Charlie Parker’s hundredth birthday has come and gone, and what have we learned? Various recordings were reissued, obligatory articles were written, and a graphic novel was published. But the standard narrative didn’t change. We were still told that Bird’s life was a tragic, chaotic waste that resulted, inexplicably, in supremely beautiful music.
This narrative never sat well with me, and, in the course of writing these weekly essays, I became increasingly dismissive of it. Thanks to Bird’s many biographers, the basic facts are beyond dispute. It’s the interpretation that could stand more scrutiny. To deny the connection between the way Bird lived and the music he created is to marginalize his accomplishments, which were a profound intellectual achievement.
As fate would have it, Bird’s centennial year played out against the backdrop of the opioid crisis and the Black Lives Matter movement. Addiction and racism are the cornerstones of Bird’s life story, yet the standard narrative still made its rounds unquestioned. Now that America has admitted that racism is alive and well and that addictions require compassion, this should turn Bird’s story on its head.
Who is qualified to rewrite the standard narrative? Not I, that much is obvious. But I’m willing to suggest that it should be rewritten, and that the first step is to read old biographies with new eyes. This is the theme that takes shape over the course of these fifty-two essays.
The essays began as promotional blurbs for weekly live performances of Bird’s music, in honor of his centennial year. These ended abruptly when the pandemic hit. The essays, however, continued, expanding in the process. Each weekly essay drew on an event in Bird’s life that occurred on or around that date. By luck of the draw, some periods received more attention than others, with Bird’s early life on the losing end, not least because few exact dates can be pinpointed.
I recently returned to the earliest essays, intending to expand them, but that didn’t go well, so I decided to write this introductory essay instead. I hope to provide an overview of Bird’s life, with an emphasis on his early years, at the same time introducing his many biographers–the good, the bad, and the ugly. Fear not! The weekly essays are shorter by far. But even a flyover requires persistence, because Bird crammed a great deal of living into thirty-four years. What’s more, his story increases in complexity as you expunge all the doomed-artist cliches and cartoon racial stereotypes.
So pack a lunch and let’s get started.
* * * * * * *
Some months ago, I had an unsettling experience while looking up Bird on YouTube. I made the mistake of reading the comments, in which some innocent Bird enthusiast became the target of sarcasm, mockery, and naked rage. In the midst of this melee, someone wrote a comment that struck a nerve with me. It was something like, “You all think you know who Charlie Parker was, and you think he was just like you. But you don’t really know who he was, and he wasn’t just like you, so why don’t you all just stop pretending you know what you’re talking about.”
This sentiment wasn’t new to me. I had directed it at myself more than once. To find it being wielded like a cudgel, however, caused me to reflect. I will skip straight to my conclusions.
The vast majority of jazz critics who have written about Bird never met him and have based their opinions on second-hand knowledge. Nevertheless, they all seem comfortable passing judgement on his life. This is intrinsically patronizing, and racial bias can’t be removed from the equation.
Nobody knew Charlie Parker, including his contemporaries. He was a complex and private man who left us few explanations. Even the judgements of his wives can’t be considered definitive. So I hereby issue this proclamation to anyone who loves Bird and his music: as long as your theories fit the established facts, your conclusions about who he was are just as valid as anyone else’s, including–and especially–those of his biographers.
If you don’t know where to start, look up Bird’s 1954 radio interview with Paul Desmond and listen to the sound of his voice and the way he expresses himself. That alone is more revealing than all the biographies put together.
Then listen to “Embraceable You.”
* * * * * * *
Charlie Parker 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.
Bird was born Charles Parker, Jr. on August 29th, 1920. Not much is known about Charles Parker, Sr.’s life. 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) Bayley 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 from home 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.
Biographers relate these facts without mention of racism, yet racism is the canvas upon which they are painted. It may be cold comfort, but Charles Sr. 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 a good dancer, as well.) 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. 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 soon became his infatuation. 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, the family had moved across the river, from Kansas City, Kansas, to Kansas City, Missouri. Absent any financial support from Charles Sr., Addie 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. At 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. (Some biographers give the name as the Ten Chords of Rhythm.) Bird and Robert went everywhere together, practiced together, searched for gigs together, sat in at jam sessions together. Bird was still an inept saxophonist and endured many musical humiliations. Ultimately, these only made him more determined, and he had Simpson’s support 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 travelled by streetcar to beg the club owner to take Bird back. As a result, he died of pneumonia shortly afterward. 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. Lawrence Keyes remembered it this way:
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. 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.
By most accounts, Simpson died in 1936, around the time that Bird began using narcotics. Pianist George Wallington, among the first modernists on the 52nd Street scene, spoke about Bird’s reaction to the death of Clyde Hart, an important transitional pianist, in 1945. Bird had recorded with Hart twice that year.
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.
Wallington also provided insight into Bird’s attitudes concerning racism.
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. Bird still showed no signs of genius, although he was managing to find steady work. 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.
* * * * * * *
According to the standard narrative, Bird’s life was tragically cut short. His death at thirty-four has given every jazz critic a shocking statistic to build upon, but they fail to acknowledge what is strikingly obvious: the events of Bird’s life are so compressed in time that he was essentially living at twice the ordinary speed. If the dictum “the flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long” applies to anyone, it applies to Charlie Parker.
Also according to the standard narrative, Bird’s use of heroin, alcohol, and amphetamines was self-destructive, driven by his “demons.” There’s no question that he wore out every organ in his body by overindulging in every form of pleasure, but this was largely hedonistic. None of it was done with the intention of destroying himself, except, perhaps, in his final months.
Furthermore, his substance abuse, like it or not, was an integral part of his creative process. Viewed from the outside, Bird led a hand-to-mouth existence throughout his late teens and early twenties, characterized by aimless wandering, excessive drug use, and extreme unreliability. And yet, by the time this period came to an end, he had invented a new musical language that drew deeply from existing traditions and renewed them in ways that propelled jazz into the future.
To assert he did this through some form of unfathomable genius is to rob him of all he accomplished through the power of his intellect and the strength of his spirit.
* * * * * * *
By his sixteenth birthday, Bird had already arrived at a phase of life that most people reach when they’re nearing thirty, to wit: married and established in his profession. Bird’s transformation from laughing stock to hometown hero happened around this time and was also characteristically compressed. Many eyewitnesses claim it happened over the course of a single summer, although a definitive chronology of Bird’s teenage years is maddeningly out of reach. Rather than trekking through the weeds, let’s go with the traditional version.
Bird travelled to Eldon, Missouri, on a number of occasions, to work at Musser’s Ozark Tavern. Clarence Musser, a short, volatile man with reputed underworld connections in Kansas City, bought an old gas station and the parcel of land that came with it, and built a resort there. It opened on Thanksgiving Day, 1936, and it’s assumed that Bird was en route to play the opening when he was involved in a serious accident. The car in which he was travelling lost control on a patch of ice and rolled over a number of times. The bass player was killed, and Bird broke two ribs and fractured his spine. He was bedridden for months while Addie and Rebecca nursed him back to health. Morphine was given freely for pain, possibly in place of proper medical treatment, and this played some role in his growing addiction to narcotics, although it probably wasn’t the starting point.
Subsequent automobile trips to Eldon were uneventful, and Bird played a long engagement at Musser’s in the summer of 1937, as a member of George E. Lee’s band. For at least three months, he was free to woodshed to his heart’s content, and this may be one of the periods he was referencing when he said, “I used to put in at least eleven, eleven to fifteen hours a day.” He brought with him Count Basie records featuring Lester Young and memorized Lester’s solos. Guitarist Effrege Ware tutored Bird in advanced harmony. At summer’s end, Bird returned to Kansas City transformed.
Bird’s deficiencies around 1936 are well documented. Kansas City bandleader Oliver Todd put it more bluntly than most:
His playing at the time was lousy. Lousy! We used to make fun of him.
Bassist Gene Ramey, one of Bird’s oldest friends, was more tactful:
Bird wasn’t doing anything, musically speaking, at that period. In fact, he was the saddest thing in the band, and the other members gave him something of a hard time.
Both vividly recall Bird’s 1937 return from the Ozarks.
He lost his Sweet Lucy sound, which is like a combination of a man talking and drinking wine at the same time. His style had completely changed. He became the darling of K.C.
He played a melody down just perfect. Then he got a-loose [improvised] and tears came streamin’ down my face. He looked at me, said “What are you cryin’ for?” I said, “I seen a miracle.” And I mean it was a miracle. He showed you what study will do for you. He went down to the Ozarks and came back swingin’. He was righteous!
The transformed Charlie Parker was suddenly in demand, and the fall of 1937 marks the beginning of his “apprenticeship period.” For the next few years, he gained experience working for all manner of bandleaders. An accurate chronology is a pipe dream, but the order doesn’t much matter. Many associations were brief, often ending with Bird being fired for unreliability (and being immediately hired by somebody else), but two were of exceptional importance: for a time, alto saxophonist Buster Smith became his mentor and father figure, and he worked for pianist Jay McShann off-and-on until 1942, when the McShann Orchestra made its triumphant debut at the Savoy Ballroom. At the end of that engagement, Bird jumped ship.
From that day forward, New York City would be his adopted home.
* * * * * * *
Bird was seventeen years old when Rebecca gave birth to their first and only child, Leon Francis, on January 10th, 1938. (Some biographers give his name as Francis Leon.) Although Bird bonded with his infant son, he was already outgrowing his marriage, and his musical ambitions conflicted with fatherhood in every way.
It’s not unfair to say that Bird gradually abandoned his family, just as his own father had, but the circumstances were different. He was genuinely in love when he married Rebecca, and his desire for a family was sincere. We perceive Bird’s life as predetermined, but he couldn’t see his own future. Getting married and starting a family both made sense at the time, when his musical destiny was far from certain. It’s impossible to know when he recognized his own genius, but he must have had some sense of it by the time Leon was born, and it must have come as a surprise.
When he requested a divorce In 1940 (at the age of twenty), Bird asked Rebecca to free him so he could “become a great musician.” If it seemed like a flimsy pretext at the time, he did, in fact, do exactly that. That doesn’t lessen the fact that Leon grew up without a father.
Not much is known about Leon’s life, but I happened across a surprising 1959 article published in Jet magazine that, in the space of two paragraphs, gives us a much clearer sense of Leon than any Bird biography. The article deals with the battle for Bird’s estate, and at the end the writers turn their attention to Leon, twenty-one at the time of publication.
Probably the most confused of the litigants is Leon Parker, a pre-law student at Lincoln (Mo.) University and an Air Force veteran. Like all of the litigants, he has no anger and naturally wants anything due him. But he seemed more inclined to talk about the man who was his father than anything else. The antithesis of his fabled father, Leon, a non-smoker and non-drinker, said: “Even if he were not my father, I would have to say he was the greatest jazzman who ever lived. I was a child when I heard his Laura, but I understood everything he was saying. It was as if I had a built-in understanding. But I never wanted to be a professional musician because I feared I would never be accepted because of him. I only saw him twice in my life and was always sorry I could never be around him. I gave up trying to play alto at 15.“
Whatever the outcome of the court battle for the Bird’s estate, Bird, unlike most of the dead, can return again. For while Leon will not admit it, his mother Rebecca insists: “Leon not only walks, talks, smiles, eats like his father, when he plays the alto, his hands move with the same lightning, he plays with the same fire and has the same sound.“
The caption that accompanies Leon’s picture states: “Leon Parker says he wants to make his contribution in law.” But his brief obituary in the Kansas City Star (June 12th, 2004) reads as follows:
Parker graduated from Lincoln University in Jefferson City and the Kansas City Business College. He was a licensed barber by trade and was CEO of his company, Three Sisters Inc. Parker served in the Air Force.
It would seem, then, that he ended up a barber, not a lawyer. Does this indicate that his life was as conscribed by racism as that of his father or grandfather? Let’s hope not.
The obituary continues:
He is survived by his wife, Wanda Parker, a son, Bryan Parker, and two daughters, Kristal Parker and Korey Parker, four grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
In her only interview, Addie related a conversation she had with Bird about his children, during which he said, “Mama, after I’m gone, the Parkers will still live.”
Leon was seventeen years old when Bird died, the same age Bird was when Leon was born. It’s unlikely he was aware of his father’s wishes, but he fulfilled them nonetheless.
It was as if he had a built-in understanding.
* * * * * * *
The most detailed accounts of Bird’s teenage years come to us through biographers Gary Giddins and Stanley Crouch, both of whom relied heavily on Rebecca’s recollections. In the acknowledgements to Celebrating Bird: the Triumph of Charlie Parker, Giddins’ 1987 biography, the author writes:
My first debt is to Stanley Crouch, friend and colleague, who has been working since 1982 on an exhaustive study of Parker’s life and art. In what was surely an unusual if not unprecedented act of scholarly comradeship, Stanley made all of his research available to me so that I could “get it right.“ His extensive interviews with Rebecca Parker Davis convinced me that she knew the story I wanted to tell.
The title of Giddins’ book is a bit perplexing, because there isn’t a whole lot of triumph to be found. It’s essentially the same narrative that Ross Russell had sensationalized, stripped of outright fabrication and dialed back a few notches. I suppose this passes for celebration, if your standards aren’t too high, but it was far from an enlightened reassessment. As a matter of fact, Giddins robs Bird of his accomplishments in broad daylight, on a crowded street! The very last paragraph reads:
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.
Yeah, yeah, tell it to the judge.
Crouch gets much credit for recognizing Rebecca as a valuable source and doing the legwork to track her down, but he tossed her story into his biographical stewpot and let it simmer for another couple of decades. Giddins ran with it, presenting her version of events without any mention of corroboration. Suspect or not, Rebecca’s recollections contributed much of value, and she had certainly been overlooked by previous biographers, such as they were.
British jazz critic Max Harrison gets the prize for earliest biography, publishing his synopsis of Bird’s life and music in 1960. This seventy-four page narrative was just one book in a series called Kings of Jazz, which only increases its resemblance to the Gospel of Matthew. Harrison lays out an unadorned timeline that documents where Bird went and what he did, with relatively little attention to Bird’s personal life and addictions. There’s a lot to be said for this, although Harrison’s assessment of Bird’s personality is bizarre. He paints him as pathologically isolated from all those around him, due to an unspecified mental illness that worsened over time. He’s entitled to his opinion, but he withholds exculpatory evidence: not only is Rebecca’s name nowhere to be found, he makes no mention of Bird’s other three wives, either (aside from one fleeting reference to Chan). To be fair, the treasure trove of information we possess today didn’t exist at the time Harrison was writing. He constructed the basic framework of Bird’s life story from scratch, and certainly deserves much credit for that.
Robert Reisner’s book, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker, came next. This 1962 collection of firsthand accounts was never intended as a biography, and, as the title warned, didn’t even aspire to veracity. Why Reisner failed to solicit a remembrance from Rebecca is unknown. It would appear that he travelled to Kansas City to conduct interviews, but Rebecca was long gone by then, having remarried and moved to Detroit. In general, though, the book’s spiritual home is New York City, and, with so much material close at hand, Reisner may have lacked the impetus to seek her out.
The next stop is Ross Russell’s Bird Lives, published in 1973. This exceedingly irresponsible book not only twisted the truth, it drove a stake through its heart. In recounting Bird’s early years, he is so preoccupied conjuring up fictional characters and events that he gets Rebecca’s last name wrong. Introducing her as Rebecca Ruffing, he proceeds to dismiss her in a paragraph that brims with sexist/racist cliches and adds nothing to our knowledge. Regrettably, Bird Lives remains the most widely read of all Bird biographies, and Russell’s portrait of a contemptible man who made sublime music is now so embedded in popular culture that it’s impossible to pry loose.
Eleven years of silence followed Bird Lives, until Brian Priestley spoke up from across the Atlantic. Titled simply Charlie Parker, his 1984 biography was part of the Jazz Masters series, a set of miniaturized hardcovers whose size belied their quality, which was impressive in a reserved British way. (Priestley would update, expand, and rename his book in 2005, when it returned, much larger and thicker, as Chasin’ The Bird.)
Much to his credit, Priestley seems to have ignored Russell entirely, except when it comes to Rebecca. Like Harrison, he was in no position to locate Rebecca and interview her, so he adopts Russell’s dismissive attitude and leaves it at that. On the whole, his narrative is reasonably balanced, and yet the first sentence of the last chapter throws it completely off kilter. He laments “the rootless confusion of Charlie Parker’s private life and the waste of his undoubted intellect.” First of all, whose private life are we judging Bird’s against? Secondly, and more grievously, the claim that he wasted his intellect implies that his accomplishments sprang from some non-intellectual source. This is dangerous territory indeed.
The 1987 release of Giddins’ Celebrating Bird was done in conjunction with a documentary of the same name, and this one-two punch caused a minor sensation in jazz circles. Lawrence O. Koch’s biography, Yardbird Suite, was published a year later. This must have been an unfortunate coincidence, because it can’t have been good for sales. But Koch’s book is an extraordinary feat of scholarship, one that required listening to Bird’s entire output, reviewing each track individually, and transcribing a multitude of musical examples. If the biographical side is undernourished, it’s clearly a tradeoff Koch intended to make. It’s no surprise that he has little to say about Rebecca. He must have been in the throes of finishing his own book when Giddins’ came out, too far along to rewrite his opening chapters.
Yardbird Suite raised the bar. The four previous biographies had been aimed squarely at the general public, with no attempts made at serious musicology. Koch’s book seemed to be aimed at jazz musicians, also not great for sales, but it helped usher in a new era. The next biography, Carl Woideck’s 1996 Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, was close to Koch’s in design and depth of scholarship. Woideck incorporates Rebecca’s story into the long opening chapter, but his tight focus on Bird’s musical development deemphasizes it.
Woideck’s book is a masterful achievement, and I mean no disrespect as I snap at his heels, but his preoccupation with Bird’s addictions is judgemental in an oddly dispassionate way. They form a running subplot, dryly noted whenever the opportunity presents itself. He makes no secret of his feeling that Bird failed to build on his initial accomplishments due to his addictions, and he makes a convincing case. All I can say is this: how much more should we reasonably expect of Bird?
The new millennium brought us Chasin’ the Bird in 2005, but, as noted above, that was old wine in sheep’s clothing. 2013, however, made up for lost time by bringing us two Bird biographies. Redundancy hovered like a spectre, but the books proved to be opposites.
Bird: the Life and Music of Charlie Parker, by Chuck Haddix, is the best general biography we are likely to get. In addition to synthesizing all the available facts into a flowing (and accurate) narrative, Haddix’s extensive research produced fascinating new details and upended received wisdom. He gives Rebecca’s story its due, although it doesn’t appear he made much effort to vet it, a missed opportunity, to be sure. Haddix’s tone is matter-of-fact, and he draws the line at ascribing internal thoughts, a technique that was flagrantly exploited by Russell, and is alarmingly present in Crouch’s book, albeit for nobler purposes. Like Woideck, Haddix seldom turns down an opportunity to make note of Bird’s addictions, but he refrains from explicitly passing judgement.
Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning, was long overdue in at least two senses: it took thirty years to write, and Crouch is the first African American author to tackle Bird’s life. Why this is so I wouldn’t presume to guess, but we at last have a Charlie Parker connected to the African-American culture of Kansas City. Crouch, however, doesn’t stop there. He diverts from the narrative whenever the mood strikes, giving us mini-biographies of important Kansas City musicians and guided tours through African-American history and sociology. At times, you have to consult the dust jacket to make sure you’re reading a book about Charlie Parker. As a result, Crouch only makes it to 1942. A second volume was planned, but his untimely death, on September 16th, 2020, casts doubt on that prospect.
If you weed out all the digressions, Kansas City Lightning is more a love story than anything else. Crouch, it would seem, encouraged Rebecca to pour out every detail of every memory, then tracked down her sisters and asked the same of them. We now know everything we will ever need to know about Bird’s first marriage, except, of course, Bird’s side of the story. Crouch seems to take everything Rebecca said as gospel, as did Giddins. My concern is that this creates the illusion of corroboration where none exists, heightened by the fact that the books were published twenty-five years apart. At this point, however, Rebecca’s portrait of Bird is just as ingrained in the jazz world’s imagination as Ross Russell’s.
At least she loved him.
* * * * * * *
The McShann Orchestra’s success at the Savoy Ballroom allowed them to establish a home base in New York City, but they still had to make their living on the road. Bird was weary of that life, which had recently included an arrest and beating one night in Mississippi, for smoking a cigarette on a screen porch, in violation of the Blacks-only curfew. And he was even wearier of the big band environment, with its constraints on spontaneity and freedom. His “apprenticeship period” had long since expired, and he now surpassed everyone in McShann’s band, both technically and conceptually. There was no future for him back in Kansas City, which had been cleansed of all corruption by the late ‘30s. Above all else, he had discovered kindred spirits in Harlem, at the after-hours jam sessions at Minton’s and Monroe’s. All this led Bird to choose New York City as his adopted home. As he put it:
When I came to New York and went to Monroe’s, I began to listen to that real advanced New York style. I’d listen to trumpet men like Lips Page, Roy, Dizzy and Charlie Shavers outblowing each other all night long. And Don Byas was there, playing everything there was to be played. That was the kind of music that caused me to quit McShann and stay in New York.
Bird was always modest about his own contributions, and it was certainly a two-way street, but it’s hard to overstate the impact his playing had at that exact moment. Bird doesn’t mention Minton’s, but the house band there included Thelonious Monk and Kenny Clarke, with Dizzy an unofficial member, as well. The modernists on the Harlem scene had gathered together the components of a new style but were still in the process of assembling them. Swing had run its course, something thrilling was taking shape, but no one was sure exactly how it was supposed to sound. Then an obscure territory band swept into the Savoy, with a prophet in its saxophone section. Bird’s personal style catalyzed the entire movement. Equally important, the scene at Minton’s and Monroe’s gave him a context for his own continuing development. He was no longer alone in his quest.
He was, however, unemployed. He couldn’t even look for work, because the musician’s union enforced a strict three-month waiting period for newcomers. As a result, he was trying to survive on his cut of the jam session tip jars. He had no fixed address, no idea where his next meal was coming from, no idea what tomorrow would bring. And yet this is how he described these months, in his 1954 radio interview with Paul Desmond:
Those were the, what you might call, good old days. Gay youth, lack of funds. There was nothing to do but play, and we had a lot of fun trying to play. I did. Plenty of jam sessions, meant much late hours, pretty good food, nice clean living, you know? But basically speaking, much poverty.
There is an understated joy in Bird’s description of his life in late 1942. The act of playing was clearly a transcendent experience, where all cares dissolved into the ever-present Now. For Bird, literally nothing else mattered, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he found the exploitation of this spiritual pursuit offensive. This would go some way in explaining his unreliability, which wasn’t much of a sin, if it was even a sin at all.
All the hyperbole from jazz critics about chaos and erratic behavior really boils down to one simple fact: Bird didn’t play unless he felt like it. That’s it. This was the source of all his difficulties.
Perhaps we’ve finally reached the point, in 2021, when it’s clear that the real sin was the persecution Bird had to contend with as a result. In the 1940s and 50s, a Black man who only played when he felt like playing was flaunting his freedom in a way that provoked outrage in White authority figures. We should start giving Bird the benefit of the doubt in these situations, which are without number.
While we’re at it, we should acknowledge that Bird’s addictions were in no way a matter of depravity, and that much of his “bad behavior” was a result of heroin’s illegality and the lengths he had to go to in order to procure it and pay for it. Compassion toward heroin addicts never gained much traction until White people began dying in large numbers. We should start applying some of that compassion to Bird retroactively. His addictions were an untreated illness, not the measure of his worth. All jazz critics, to varying degrees, have forced Bird’s complex and nuanced personality into the pigeon hole marked heroin addict. This is risky business, because the issue of drug abuse is an unguarded doorway through which racial bias slips unnoticed.
Bird’s biographers, with the exception of Stanley Crouch, were all White, as are virtually all the jazz critics who have ever written about him. It isn’t necessary to make accusations when assessing the racial bias in their writings. Any White person capable of reflection has recently come to realize just how much unconscious bias we harbor. There isn’t much we can do about it, other than make a fresh start.
The point here, once again, is that times have changed, and the standard narrative must change with them.
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I will now pick up the pace by zooming out, in the process neglecting, among many things, the remaining three of Bird’s four wives. I apologize for this Harrisonesque behavior.
In desperate straits financially, Bird couldn’t escape the tyranny of big bands right away. Friends helped him land a spot playing tenor in the Earl Hines Orchestra. There was a bright silver lining to this, in that the band contained a cadre of modernists. Bird cemented his relationship with Dizzy during this time, and the following year they transitioned together into the Billy Eckstine Orchestra, packed with even more modernists.
The Eckstine Orchestra broke up in 1944, and soon the modernists were infiltrating 52nd Street. The more open-minded swing stars began hiring them as sidemen, such as Tiny Grimes, with whom Bird made his first small band recordings. In 1945, Dizzy opened at the Three Deuces with the definitive all-modern quintet, Bird sharing the front line, and they were active in the recording studio, as well, together and separately.
Bird made his first recordings as a leader in November, employing the nineteen-year-old Miles Davis, then traveled with Dizzy to Los Angeles in December, for an eight-week engagement at Billy Berg’s. When their run ended in early February, 1946, the band returned to New York minus Bird, who stayed on in LA, possibly to break with Dizzy.
Things went well in California for a time. Bird led a band at the Finale Club, signed a recording contract with Ross Russell, owner of Dial Records, and made his second date as a leader, which produced excellent music. But work and heroin were both scarce in LA, and Bird soon discovered just how addicted he had become. He coped with withdrawal by substituting alcohol, which was both ineffectual and debilitating. Despite the heroic efforts of Howard McGhee, Bird’s health deteriorated rapidly.
Fearing his only recording artist was reaching the point of no return, Russell rushed to record him a second time, which resulted in the infamous July 29th, 1946 recording session that produced “Lover Man.” Bird was arrested that night outside his hotel, naked and disoriented, in a state of acute withdrawal. He spent the next six months at Camarillo State Mental Hospital, where he recovered from his addictions, gained some weight, and emerged in good health.
Bird returned to New York City in April, 1947, and set about forming what became known as his classic quintet, which included Miles Davis and Max Roach. He soon resumed his hedonistic ways, although it isn’t entirely clear when or if he became fully re-addicted to heroin. He may have used alcohol to ward this off, a disastrous strategy. But the recordings he made with his working quintet for Dial and Savoy are brilliant without exception, and are the high-water mark of his recorded legacy.
As the decade came to a close, Bird signed a deal with Norman Granz on the Verve (Clef/Mercury) label. Their association soon resulted in the “Charlie Parker with Strings” recordings, panned by critics but an enduring commercial success. Granz, however, for reasons unknown, was disinclined to record Bird’s working quintet. This had negative consequences in the long run, and may be why Bird’s Dial and Savoy recordings are widely considered superior.
When Bird made his return from California in 1947, he was little more than a cult figure. Less than three years later, he reached the pinnacle of his fame, which had spread worldwide. This highpoint was tacitly acknowledged with the opening of Birdland, a jazz club named in his honor, on December 15th, 1949.
To say this ascent happened at twice the ordinary speed doesn’t even come close, and his time at the top was so fleeting as to be a cruel joke. His descent was more drawn out, perhaps, depending on when you mark its beginning, but it was a plummet straight into hell.
The loss of his cabaret card was the most conspicuous turning point. Bird spent a fair amount of time outwitting the vice squad, but he eventually got busted in 1951. He was fortunate to draw a lenient judge and received a suspended sentence, but the NYPD twisted the knife by pulling his cabaret card, without which he couldn’t perform in New York City nightclubs. By this time, Bird was doing his best to settle down and raise a family, and regular employment at Birdland was providing the necessary stability. The powers-that-be yanked that out from under him, punishing his wife and children in the process. Bird was forced back out on the road, which he loathed, and he deadened his despondency with booze, an unavoidable temptation on the nightclub circuit. This was the beginning of the end.
Meanwhile, all was not well creatively. Granz did a great many things to help a great many musicians, and he was loyal to Bird to the bitter end, but their musical association was a comedy of errors, without the comedy. Bird envisioned a grand fusion of jazz and classical music, something like what became known decades later as Third Stream. What he got instead was a dispiriting parade of white elephants, doomed by Granz’s choice of formats, arrangers, and personnel. As all this was coming to naught, Bird’s working quintet quietly ceased to exist. Lacking this fundamental source of inspiration, his artistic decline began in earnest.
His physical decline was also well underway, and it began to compromise his playing. He had been suffering from painful peptic ulcers since the late forties, brought on by his fondness for straight spirits. Now doctors began treating him for heart problems, liver problems were indicated, and he was gaining weight at an alarming rate. On any given night, he could still astonish, and even hint at new breakthroughs, but there were also nights when he seemed drained of all strength and inspiration.
There is no doubt whatsoever that Bird’s health problems were directly related to his overconsumption of absolutely everything. If there’s a corollary to “twice the ordinary speed,” it would be “ten times the ordinary amount.”
Many quotes attributed to Bird that can’t be verified, but this one comes directly from pianist Walter Bishop, Jr., who worked closely with him. On more than one occasion, Bird told him:
The greatest thing a man can do is find self-satisfaction. If it makes you happy to eat that glass, well, eat it.
I wouldn’t rest my case on this statement alone, but it’s certainly evidence that Bird sought gratification, not annihilation. Perhaps it slipped his mind, but Bird makes no mention of demons.
Another reputable source who didn’t get the memo on demons was Kenny Dorham, who observed:
Bird was a real happy person, and it never seemed like he had any acute traumatic grievances. He knew our society wasn’t right and he would talk about it sometimes. His thing was like he’d just get high and blank that other part out. I guess he saw it wasn’t going to get together in his lifetime.
As the 50s progressed, there was more and more to blank out. No one knows when Bird came to the realization that he would be confined to nightclubs for the rest of his life, but it must have sickened him. His final years were clouded by protracted legal disputes with a variety of club owners and managers who fired him and/or refused to pay him, in response to his outrageous (to them) behavior (showing up late).
Biographers present these incidents as evidence of Bird’s growing mental instability. I see them as defiance born of hurt and frustration. How would you feel if you were one of the highest-ranking geniuses of 20th Century music, condemned by racism to the lowest rung of the showbiz ladder, to serve at the pleasure of eels and sharks?
I will take the word of Teddy Reig, Savoy Records’ ursine A&R man, over that of any biographer. He summed up Bird this way:
He was an angel. That man was so abused that anything he did was excusable.
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Biographers feed on the grisly details of Bird’s final months, treating them as a morality play, when in fact they were very much an anomaly. I prefer instead to zoom out even further.
On March 6th, 1954, Bird’s two-year-old daughter died from undiagnosed cystic fibrosis, sequestered in an oxygen tent, while he was in California, sequestered on a calamitous gig. He had been struggling with alcoholism for quite some time, and his marriage had already lost its footing. His baby daughter’s death brought his whole world crashing down. The depression that followed was so severe that Bird sought psychiatric help at Bellevue Hospital, where shock treatments were the only item on the menu. His depression went untreated, his drinking continued, his marriage collapsed, and he lived out his remaining days on the streets of Greenwich Village, essentially homeless. He died on March 12th, 1955.
Lobar pneumonia was listed as the cause of death, but it was thirty-four years of passionate, headlong living that had brought his body to its final collapse.
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I have gone on far too long, but I hope this introduction succeeds in laying out a basic chronology, because the weekly essays jump back and forth in time. Again, they are much, much shorter, and needn’t be read in any particular order, which is their main virtue.
If you want to truly celebrate the triumph of Charlie Parker, it isn’t complicated. Seek out his music for its unsurpassed beauty, which was his ultimate goal, and ignore all those who present it as anything else.
Bird catalyzed a once-in-a-lifetime revolution that transformed and enriched jazz on every level, at the same time gazing far into the future and pointing the way ahead. That was his destiny, he fulfilled it with grace, style, and drugs, and he departed when his work was done.
Why must everyone make it into a tragedy?