On December 15th, 1949, Charlie Parker (Bird) played at the opening of a new nightclub named in his honor. The program at Birdland that night was billed as “A Journey Through Jazz”, and Bird shared the stage with Lester Young (Prez) and Lennie Tristano, among other prominent players. The concert’s conceit was self-explanatory: Prez was there to represent swing, Bird to represent bop, and Lennie to represent the future.
The club’s choice of name was an extraordinary acknowledgement of Bird’s status, at age twenty-nine, as the most influential musician of his generation. More extraordinary still, fewer than three years had passed since his release from Camarillo State Mental Hospital, north of Los Angeles, where he had been incarcerated from August 1946 through January 1947. Bird might have died in California in any number of ways, all related to his heroin addiction. Had that come to pass, his destiny would have remained largely unfulfilled. But, in the Parker version of the Hero’s Journey, he escapes the abyss of Camarillo, returns to New York, and reaches the pinnacle of his fame in just thirty-two months. If you’re inclined to argue that Bird lived life at twice the normal pace, you could rest your case right there.
1949 was a year of triumph for Bird, but it was unexceptional for Prez. Aside from lucrative JATP tours, he was making unexceptional money playing unexceptional gigs with his “kiddies”, the younger players he favored and, in his oblique way, mentored. His playing in the 30s was as influential as Bird’s in the 40s, meaning he was one of a select few true geniuses. The reward for this was a life of constant toil, often on the road, jazz being a unique blend of high art and indentured servitude. Prez journeyed all across America, dispensing truth and beauty to anyone who would listen, largely because he had no other choice.
In one of its more inspired moments, the white medical establishment diagnosed Lester Young with “chronic nomadism”, thereby transforming his job description into a mental disorder. The same diagnosis could have easily been applied to Bird, and you have to wonder whether Bird was able, at the zenith of his fame that night, to see his own future in Prez. Genius wouldn’t make any difference. Like Prez, he would remain a working musician to the bitter end, forced by economic necessity to play gig after gig, night after night, consigned to a racist nightclub circuit that offered only stagnation. So when biographers start in on Bird’s private life, calling it rootless or disorganized, how much of this really boils down to the fact that Bird was trying to make a living in a profession that offered Black musicians little or no stability?
To complicate matters, Bird’s artistic goal was to improvise at the deepest level, to create a structurally perfect and emotionally meaningful solo every time he picked up his horn. Needless to say, this goal was frequently at odds with the requirements of the music business and the demands of nightclub owners. Nevertheless, Bird dedicated his entire being to it, and everything about the way he lived resulted from this pursuit.
I recently flipped to the last page of Gary Giddens biography, Celebrating Bird, trying to recall how he summed up Bird’s life, expecting the usual synonyms for chaos, but he surprised me by going even further:
As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker’s life make little sense because they fail to explain his music. Perhaps his life is what his music overcame. And overcomes.
As to Mozart, I cannot speak, but the facts of Bird’s life explain everything about his music. To begin with, he grew up in Kansas City, for God’s sake! What, exactly, fails to explain his music? What, exactly, makes little sense’? I never pass up an opportunity to take a swipe at Ross Russell, author of the indefensible 1973 biography, Bird Lives, without which Giddens’ final sentences might have been entirely different. I believe Russell poisoned the well with his fictionalized portrait of Bird, which portrayed him as a contemptible man who made inexplicably sublime music. Fifteen years later, Giddens arrived at the same foregone conclusion.
I’m not trying to cast aspersions on Giddens or anyone else, but this conclusion robs Bird of everything he accomplished. When you argue that he was a heedless drug addict whose brilliant music can’t be explained, you are denying that it was a product of his intellect. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump from there to the trope of “natural rhythm” and the racial inferiority it implies.
Lennie Tristano, who knew Bird better than Giddens, had this to say:
I knew Bird since the time he came back to New York from Camarillo. I can say that he has been nicer to me than anybody in the business. My group was opposite his at the Three Deuces. He sat through my entire first set, listening intently. When it was over, the two fellows I was playing with left the stand, leaving me alone. They knew I could get around all right but Bird didn’t know that. [Tristano was blind.] He thought I was hung up for the moment. He rushed up to the stand, told me how much he liked my playing, and subtly escorted me off the bandstand.I never heard Bird use vulgar language. I never heard him talk about girls in a lewd manner. He had good manners. He always made sure to introduce a person all around if he came into a room. I have never heard Bird put on his fans. He was always kind and sweet to them, accepting their praise gracefully.
Bird, in turn, had the utmost respect for Lennie:
As for Lennie Tristano, I’d like to go on record as saying I endorse his work in every particular. They say he’s cold. They’re wrong. He has a big heart and it’s in his music.
I Googled in vain trying to verify another Lennie quote, one that has stuck with me for decades: “Bird’s thing was chemical.” I can only guess at what he was trying to convey in these four short words, but I take it to mean that Bird used heroin, amphetamines, alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, all in combination, in order to reach the state of consciousness that best connected him to the wellspring of his creativity. What, after all, was “Bird’s thing”, if not his quest to improvise at the deepest level? And what does the word “chemical” imply, other than an almost scientific approach to reaching that state of consciousness?
Now that I’ve rushed in where angels fear to tread, you are free to part company with me here. But it’s simply a fact that Bird did much of his greatest playing while under the influence of heroin. I’m fully aware that heroin addiction has destroyed countless lives and that it’s offensive of me to suggest that any good can come from it. I’m equally aware that I’ve never witnessed this destruction first hand, due to white privilege. But anyone trying to understand the connection between Bird’s life and his music has to come to terms with his heroin use, one way or the other. If you look at it as purely self-destructive and out of Bird’s control, then you view his music as something that happened in spite of it. From there, you’re not far from believing that his music is of mysterious origin, rather than a product of his own intellectual effort. And eventually you go around proclaiming that the facts of his life make little sense.
The beginnings of Bird’s heroin use coincided with three significant events that occurred close together in his mid-teens: his decision to become a musician, the death of his closest friend, Robert Simpson, and a car accident that resulted in a spinal fracture. Heroin came along at a time when he needed to blot out his physical pain, his feelings of profound loss, and the emotional pain resulting from his early musical humiliations. It’s reasonable to assume that Bird, in his relentless drive to succeed, used heroin to blot out everything but music. It’s likely he also used amphetamines to fuel his practicing, which he estimated at “eleven to fifteen hours a day…for a period of three or four years.” It’s interesting that no one has determined exactly when he began drinking. He may have had no use for alcohol early on, because it played no role in improving his musicianship. (Soon enough, though, it would play a starring role in impairing it.)
Art Blakey, a heroin survivor himself, spoke openly on this subject, which was uncommon at the time:
Bird died trying to kick his habit. He tried to kick it the wrong way, by drinking whiskey. The whiskey is the thing that killed him. The heroin was preserving him– the heroin did not kill him. He tried to do what people asked him to do, that’s why he’s not here today. After a man shoots dope for fourteen years, how are you going to stop him? His system cries for it. If he uses it, the heroin will preserve him, it won’t destroy him. I know he died trying to do what society asked him to do, which is impossible. Our society has to find out that the people who are using dope are not crazy or criminal, they are sick people. This man had been sick for fourteen years and nobody would help him because they didn’t know. They didn’t know he was sick. They don’t understand heroin.
Blakey was about seventy years ahead of his time. In light of America’s belated epiphanies about opioid addiction and systemic racism, everything written about Bird’s heroin addiction needs to be reevaluated. At the very least, we can agree that it’s much less simplistic than biographers have portrayed it, and that unconscious racial bias may have affected their judgement of it. Bird’s addiction doesn’t make him a degenerate, and it isn’t proof that his life was out of control. Some of the drug’s most detrimental impacts were caused by its illegality. To be perfectly clear, I’m saying that heroin had positive effects on his playing. It may be taboo to say this, but there’s plenty of musical evidence to back it up.
Bird always took great pains to warn young musicians away from heroin specifically, and all drugs generally, as he did in a 1949 Down Beat article. In the process of doing so, however, he unintentionally confirmed that his own heroin use was directly related to his playing. He is quoted as saying, “In the days when I was on the stuff, I may have thought I was playing better, but listening to some of the records now, I know I wasn’t.” The implication is clear: at the time he was using it, he believed heroin improved his playing. Furthermore, he’s acknowledging that he’d been under its influence in the recording studio. (The other implication–that he had overcome his addiction–wasn’t clear at all.)
Ross Russell’s efforts to sensationalize Bird’s life led him to take special note whenever Bird was high during Dial recording sessions. Often, this was easy to determine. On more than one occasion, Bird arrived early to hit up Russell for a cash advance whose purpose was clear. Russell describes Bird’s first Dial session in New York this way:
The first session was made on October 28  at WOR studios. When I arrived at 6:30 he was already there. He was uptight and said he needed fifty dollars. He had instructed his contact to meet him at WOR. This made the current rumors official. “So you’re back on,” I said as I handed him the money. He said nothing and went into the men’s room to prepare his fix. Twenty minutes later he was all smoothed out, and in a “mad, blowing mood.”This date produced Dexterity, Bongo Bop, Dewey Square, The Hymn, Bird of Paradise, and Embraceable You.
The next date, on November 4th, produced Bird Feathers, Klact-oveerseds-tene, Scrapple from the Apple, My Old Flame, Don’t Blame Me and Out Of Nowhere. Russell dwells on the seamy side again, this time with only circumstantial evidence:
The afternoon of that day Charlie appeared at the Dial office, saying that he needed one-hundred and fifty dollars to pay a hotel bill. He looked ill and strung out. A check would not do, and again cash had to be raised. Charlie was an hour late for the session that night. He was in superlative form…
In his interview with Bob Porter, Teddy Reig, Savoy’s A&R man and raconteurist rotundus, relates an anecdote about the December 21st, 1947 date:
This was the working quintet. They were in Detroit working the El Sino, I think. At any rate they were staying at the Mark Twain hotel. They were all stalling around before the date and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. Then it came out that Sonny Stitt had been sent out on an errand and he hadn’t come back. When he got to the studio the arithmetic wasn’t right and Bird was mad. Sonny was sitting about five feet away from Birdand Bird just pointed the horn right at him. Just blew at him all day like saying “top that.” [Sonny Stitt denies this ever happened.]
It’s hardly necessary to read between the lines here. This date produced Another Hair Do, Blue Bird, Klaunstance, and Bird Gets the Worm.
According to Miles, Bird was even high on his first date as a leader:
All these people kept coming by and Bird would disappear into the bathroom with a dope dealer and come out an hour or two later… But after Bird got high, he just played his ass off.
This was the November 26th, 1945 date that produced Billie’s Bounce, Now’s the Time, Warming Up a Riff, Thriving from a Riff, Meandering, and KoKo.
Virtually every track listed above is considered a masterpiece, and a handful are considered among the greatest jazz recordings of all time.
I’m obviously way out on a limb in asserting that heroin had a positive effect on Bird’s playing. Some would argue that he needed heroin just to function normally, thus it had no other discernible effects. Perhaps. But I will now proceed to saw off the limb I’m on: I’m pretty sure I can tell when Bird is high just by listening. Please don’t hesitate to dismiss this notion as delusional, but please allow me to elaborate anyway. First, though, it’s worth noting what Lennie had to say about Bird’s creative environment:
One of the main things in Bird’s life was that he wanted to be recognized as an artist, not as an entertainer, on a higher level than the nightclub. I have found great degrees of hostility in the music business. It is a grueling profession. The world is seen as a bar after a while. The hours, the dulling, deadening surroundings, the competition, hassles, the drinking which either produces maudlin moods or aggressiveness of an ugly sort. It is no wonder that no one can sustain a high level of creativity without stimulants of some sort.
Bird transmitted his internal state whenever he played, so an emotional undercurrent always flows beneath the surface. Bird expressed a lot of complicated feelings for which there are no words, universal human feelings. That’s what music is for. But the chaos of life–not his life specifically, just life itself–made it difficult to clear away all the debris and reach down to this level. Racism made this much more problematic, and aggression and conflict are often apparent in Bird’s playing, marring its beauty. You can hear his frustration when he can’t fully access his wellspring of ideas. This is what heroin helped him overcome. He had to clear away the debris somehow, and God knows there was no end of it.
But there are times when Bird doesn’t sound conflicted at all, times when aggression is replaced with serenity, and the ideas pour forth with such clarity and purpose that everything becomes new again. Whenever I hear that, I’m pretty sure that heroin has helped him transcend, for the moment, all the opposing forces that surrounded him day and night. I believe I hear this in all of the tracks listed above, but you can call me delusional, or just a jerk, and I won’t disagree.
The full title of Giddens’ book is Celebrating Bird, the Triumph of Charlie Parker. It seems to me that it’s hardly a celebration when you present his life as a neverending debacle, and the word triumph rings hollow when you fail to connect who he was and how he lived to the music he created. In his greatest moments, Bird spoke of something so universal that his playing will continue to touch people for as long as the human race manages to hang on.
The facts of Charlie Parker’s life prove that he fashioned what little he was given into a music so profound that it needs no explanation. And never will.
Today’s musical offering consists of two tracks featuring Bird with Lennie Tristano. One is the 1949 Metronome All Stars date featuring a cast of thousands. Bird plays Victory Ball, a Tristano composition, with what might be Lennie’s working rhythm section (Billy Bauer, Eddie Safransky, Shelly Manne). In any case, Bird plays the melody in unison with Bauer and it wails! Then the All Stars que up for solos and it’s up to you to figure out who’s who: Dizzy, Fats, Miles, trumpets, J.J. Johnson, Kai Winding, trombones. It’s easy to spot Buddy DeFranco, Charlie Ventura, and Ernie Caceres. As Miles would say, Lennie plays his ass off. Then we have Bird and Lennie essentially playing duo, with subtle assistance from Kenny Clarke, recorded, I believe, at Lennie’s apartment in 1951. There is much of interest here, and it’s your only opportunity, to the best of my knowledge, to hear Bird play All Of Me. The recording has better than average clarity but it’s a bit heavy on reverb. Regardless, I sincerely hope you do enjoy it.