On October 3rd, 1952, Charlie Parker (Bird) wrote a letter to Leo Cluesmann, secretary of the American Federation of Musicians, replying to charges made by Dutch Neiman, manager of the Say When Club, a San Francisco nightclub at which Bird had performed in June. Given America’s recent acknowledgement of systemic racism, and the reappraisal of past events it demands, the fiasco at the Say When makes an interesting test case.
Bird biographers Chuck Haddix and Brian Priestley both cover the events in question (Russell and Woideck do not), Down Beat wrote a contemporaneous article about them, and they are addressed in Neiman’s letter, in a letter from A.V. Forbes, Secretary of Local 669 AFM, and in Bird’s rebuttal.
Bird’s behavior in the late spring and summer of 1952, while on a road trip in California, fell somewhere in between counterproductive and self-destructive. From May 29th to June 14th, he appeared at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles as a single, backed by a local rhythm section. Bird chose an unknown West Coast trumpet player named Chet Baker as his second horn, and thus we have a credible eyewitness to the events of this period. Haddix and Priestley both quote him verbatim, and we end up with a predictably paradoxical portrait of Bird.
On the one hand, Baker says, “He treated me sorta like a son. I can see now how helpful and understanding he was. He stayed with the tunes I knew well, and he avoided the real fast tempos he used to like so much.” This is an example of Bird’s capacity for empathy, often neglected. But Baker also says, “Bird was a flawless player, and although he was snorting up spoons of stuff and drinking fifths of Hennessy, it all seemed to have little or no effect on him.” The gig itself was successful enough, but Bird laid the groundwork for problems that would catch up with him when he arrived in San Francisco.
Back in NYC, Bird had worked out a financial arrangement with his longtime manager, Billy Shaw, which allowed him to change management by buying out his contract with Shaw. This was to be done through minor deductions to Bird’s pay going forward, until the debt was paid off. At the Tiffany Club, however, Bird had refused to let the management make these deductions, disparaging Billy Shaw in the process. When he reached the Say When Club, he found a letter from Shaw waiting. Exactly what Bird said about Shaw is unknown, but it was sufficient to destroy their relationship. Shaw refers to them as “ugly remarks” and concludes his letter by saying, “You promised to give us $15 a week towards the balance; since you are getting $750.00 a week, I’m sure you can spare a stinking $15 per week. As far as I’m concerned, your word doesn’t mean a thing to me anymore; we have tried to help you in every way, but to no avail. I am tired of always getting a run around.”
Bird was appearing opposite tenor saxophonist Flip Phillips at the Say When, and the gig had been promoted as “The Battle of the Saxes”. This is equivalent to a confrontation between a Sherman tank and a puppy, although it’s unclear what this “battle” consisted of. Down Beat called the gig “one the most miserable fowl-ups in local history.” Both Bird and Phillips found the Say When house band sorely lacking. Bird may have been aware of this beforehand, because he showed up with Chet Baker and a drummer in tow. His insistence that they play was Dutch Neiman’s first complaint, although Bird apparently gave the house band a chance on opening night. The next day, though, he called in a local pianist and bass player, thus replacing the house band entirely. This rankled local union officials. But Phillips (who was white) supported Bird in this, and it appears they played out the first week successfully with Bird’s rhythm section. In his rebuttal, Bird claims Neiman said to him, “Good work, Charlie. It was a good week. I made money. Keep it up.” This offers a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of a club owner’s mind.
For reasons unknown, however, Flip Phillips chose not to fulfill his contract. As Down Beat put it: “Flip and the club parted company after the first week, both being wholeheartedly dissatisfied.” This sounds like personal differences between Neiman and Phillips, but there’s no evidence that Neiman filed complaints of any kind against Flip. Bird stayed on for the second week, honoring his contract, and that’s when things went wrong. Down Beat again:
After appearing twice on a Cerebral Palsy TV Marathon, Parker took up a collection in the club, asked club op Dutch Neiman for a contribution, was refused (because Neiman had already contributed), took the mike, called the house “cheap” and then Neiman and the Bird engaged in a gentle shoving contest with Parker losing. Neiman refused to pay him off and Bird was stranded in town for almost a week.
The facts about this incident vary from telling to telling. Chet Baker describes it this way:
It just so happened that during our engagement there was a big telethon benefit… Bird got on the microphone and announced that he was passing the hat among the customers, with the proceeds to go to the Cerebral Palsy Fund, and that the club had agreed to equal whatever was collected. He did this, of course, completely on his own, without having spoken to the manager of the club, who was a tough guy named Dutch… Naturally, Dutch refused to kick in his $125. People began yelling, banging on tables, etc.; there was almost a riot, and as I said, that was the end of our engagement.
Neiman himself describes it this way:
I would like to say at this opportunity that Mr. Parker was not authorized at any time to collect any monies for the Cerebral Palsy Drive. In fact said collection was taken one and a half hours after the drive had closed. Mr. Parker was *loaded* and promised the audience I would give $50. After I refused to give $50, he went back to the bandstand, and told the people I was a no good “son of a……”. This is when I pulled him off the stand. At no time during the length of the engagement was he ever on time, and when he did come he was always *loaded*.
(Dutch certainly deserves credit for breaking new ground in punctuation.)
A.V. Forbes, Secretary of Local 669 AFM, also wrote Leo Cluesmann, concerning the events involving the musicians’ union, including issues surrounding the outside musicians, as well as its attempts to collect from Bird a standard 10 percent surcharge from visiting bandleaders. It details Bird’s various excuses and broken promises and makes for dull reading, but it concludes with a dramatic final paragraph:
He not only intended to ignore the local, but was most insulting to the officers, and created a scene which was unprovoked. As for his conduct both at the club, and the local, it was without precedent. The man appeared constantly under the influence of something.
I believe this was Bird’s first legal dispute with a nightclub, and his letter is relatively cursory compared with later efforts, when the disputes had become almost a way of life. He makes his rebuttal without addressing many specifics, and the effect is less than convincing:
Mr. Neiman was informed of the collection of monies incident for the Cerebral Palsy Fund, and I asked Mr. Neiman if it was all right to say he would contribute with the people. To which he agreed. Not understanding thoroughly the meaning of the word loaded which he mentions in his reply… If he means intoxicated, I finished my engagement that particular night satisfactorily to the people in the club. Furthermore the only drinking that was done by me in the club that night was sponsored by one or two parties at most. Certainly not enough to get drunk.
So we have here four perspectives on the same events, all differing to some extent, as well as a more general perspective from Billy Shaw. I don’t pretend to be a sociologist, or even someone who thinks a lot about anything at all, but racism, it seems to me, is a matter of who has power over whom. If you know your own worth as a human being, and you come face-to-face with powerful people who consider you inferior and expect you to act like it, people who can demonstrate their power by punishing you when you do something they don’t like, you only have two choices, submit to their rules or fight for your freedom. Those who fight are usually considered crazy, and Bird has certainly been portrayed as such, and was certainly punished as such.
Both Haddix and Priestley reinforce the narrative that Bird’s addictions, and even mental illness, were at the root of his problems. By today’s standards, I don’t think racism was accounted for. But the majority of Bird’s problems could have been avoided by simply showing up on time for gigs, something he could never manage to do at any point in his life. Sometimes drugs were involved, sometimes not, but he just didn’t feel his time could be bought. Ultimately, then, the root of his problems was doing whatever he felt like at any given moment, regardless of the consequences. That was his idea of freedom, and he died fighting for it.
Today’s musical offering is an oddity. On July 14th, not long after Bird was fired from the Say When, he was recorded at a jam session at Zorthian Ranch in Altadena, California. This is a very difficult venue to describe, so let’s just say they knew how to throw a party there. For more information, consult Google. The sound quality is pretty bad and I had to edit the end of Bird’s solo due to severe distortion. While I was at it, I edited out a tenor solo as well, so what you will find are two back-to-back alto solos, Bird first and then a nineteen-year-old Frank Morgan. Morgan was a prodigy whose career was interrupted at every turn by drug busts and prison sentences. You may find it hard to distinguish his sound from Bird’s, although he displays a great deal of originality, especially for his age. The splice is at 2:00 exactly, so that’s where Bird’s solo ends and Morgan’s begins. Bird had clearly partied quite a bit and it’s not unreasonable to say that Morgan outplays him.