As a result of recent edits to this post, it has jumped to the top, but it was in fact the very first posting of 2020. As such, it was really a brief promotional blurb for the POSTunderground’s regular Friday night jazz events, devoted to Bird’s music in honor of his hundredth birthday. Many of the earliest posts were shorter promotional emails. As of today, February 15th, 2021, I have replaced the original January 3rd, 2020 blurb with a new essay on Bird’s early life that includes his first recording. I will be expanding other early posts and adding musical offerings. Eventually, they will resemble later posts in depth and format.
Charlie Parker (Bird) was born in Kansas City. This is the central fact of his early life and musical development. The details of his childhood, fascinating though they may be, don’t really matter. If you sift through them, looking for portents of genius, you will come up empty handed. It’s safe to say his genius was innate and would have manifested itself anywhere, but it’s the culture of Kansas City that shaped Bird’s life and music, more specifically, the African American culture. That culture, in turn, was shaped by American racism, and this is the other central fact of Bird’s life. This racism is woven so thoroughly into the fabric that it almost vanishes. If you attempted to point out every instance, there’d be no room to talk about anything else. Measured against America’s recent awakenings, however, it’s clear that few jazz writers have adequately addressed this racism, and some have even been prejudiced by it.
Bird was born Charles Parker, Jr. The events of Charles Parker Sr.’s life, what little we know of them, are related by biographers without mention of racism, yet racism is the canvas upon which they are painted. In his younger years, he was an entertainer, touring the country with Ringling Brothers and performing on the vaudeville circuit. He was apparently quite intelligent, and, according to Bird, “spoke two or three languages.” He met and married Bird’s mother, Adaline (Addie) Boyley in Kansas City, bringing with him a son, John, from a previous liaison with an Italian woman. Addie described her husband this way: “He could cook anything. He could dance. He was a good scholar. He could play the piano. But he was a drunkard.” In the early years of their marriage, Charles Sr. worked on the railroad lines as a waiter, which kept him away much of the time. He eventually left the railroads and took a job as a janitor. Addie tried her best to help him control his drinking but it was no use. His alcoholism destroyed their marriage and he gradually abandoned his family. In 1940, the woman Charles Sr. had been living with, who may or may not have been a prostitute, stabbed him to death during a drunken quarrel.
You can certainly tell this story without mentioning racism, but Charles Sr. was constrained by it at every turn. It may be cold comfort, but he did pass on his intelligence and talents to Charles Jr. In addition to Bird’s other gifts, he was reportedly a good cook, especially with leftovers, and not a bad dancer. And the fact remains that without Charles Parker Sr. there would have been no Charles Parker Jr. In that regard, his life was hugely consequential.
Bird developed a sudden interest in music at age thirteen, and it’s a great blessing that Lincoln High School (segregated) had an exemplary music program, run by bandmaster Alonzo Lewis. Bird started on baritone horn and clarinet, but alto saxophone became his infatuation. He supposedly carried his horn with him from classroom to classroom. Although he had been a star pupil in grade school, due in part to his photographic memory, once his attention turned to music, academics lost all meaning.
By this time, Addie had moved the family across the river, from Kansas City, Kansas, to Kansas City, Missouri. Absent any financial support from Charles Sr., she added a second job, cleaning the Western Union telegraph offices on the night shift, leaving Bird unattended. He now lived within walking distance of 18th and Vine and began roaming the streets after dark. Kansas City was an infinitely corrupt town whose entertainment district was immune to both Prohibition and the Great Depression. It churned out its illicit profits twenty-four hours a day, with full employment for musicians. Saxophonists based in Kansas City at the time included Ben Webster, Hershel Evans, and Lester Young. Bird heard them in person, first from outside the clubs in the alleyways, and then, when he was older, from a few feet away.
Surprisingly, Bird showed little promise as a saxophonist, aside from sheer determination. By age fifteen, though, he stopped attending high school altogether in order to focus on music, leaving Alonzo Lewis behind and moving out into the real world of the Kansas City jazz scene. This is the period of his intense friendship with trombonist Robert Simpson. They were comrades in a band led by pianist Lawrence Keyes, known as the Deans of Swing, which grew out of the Lincoln High School music program. Bird and Robert went everywhere together, practiced together, searched for gigs together, sat in at jam sessions together. Bird was still a lackluster saxophonist and endured many musical humiliations. Ultimately, these only made him more determined, and he had Simpson’s friendship to cushion the blows.
There are conflicting stories as to how Robert Simpson died. The most theatrical goes as follows: after Bird had been fired by a local club owner, Simpson left his sick bed and traveled by streetcar in raw weather to beg the club owner to take Bird back. As a result, he died of pneumonia shortly afterward. Stanley Crouch subscribes to this version in his 2013 biography, Kansas City Lightning. His fictionalized approach (invented dialog, interior monologues) is oddly reminiscent of Ross Russell’s 1973 biography, Bird Lives. Russell, whose passion was outright fabrication, consigns Robert Simpson to a single sentence, with no cause of death mentioned. Other accounts have Simpson dying on the operating table sometime later. The exact date remains unknown.
In any event, his death is the defining trauma in Bird’s early life. A few months before his own death, he spoke of it to Ahmed Basheer, who recalled:
When we started back to New York after the gig, Bird turned to me in the car and said, “Basheer, I don’t let anyone get too close to me, even you.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Once in Kansas City I had a friend I liked very much, and a sorrowful thing happened.” I said, “What?” figuring the guy must have cheated or betrayed him. Bird said, “He died.”
For some reason, biographers don’t give this much weight when psychoanalyzing Bird. Contemporary accounts, however, make clear the impact of Simpson’s death. In Robert Reisner’s book, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, Lawrence Keyes gives his version:
The name of the third fellow was Robert Simpson and he played trombone remarkably. To say that Charlie admired him is perhaps too mild. Charlie worshipped him and was in his company a great deal. Suddenly at twenty-one Robert Simpson died, of what we were never sure. A heart ailment was thought to be the cause. Charlie was a complete wreck after that.
Crouch was undoubtedly aware of this account, but dodges the discrepancies by quoting Keyes as follows:
That tore Charlie up. He and Charlie took to each other, and Charlie had a lot of trouble getting over that. A lot of trouble.
Straining the limits of poetic licence, Crouch writes, “For Charlie Parker, confronting Simpson’s death was like drinking a cup of blues made of razor blades.”
By most accounts, Simpson died late in 1936, around the time that Bird began using narcotics. Pianist George Wallington, among the first modernists on the 52nd Street scene, offers telling remarks in Reisner’s book. The first concerns the death of Clyde Hart, an important transitional pianist, from tuberculosis in 1945. Bird had recorded with him on January 4th of that year. Wallington then goes on to talk about Bird’s reaction to racism.
When Clyde Hart died, Bird felt that his friends were getting too worked up over an inevitable part of existence. “Why should we feel sorry? Let’s not get emotional about it.” This was just Bird’s armor. Bird seemed to avoid the topic of race. About the South, he said, “The only way to get around down there is with a gun. Why should anyone live down there when there’s a place like New York?” Statements like those were rare. Usually, when someone brought up the topic, Bird would smile and say, “Why discuss these things? Let’s get high.”
Taken together, these remarks suggest that narcotics were Bird’s shield against the twin realities of death and racism, neither of which he could control or mitigate.
A third event coincides with Simpson’s death and Bird’s first use of narcotics. On July 25th, 1936, he married Rebecca Ruffin, his high school sweetheart. He still showed no signs of genius, although he was managing to find steady work as a saxophonist. Few people saw any real potential in him, but Bird sensed his own growing mastery and his ambition knew no bounds.
And so, in 1936, marriage, death, destiny, and addiction all arrived at Bird’s door. A month after his wedding day, he turned sixteen.
Today’s musical offering is a challenge for all listeners, but it’s really the only place to begin. Like so many matters in Bird’s early life, much confusion surrounds his first recording, a solo saxophone medley of Honeysuckle Rose and Body And Soul. (These songs loomed large in Bird’s musical history, both playing a role in his first jam session humiliation.) For a long time, the date of this recording was a matter of unfettered speculation, some estimates placing it as early as 1937. A plausible date was arrived at only after detectives searched for clues in the music itself. Because of a quote Bird inserts at the very end in his performance, the opening phrase of I Thought About You, it was deduced that the recording date could be no earlier than late 1939, based on the release date of the Benny Goodman version. Furthermore, Bird quotes a 1938 Roy Eldridge solo, and glances off Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 Body And Soul. The fact that the (decidedly non-professional) recording was made in Kansas City helped pin down the date further, based on Bird’s movements. He spent most of 1939 in New York City (and possibly Chicago), until his father’s death brought him back to KC in 1940. The best guess for the recording date is now May of that year.
Specific clues aside, the overall caliber of Bird’s playing would place it after his 1939 Cherokee epiphany. All the elements of his mature style are readily discernible. Sort of. The atrocious sound quality and lack of accompaniment make this a disorienting listening experience. Honeysuckle Rose fades in with Bird already soloing, on his way into the bridge. If you miss that boat, it’s hard to figure out where he is in the form until the next bridge, if then. To make matters worse, the pitch fluctuates throughout, and this constant wobble undermines the tonality, especially at the outset. After three full choruses of Honeysuckle Rose, Bird segues into Body And Soul with a Three Stooges quote (!), stating the melody clearly in the opening bars. This orients the listener, possibly for the first time. He then veers from the melody into his own harmonic variations, which point confidently toward the future.
In light of Hawkins’ masterpiece, Bird displayed more than a little hubris in choosing Body And Soul for his first recording. But he understood his conception had crystalized, and knew he was already deep in the process of creating a new language. As he said to Rebecca in 1940, as he asked her for a divorce, “If I were free, I think I could become a great musician.”