 1973. Unfortunately, her criticisms were leveled in the course of defending Ross Russell’s unscrupulous biography, Bird Lives. Her argument was, in essence, “You think this book is bad? Look at Reisner’s!” and it was undercut by her personal relationship with Russell and rumors that she had a financial stake in his book.
But two wrongs don’t make a right. Although published a decade apart, these books still amounted to a one-two punch to Bird’s public image. Not that he actually had one. To the average American, he simply didn’t exist. And, in words of Art Blakey, “A symbol to the Negro people? No. They don’t even know him. They never heard of him and care less. A symbol to the musicians, yes.” His position as a cult figure elevated him just enough to feed the rebellious hipster/doomed artist stereotype. His achievements, however, were so far-reaching that scholarly studies of his life and music were bound to follow. Why this took a generation is another matter, but by then these two books formed the foundation of Bird’s legacy, despite being built on sand.
Many of the accounts in Reisner’s book come from people who knew Bird in his last years, when he was living on Avenue B, or, in his final months, on the streets. They describe an aimless and troubled Bird, in poor health and often drunk, and include tales of debauchery, fistfights, con games, and even gunplay. Farfetched or not, they skewed the picture in ways that weren’t balanced out by accounts from other time periods. This helped define Bird at the outset by his addictions and aberrant behavior, which were subsequently portrayed as so extreme that the connection to his music was impossible to explain, aside from the racism-tinged concept of “natural genius”. His music was, in fact, an intellectual achievement on a par with insert-name-of-revered-white-male-European-composer-here, and the real challenge is figuring out how he did it, and how it related to the way he lived his life, addictions included.
Vocalist Earl Coleman has put this into words better than anyone else to date:
You could look at Bird’s life and see just how much his music was connected to the way he lived. You just stood there with your mouth open and listened to him discuss books with somebody or philosophy or religion or science, things like that. Thorough. A little while later, you might see him over in a corner somewhere drinking wine out of a paper sack with some juicehead. Now that’s what you hear when you listen to him play; he can reach the most intellectual and difficult levels of music, then he can turn around – now watch this – and play the most low down, funky blues you ever want to hear. That’s a long road for somebody else, from that high intelligence all the way over to those blues, but for Charlie Parker it wasn’t half a block; it was right next door.
Guitarist Jimmy Raney had this to say about Bird’s genius:
With Charlie Parker, it was as if he had come full-grown from the head of Zeus. I never could figure out where what he was playing came from. Sure, there were small things you could trace back, but his main creativity was on that mysterious level, the greatest level of all. In classical music in this century, Bartok had it. In jazz, it was Bird.
Robert Reisner was a college professor and denizen of Greenwich Village who formed a working relationship with Bird in 1953, when he began booking jazz on Sunday nights at the Open Door. He contributes his own extensive essay as a forward to his book. Despite genuine attempts to maintain some kind of balance, he ends up codifying much of the mythology. But he begins with an understated description of his first encounter with Bird, evoking some lovely imagery:
I first met Charlie Parker on a rainy night in 1953. I had been to a party on the east side of New York City. It was around 12:30 AM when I saw a large, lumbering, lonely man, walking kind of aimlessly. I recognized him and was amazed and thrilled, but what the devil was he doing in this poor Jewish neighborhood, walking by himself in the soaking rain? “You’re Charlie Parker,“ I said. “I’m Bob Reisner. What are you doing by yourself?“ There was absolutely no one around but him and me. He smiled a big, warm, brown smile. He said, “My wife is having a baby and I’m kind of walking off my nervousness and waiting to call back.” I walked around with him and remember asking him where he lived, and he said, “In the neighborhood.” It was Avenue B. He could see I wondered why a guy of his tremendous reputation lived in such an out-of-the-way poor section. “I like the people around here,” he said. “They don’t give you no hype.”
You couldn’t ask for a more humanizing portrait, and it’s too bad he doesn’t stick more closely to what he observed, rather than making sweeping statements about Bird’s entire existence. This is how he sums it up:
Charlie Parker, in the brief span of his life, crowded more living into it than any other human being. He was a man of tremendous physical appetites. He ate like a horse, drank like a fish, was as sexy as a rabbit. He was complete with the world, was interested in everything. He composed, painted; he loved machines, cars; he was a loving father. He liked to joke and laugh. He never slept, subsisting on little cat naps. Everyone was his friend – delivery boys, taxicab drivers. He died in the apartment of a Baroness. No one had such a love of life, and no one tried harder to kill himself.
I’m not entirely sure what gives Reisner the right to make such pronouncements about Bird’s life, although it’s always open season on Bird’s reputation. To be fair, there’s plenty of love and respect to be found, and I agree in particular with his opening statement. I believe that Bird truly and literally lived his life at twice the speed of ordinary human beings. Married at fifteen, a father at sixteen, master of his instrument at twenty, leader of a revolution at twenty-five, acknowledged genius at thirty, in decline at thirty-two, dead at thirty-four. His life wasn’t tragically cut short. The arc of his existence was complete. So all the hand-wringing and head-shaking and what-iffing, which accounts for roughly fifty percent of everything written about him, misses the point. Bird himself didn’t expect it to be otherwise. He remarked to Reisner on New Year’s Day, “You know, Bobby, I never thought I’d live to see 1955.” Three months later, he was gone. As clarinetist Tony Scott put it, “Charlie Parker opened the door, showed the world, and then shut the door behind him.”
Although considerably more enlightened, Reisner can be viewed as a stand in for the countless white club owners and managers Bird dealt with throughout his career. From his point of view, Bird’s behavior was infuriating, and it always boiled down to money:
He was one of the most difficult individuals I have ever met. He was suave, cunning, urbane, charming, and generally fiendish – too much. He could butter me up, lull me into position, and then, bang! – a great betrayal. Something would always be wrong; he saw to that. Anything to start a fight, to accuse me of treachery, of cheating him, even though I never did – and I’m sure he never really felt I did– but, nevertheless, he went to preposterous lengths in his farcical belligerence. Once, in the back room of the nightclub, we were winding up a session, and Bird was saying, “You son of a bitch! You lousy bastard!” Just then, a woman patron came in by accident. Bird turned and said, with a little bow, “We’re conducting a little business. I’ll be with you in a moment.”
Money was at the heart of all the disputes Bird had with club owners and other white authority figures, as his career spiraled downward and his actions became increasingly defiant. But money was always a driving force throughout Bird’s life, and his attitude toward it is the single most unfathomable thing about him. The assertion that all his money went to drugs can’t be documented and only sidesteps this most perplexing of riddles. And, in light of our sudden awareness of American racism, Bird’s disputes, traditionally seen as capricious and self-destructive, are due for reappraisal.
Who was Charlie Parker? On the occasion of his 100th birthday, it’s fitting to remember him as a person, as an artist, and as a man of great intelligence. The following quotes can all be found in Reisner’s book. Despite its flaws, he deserves our gratitude for all the effort he put into it on Bird’s behalf.
Angelo Ascagni: The only way you could please Bird was by being yourself and not worrying about him. You could relax with him. The best relation with Bird is a simple one. He felt that the moment was the important thing. He could be very generous or you could be very generous, but he didn’t like this middle-class business of paying back exactly whatever favor has been given. Bird was above all things an honest man. He lived simply and comfortably and without ostentation. He always tried to stay clear of artificialities. He tells people what he thinks and what he feels. A lot of people are not used to such candor and think that Bird is strange. Bird just did not fit into the pattern that people expected and wanted to put him in.
Sonny Stitt: I’m not going to throw any dirt on the man. He was the greatest man I ever knew. He would find something beautiful about the ugliest person.
Gigi Gryce: He was a frequent visitor to my place in Boston, where I was studying at the Boston Conservatory of Music. I knew him as a gentleman, a scholar, a person aware of everything around him. He was generous to an extreme. I wasn’t eating too steady in those days, and, whenever Charlie came around, I knew I could stoke up and be ahead a little. Not only me, but he would treat large parties of friends, paying checks up to $100.
Idrees Suleiman: The things that stand out the most in my memory of him are the complex moods of the man. Among the men of the Hines band he was looked upon as a jolly fellow, full of joy and spirits. With me, he was a man of infinite patience when it came to explaining a point in music. He seemed at times the most serious person I have ever met, the most intense – without any type of superficiality.
Art Blakey: He was always one for fun. The fellows were always up to pranks. They rode up and down the hotel halls on broomsticks, or had mock fights with swords – him and Dizzy loved to do that. He was a good guy. He gave a lot. In 1951 after my wife died, Bird, who had come in from the coast, let me $2000 just to help me out.
Walter Bishop, Jr.: The greatest thing he did was not the way he lived his life but the way he affected others, what he left behind for posterity. The man was so influential in his field that he gave happiness to thousands. Thousands live and breathe Bird.
Ahmed Basheer: Bird loved movies, good and bad. We saw Carmen Jones four times. He must have enjoyed that movie because Max Roach had a part in it. “They sure cooked that picture!“ he said. His phrases and the way he expressed himself was a joy, it was so original, pithy, humorous. He had a special affection for waiters and waitresses, for all people who do the honest, common, necessary jobs.
Harold Baker: If he had $100, he would spend it; he was very generous. He would set a whole bar up for drinks. He was very generous with his musical knowledge and would always take time out to explain something to a musician. He could explain it to him on the musician’s own instrument, he was so remarkably musical.
George Salano: He was erratic, unpredictable, and given to a good deal of goofing, but he was also gracious, very kind, sensitive to the feelings of others, generous with his talents (which included being a good cook, especially with leftovers), time, and money. We would take long walks in the park before and after jobs, and lots of times we hung around Boston Common until dawn making bird calls with little gadgets you get from the Audubon society.
Dave Schildkraut: His treatment of other musicians was always considerate; in fact, he showed greater consideration toward the guys who were having a tough time with their instrument, and he would spend time going over something again and again till the person felt he got it.
Lennie Tristano: Bird’s music is so perfect that it is scientific. He had the kind of material that he invented, on the spot in solos, that could have been transformed into preludes, fugues, symphonies, and concertos. His music is so structurally perfect that you cannot change a note in it to make it better.
Julie MacDonald: Bird truly listened, with mind and heart, and he observed the same way. He could discover meaning in a cowboy ballad, no matter how insignificant the song might seem, or in a simple nursery rhyme. He was never disparaging or condescending towards the creative efforts of others. Bird’s intellect, though happily untrained, was prodigious. Directed in great part towards the discovery of the “inner meaning of life,” he felt nature held the key to understanding.
One point comes up again and again with musicians who knew him well: Bird felt he was speaking through his horn and communicating his thoughts and experiences directly.
Charles Mingus: We used to get into long, involved discussions between sets about every subject from God to man, and, before we realized it, we would be due back on the stage. He used to say, “Mingus, let’s finish this discussion on the bandstand. Let’s get our horns and talk about this.“
Gene Ramey: Bird was the most receptive being. He got into his music all the sounds around him – the swish of a car speeding down the highway, the hum of wind as it goes through the leaves. Everything had a musical meaning for him. If he heard a dog bark, he would say the dog was speaking. If he was in the act of blowing his sax, he would find something to express and want you to guess his thoughts. When we used to take carriage rides during our free hours, we would sometimes roll along the country roads and look at the trees and the leaves falling from the branches; he had notes to explain all these phenomena presented by nature.
Bird spoke to this point in two different interviews, and I’ve taken the liberty of combining his words:
I think it’s just more or less the way a man feels when he plays his instrument. Most people fail to realize that most of the things that they hear, either coming out of a man’s horn ad lib, or else things that are written, original things, they are just experiences. The way you feel, the beauty of the weather, the nice look of a mountain, maybe a nice fresh cool breath of air. There are stories and stories and stories that can be told in any musical idiom. It can be very descriptive in all kinds of ways, all walks of life.
And then, of course, there is perhaps Bird’s most famous quote:
Music is your experience, your thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.
Who was Charlie Parker? Listen to his music and he’ll tell you himself.
For today’s musical offering, we have three takes of Out Of Nowhere, recorded for Dial Records on November 4th, 1947. Bird was known for playing at murderously fast tempos, and he preferred brisk tempos in general, but his most profound statements were made at ballad tempos. These three takes were recorded in rapid succession, Bird finding reasons to reject the first two, but all three are exquisite and display how deeply Bird lived in every microsecond of every second of every minute. Hours, days, and years meant nothing. Apologies for editing out the other solos but it’s more revealing when you hear all three statements back-to-back.