Last call for systemic racism! As Charlie Parker’s centennial year draws to a close, there will be no further opportunities to examine his legal disputes with white nightclub owners, which are due for reevaluation. Given that America is, as of this morning, still struggling to identify and acknowledge the racism that pervades our society, the impact it had on Bird’s life in the 1950s, when it went unchecked, is hard to overestimate. In the midst of our soul-searching, it’s worth examining how unconscious racial biases may have influenced Bird‘s biographers.
On Monday, October 12, 1953, Charlie Parker (Bird) opened at the Latin Quarter, a jazz club in Montreal, fronting a quintet that included trumpeter Benny Harris, his comrade in arms from the Earl Hines Orchestra. Two days later, the quintet was fired by club owner Morton Berman. Bird quickly lodged an appeal with the American Federation of Musicians. On Friday, November 13th, Berman responded to the AFM in writing concerning Bird’s appeal. On Wednesday, November 18th, Bird wrote a rebuttal to Berman’s letter.
Chuck Haddix and Brian Priestley have both written well-researched Bird biographies that strive to present a balanced portrait of a flawed and complicated genius. There is no doubting their integrity and good intentions. Why, then, do they both offer very one-sided accounts of the events at the Latin Quarter? Bird provided a detailed explanation of the dispute from his own perspective. It’s an extraordinary document that reveals much about the workings of Bird’s mind and displays his surprising abilities as a writer. (He supposedly dictated it to Chan.)
Haddix disparages this rebuttal and Priestley ignores it. They both promote the narrative that Bird was becoming increasingly unstable, resulting in self-destructive clashes with nightclub owners (cf. the Say When dispute). Haddix’s Book came out in 2003, Priestley’s in 2005, so they aren’t products of a bygone era. In light of recent events, though, they are suddenly outdated. I will present excerpts from Morton Berman’s letter first, followed by the Haddix and Priestley accounts, in which they basically adopt his point of view, and then provide an abridged version of Bird’s lucid rebuttal.
I’m not a sociologist, and I’m only trying to make a simple point: when it comes to Bird’s behavior in nightclub settings, it’s impossible to remove racism from the equation. There’s little doubt that Bird provoked the outrage that drove nightclub owners and union officials to fire and fine him. The question is whether the same behavior by a white musician would have received the same response. How much of this outrage resulted from Bird’s refusal to adopt the servile attitude expected of African American performers? How much resulted from Bird’s belief that he should be treated as an artist, not an entertainer? How much resulted from Bird’s conviction that he was inferior to no one, least of all the reptiles that populated the nightclub circuit? Neither Haddix nor Priestley seem to factor racism into this case or similar disputes. Is it possible unconscious biases made them take Morton Berman’s word over Bird’s?
Berman’s letter begins with his insistence that Bird’s group wasn’t a “set band”, a phrase he repeats many times.
When the musicians arrived, we found out that they were not the ones whose names have been given to us; except for Mr. Benny Harris, trumpet player, none of them had ever worked with or for Parker. Mr. Harris “remembered“ having worked with him about two years previous. After listening to the group, we soon realized it was not a set band and that the musicians had been recruited at the last moment, possibly “around 52nd St.“. They had no routine whatsoever, as a matter of fact, they were not rehearsed at all, so much so that Parker had to delay the opening of the first show to set a routine and rehearse the numbers he wanted to play.
This is followed by personal criticism:
Now for their appearance. When they arrived at the club, they looked anything but musicians. They were shabbily dressed, torn shirts, even on Mr. Parker‘s back; they were unshaven, dirty looking and not fit to be presented to any public. We send [sic] them away to get cleaned up before they were allowed to start the performance which was delayed because Mr. Parker was trying to set a routine.
Berman carps about the fact that the drummer arrived without drums and played on a borrowed set. After criticizing the group’s performance (as quoted in Haddix below), Berman goes on to describe what sounds like the arrival of the Royal Canadian Mounties:
This can be verified by the Montreal union investigators, the Sergeant-at-Arms, and Mr. C.J. Lewis who were sent to ascertain whether or not our complaints were founded. They have admitted to us and their officers that the band was really bad.
Berman alleges that the group cost him business:
The patrons were disgusted and many of them thought we were pulling a gag on them by putting on some amateur talent; after they found out the truth, they felt sorry for Parker because “he was alright… but his men…“ etc. etc. Needless to say that we were terribly disappointed. Customers walked out disgusted and our business suffered during the three days we had to put up with this group.
The Earl Hines Orchestra (!) had just played the Latin Quarter the previous week, and Berman brought them back to replace Bird’s fired quintet. He goes on to say:
We offered Parker to play for the remainder of the week in Hines‘ band as we felt sorry for him; he refused our offer which was made more than once, even in front of the officials of the Montreal union.Next comes more personal criticism:Mr. Parker was uncooperative on more than one occasion. On the opening night, for instance, he was asked to play a little theme song in order to give our M.C., Mr. Al Cowans, a chance to start his show; he was arrogant and told the latter: “don’t get excited… I’m running my band… I’ll start when I’m ready…“ Mr. Al Cowans, also colored, is the leader of the local band which has been working here for over two years; he is one of the finest gentleman we ever had working for us; he took a lot of abuse from Parker, but managed to refrain from being tricked into an argument which, it was evident, Parker was seeking; as a matter of fact, he threatened to strike Mr. Cowans in front of the union representative, Mr. Lewis, because he resented the fact that at the union’s request, he (Cowans) had given an account of what was taking place.
This brings us to the great lemon peel controversy:
His continuous chewing on lemon peels and spitting them back on the bandstand in full view of the customers, is another indication of his spiteful disposition towards us. A great number of our patrons, many of them musicians, have been attracted by the reputation of this band. It was a dire disappointment when they heard it; we were the laughingstock of the customers who have been in the habit of listening to the excellent bands presented in our night club.
It would be difficult to separate truth from racism here, and I’m not going to try. But there are red flags all over this account, especially concerning Mr. Cowans. It’s a racist cliché to praise a specific African-American as proof that you don’t harbor any racial prejudice. (“Some of my best friends are colored.“) Berman’s hostility is condescending in the extreme, including the demeaning assertion that he “felt sorry” for Bird. And we can’t move on without noting Berman’s irony-drenched suggestion that Bird stay on to play as a sideman for Earl Hines, his former employer from 1943. It must have felt like the ultimate demotion to Bird, as though the last ten years had meant nothing.
The following is Chuck Haddix’s 2003 account of the Latin Quarter dispute:
On October 12, Charlie opened for a weeklong engagement at the Latin Quarter in Montreal. The owner, Morton Berman, had the Gale agency specify in the contract that Charlie would be accompanied by his working band. Instead, Charlie showed up with a pickup group of musicians who were unprepared for the engagement. The drummer arrived without a drum set and had to borrow one from a local drummer. On opening night, the sidemen, particularly the pianist, failed to rise to the occasion. Charlie’s ulcers flared up, making him difficult on and off the bandstand. After three nights, Berman fired Charlie and refused to pay him for the final four days. Incensed, Charlie filed a suit against the Latin Quarter with the musician’s union. In response, Berman complained to the union that “their performance was pitiful; Mr. Parker personally did his best but the others, especially the pianist, didn’t match him at all; the piano player was always in a fog; half of the time he didn’t play; one of the men in the band remarked “the pianist is way off… Is bad.” Customers walked out in mid-set. Morton further claimed that Charlie stopped in mid-tune to announce the breaks, constantly chewed lemon peels which he spat out in back of the bandstand, and threatened the master of ceremonies Al Cown [sic]. In a lengthy response, Charlie rebutted Berman’s account of the incident paragraph by paragraph, indignantly defending his good name and reputation.
A couple of points here. Bird didn’t have a working band in 1953. By definition, any quintet he put together would have been a “pickup band”. By 1953, Bird was working as a single, and he put this particular band together because the Latin Quarter insisted on it. And for all the talk of how bad this band was, it included Benny Harris, a major trumpet stylist and influential composer. Even the much maligned pianist, Harry Biss, was a seasoned professional who had worked for many well known swing-era bandleaders. In his rebuttal, Bird goes through his sidemen one by one, listing their experience and credentials. How bad could this band have really been? Bird addresses this at the very end of his letter, none of which, by the way, was “indignant.”
The following is Brian Priestley’s 2005 account of the same events:
Charlie’s bookings had in fact been taken over by the Moe Gale Agency (Billy Shaw’s former employer), probably at Chan’s suggestion. She cannot have been too pleased when, on one of his first dates for them, he managed to get reported to the musician’s union after the first day of a week in Montreal, and then summarily fired on the third day. The reasons boiled down to the fact that Charlie brought in an unrehearsed and unkempt pickup band and was personally uncooperative. As with the Say When incident, news of this dispute leaked out to the music press, further harming his already terrible reputation, and despite Charlie‘s counterclaim, the unions financial adjudication nearly six months later went in favor of the Montreal club.
This is unadulterated parroting of Berman’s claims, with a bit of speculation about Chan’s private thoughts thrown in. Bird did indeed have a terrible reputation. From the day he was first hired in Kansas City to his final dismal gig at Birdland, Charlie Parker was invariably late to jobs and frequently absent. His addictions played a role, but there was clearly more to it than that. As irresponsible as this was, and for all the trouble it caused him (and his sidemen), it has no bearing on his value as a human being. It’s simply the way Bird was. Many people accepted it. But it sure did make a lot of authority figures hopping mad.
I will give Bird the last word here, and it isn’t often I can say that. His own words are few and far between. I don’t understand why his writings, legal wranglings though they may be, have been universally ignored by biographers. There weren’t many opportunities for Bird to explain himself, aside from a handful of interviews and articles. Oh yeah, and his music.
Although it doesn’t happen very often, I happened to be sitting in my agent’s office at the time the negotiation occurred and the agreement was made, and I know that due to the fact that I had not been appearing previously with a set band, that my agency advised the Latin quarter of this, but did say that as the club insisted on a band, that I would appear with four other men, and these four men would be selected from a number of musicians that had worked with me previously and who, I believed, were available for the date. This, of course, in my mind, has nothing to do with the claim, actually, as I did appear with five men as per contract. I only wish to clarify the fact that I was not sold to the club in anything but an honest manner.
In paragraph two in which Mr. Berman states that my band had terrible appearance, please be advised that he is correct about this, but he is not correct about the time at which the boys were unshaven, dirty looking, and frankly not in a presentable appearance. For explanation: it is an overnight ride on a train from New York to Montreal, and the men who arrived in the early evening, went immediately, as soon as they got off the train, to the Latin Quarter to ascertain what the requirements of the engagement were, and naturally, this being in the neighborhood of 7:30 in the evening, and we [were] not scheduled to play until 10 o’clock, and having ridden all day on a very dirty train, all of us certainly admit we were definitely not dressed to make a professional appearance. Mr. Berman did not have to send us away to get cleaned up to start a performance, as this naturally would be a normal thing for us to do, and we did it, and had every intention of doing it without Mr. Berman requesting it. When we appeared on his bandstand at the prescribed time of 10:00 p.m., my entire band wore dark blue suits, were cleanly shaven, and were ready to perform in a professional manner.
I did refuse the offer to play with EARL HINES as I felt that first, EARL HINES would have had to agree to this, and secondly it was not only unfair to me to be offered a job as a sideman in another leader’s orchestra when I am already a leader on an engagement, but I also had a duty to the members of my orchestra, each of whom I had hired for a full week of work, and I felt, and still feel responsible, to them for the money due them. I did, however, offer to work personally, with my band at the club, with no pay for myself, if the Latin Quarter would retain my band for the week and pay the men in my band the salary I had guaranteed them. This offer was refused by the management of the Latin Quarter.
In regard to the paragraph regarding lemon peels, I have a stomach condition, and have been advised to chew occasionally on lemon peels. What they do for me, I do not know. However, I most certainly did not spit them out on the bandstand in full view of the customers, and certainly, there was nothing spiteful toward Mr. Berman or his customers in my chewing lemon peels. In this paragraph, Mr. Berman admits that a great number of patrons had been attracted to hear me. I wish to say that I think the dire disappointment he mentioned was in his own mind as I received many good remarks about my playing, and again, I say that because Mr. Berman is new in presenting modern jazz orchestras, he became unhappy with something that he did not understand, but most certainly, his customers who came to hear me, did.
If I may add a personal note to this answer, I wish to say that I believe the reason for the situation is that the Latin Quarter management recently started to play what might be termed name jazz musicians and their orchestras, and at the time I appeared there for them, they were not fully aware of the various types of jazz that is [sic] being played today in America. Preceding me, they employed two very fine organizations led by EARL HINES, and JOHNNY HODGES, whose orchestras play an excellent brand of jazz, entirely different from the type my orchestra plays, and Mr. Berman was comparing my type of music to the type he had been listening to, and because he was not familiar with it, he did not like it. However, this is only due to the fact that my type of music has not appeared in Montreal too often. There are nightclubs in America, where I am, at times, a little more successful than the above named orchestra leaders, because my type of music is more well known in these places and owners know about the music.
I respectfully submit this reply to you for your consideration and trust that this case shall be decided in my favor, as it is plainly a question of contract obligation, in my mind. Sincerely yours, Charlie Parker.
Not long after the Latin Quarter firing, Bird went on a tour with the “West Coast in Jazz” concert package, performing in a quintet that included Chet Baker. Bird had first played with Chet at the Tiffany Club in LA in the spring of 1952, and on Monday, June 16th they were both recorded at the Trade Winds Club in Inglewood, California, along with the hyperactive Sonny Criss on alto.
Today’s musical offering (pitch and speed corrected) consists of a lovely rendition of Irresistible You recorded that night. Bird sounds very content as he negotiates this less-commonly played standard with its comfortable chord changes.
Chet Baker, just 22 years old, displays the many promising attributes that caught Bird’s attention. Sonny Criss is… Sonny Criss (he solos third). Russ Freeman (or possibly Al Haig) is on piano, Harry Babasin is on bass, and Lawrence Marable is on drums.
Private recordings exist from the 1953 “West Coast in Jazz” concert tour, but the sound quality is quite rough and only Bird’s solos were recorded. Dedicated Bird enthusiasts can search them out on YouTube. There’s a channel called Overjazz that offers all sorts of interesting finds. You can get there by searching for “Charlie Parker Chet Baker 1953”. Ornithology, Cool Blues, and Barbados seem to be the three available tracks. The personnel is Bird, Chet, Jimmy Rowles, piano, Carson Smith, bass, and Shelly Manne, drums.