Charlie and Doris Parker were married on November 20, 1948, and today would have been their 72nd wedding anniversary. Of course, Charlie Parker (Bird) would have had to live to age 100. As it was, he only made it a third of the way. And their marriage would have had to last for 72 years, whereas it only lasted about 72 weeks. This figure is misleading, though. They had been living together for about three years before Bird had the impulse to tie the knot, well past the midpoint in their relationship.
At about the same time, Bird also married, in a manner of speaking, Norman Granz. It was a business arrangement that had been long in the making. Their relationship dated back to 1946, when Bird appeared at a very successful Granz-produced concert at Philharmonic Hall in Los Angeles. This event became the template for Jazz at the Philharmonic, Granz’s muscle-bound musical road show.
They renewed their acquaintance when Bird returned to New York, after his time in Camarillo. Granz recognized Bird’s genius and believed in his commercial potential. As Bird’s fame grew, his manager, Billy Shaw, began urging him to abandon Dial and Savoy and sign with Granz, whose distribution deal with Mercury records would give him wider exposure. The 1948 recording ban delayed this process for most of the year, but the deal ultimately came to fruition in early November, at which point Granz added Bird to the latest JATP tour. It launched with a Carnegie Hall performance on Saturday, November 6th, and proceeded onward to a long string of one-nighters.
Doris accompanied Bird on the tour. There is a snapshot of the two of them waiting on the tarmac for their flight, and they make an odd couple. Bird is looking stylish in a long overcoat, gazing into the camera, unsmiling, brows furrowed. He seems to be speaking, perhaps to the photographer, perhaps to Doris. She is standing a few paces behind him and off to one side, a stack of books and papers gathered in her arms, head bowed, looking as though she’s trying to stay out of the shot. Her coat hangs awkwardly on her gangly frame and she’s smiling shyly, exposing her unruly teeth. She’s wearing flats, so as not to add to her height. She’s taller than Bird by a few inches but she’s struggling not to look it.
The photograph is undated, but it’s possible they were already newlyweds at that moment. When the tour reached Long Beach, California, Doris and Bird went AWOL, slipping across the border to get married in Tijuana. According to Doris, they were back in time for the performance that night, but other accounts have them catching up with the tour a couple of days later, in Los Angeles. It’s possible they had some sort of honeymoon, and it may have still been in progress when they returned. One story has Bird arriving at the dressing room quite drunk, so much so that Norman Granz had to stick his head under a faucet and run cold water over it to sober him up. As a result, Coleman Hawkins was stranded onstage, playing encore after encore, stalling for time.
If Bird got married on impulse (his approach to everything) a bit of calculation may still have been involved. Bird had never divorced Geraldine Scott, the beautiful young dancer whom he’d married on impulse five years earlier. The duration of that marriage could also be measured in weeks, and it was ancient history to Bird, but a wedding ceremony in the US may well have brought this inconvenient legality to light.
Of course, it’s not entirely certain that he ever legally divorced his first wife, Rebecca Rufffin, childhood sweetheart and mother of his son, Leon. One fact is beyond dispute: Bird never did marry his fourth wife, Chan Richardson, even though their marriage was the most substantial of all, and produced two children. After Bird’s death, this traffic jam of ex-wives and their marriage certificates led to all sorts of litigation, even though he had died penniless. It can be assumed that all parties foresaw a day when his estate would be worth quite a lot.
If you subscribe to the theory that Bird lived his life at twice the speed of ordinary mortals, the pace of events during his time with Doris bears this out. In the five years they were together, he rose from obscurity to international fame, in the process making the studio recordings that form the bulk of his legacy and provide irrefutable proof of his genius.
Doris seldom gets credit for her role in all of this. She’s unfairly portrayed as a naive and submissive housewife who inherited the job of coddling Bird from his mother. But she played a pivotal role, because there’s little evidence that Bird was capable of taking care of himself in any meaningful way. Somebody had to do it and it can’t have been easy. We owe Doris a debt of gratitude for much of the music we have. It’s impossible to judge any marriage from the outside, and we can only guess at the dynamic between them, but the fact that it lasted five years is a measure of its success, not its failure
Jumping ahead one year, to November 1949, we find Bird embarking on a new musical venture with Granz, one that announced his arrival at the top: Charlie Parker with Strings. The critics were lukewarm at best, but the record sales were unprecedented, proving Granz right about Bird’s commercial potential. It was the start of a new chapter, and provided the soundtrack for the end of his marriage to Doris and the beginning of his life with Chan.
By September 16th, 1950, when today’s musical offering was recorded, Doris had gone back home to Rock Island, Illinois, and Chan had moved into Bird’s apartment, replacing her. Bird was recorded with strings at Carnegie Hall that Saturday night, as part of yet another JATP concert. The sound quality is clear, Bird is inspired, and, in the grand JATP tradition, the audience is enthusiastic at all the wrong times. They are inconsistent about clapping for solos, but often burst into raucous applause for the strings.
As time went on, the string section became an albatross, and memorable live performances are few. But there are good reasons to be grateful for this one. We get to hear Al Haig well-recorded on a first rate piano. Not only does he comp masterfully and take gorgeous solos, but he helps redeem the smarmy arrangements, playing with imagination and taste throughout the ensemble passages. And, if the personnel list is correct, Tommy Potter (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums) (on brushes!) round out the rhythm section. One thing is certain: the music swings much harder here than it did in the studio, and Bird rises to the occasion.
After Bird’s death, Doris Parker returned to New York and worked for twenty-five years as a secretary at Columbia University. She was active as a community organizer on the Upper West Side and helped raise money for Veritas, a drug rehabilitation program.
She died on January 17th, 2000, at age 77. No immediate family members survived her. I will give her the last word:
I loved Charlie for what he was, good or bad, musician or not. And if I knew the way it would turn out, I’d do it again.