The Stacks: Charlie Parker’s Revolutionary Junkie Jazz Alchemy
Bird was a phenomenal musician who, against all odds, almost singlehandedly changed our conception of what jazz could be. He was also his own worst enemy.
“Music is your own experience, your thoughts, your wisdom,” said Charlie Parker. “If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But man, there’s no boundary line to art.”
Nat Hentoff, one of the great chroniclers of American music in the 20th century, was in the right place at the right time—post-World War II New York City—and he met, interviewed, and hung out with everyone from Duke and Louis to Miles, Monk, Coltrane, and of course, the incomparable Charlie Parker.
Behold the power of bop—not to mention the cult of personality. Please enjoy this intimate look at one of the towering music figures in American history, excerpted from the essential volume, Jazz Is, and reprinted here with the author’s permission.
There have been a number of instances in jazz history of the incandescent hero-as-world-overturning-improviser eventually plunging, like Icarus, into burnt-out extinction. Bix Beiderbecke, Bunny Berigan, Fats Navarro, and, way back, Buddy Bolden were some of these charred legends. But there has been—so far—no more daring, dangerous, revolutionary flight than that of Charlie Parker. And no terminal descent that has been more assiduously mythologized than that of Charlie Parker. He is the paradigm of the jazzman-as-victim, though some would say he was more the victim of himself than of society. To which Dizzy Gillespie would answer, “Where do you draw the line between the two if you’re a black man?”
Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920, his father a small-time singer and dancer, and later a Pullman chef. Some seven or eight years later the family moved across the river to Olive Street, near the nightlife center of Kansas City, Missouri. Charlie Parker’s father left home before the boy had finished grammar school and he grew up loved, indulged, and not a little spoiled by his mother, Addie.
Parker, though desultorily interested in music as a young boy, didn’t become passionately intrigued with horn play until he was in high school. After an unsatisfying experience with the cumbersome baritone horn, Charlie switched to an alto saxophone which his mother had bought him. He became the fourth member of the reed section of an amateur dance band, the Deans of Swing, in his high school. Parker was barely fourteen, and as bassist Gene Ramey recalls, “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.”
Bird quit school around 1935 to become a full-time musician or rather, at first, an earnest, vulnerable apprentice. The story of his apprenticeship is worth detailing, for it reveals that even Bird had to look hard and long to find himself musically.
The musical scene in Kansas City at the time Bird first became an actively listening part of it was described some years later in Down Beat: “…the joints were running full blast from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. Usual pay was $1.25 a night. …There were about 15 bands in town, with Pete Johnson’s crew at the Sunset Café one of the most popular. Harlan Leonard was in town then, along with George Lee’s and Bus Moten’s little bands. Lester Young, Herschel Evans, and Eddie Barefield were playing around. Top local pianists were Roselle Claxton, Mary Lou Williams, Edith Williams, and Basie.”
Jo Jones, also in Kansas City during this period, adds that there was also a player named Walter Knight. “I have never heard anybody play a sax like he did in my life. I can hear a little of it in Charlie Parker,” Jones recalled.
But it’s likely that another man active in Kansas City at that time was the direct influence on Bird, if anyone ever was. Again it’s Jo Jones who recalls the context: “The greatest band I ever heard in my life was Walter Page’s Blue Devils band … In the band was Buster Smith. Buster was an alto player who used to be called Prof, and he was Charlie Parker’s musical father.” Ben Webster and Jimmy Rushing, also on the scene at the time, agreed with Jo.
Charlie Parker himself admitted his interest in Smith along with others. As Leonard Feather wrote in Inside Be-Bop: “Charlie’s evolution as a modern jazzman cannot be ascribed to any one influence. During his first years around jazz, he listened to Herschel Evans and Lester Young, both with Basie; to the late Chu Berry, and to Andy Kirk’s tenor man, the late Dick Wilson. He admired Johnny Hodges, Willie and Benny Carter, and especially an alto player named Buster Smith, who did most of the arranging for Count Basie’s original band in Kansas City. ‘I used to quit every job to go with Buster,’ says Charlie.”
At another time in his life Parker pointed out to an interviewer that although he admired the musicians just listed, almost all played with a pronounced vibrato. He himself disliked vibrato, as evidenced by his own approach. Lester Young used less vibrato than anyone and Bird recalled, “I was crazy about Lester. He played so clean and beautiful. But I wasn’t influenced by Lester. Our ideas ran on differently.”
Actually, it does appear that a large percentage of what Charlie became musically he developed by himself—the hard way. “One time, when I was in my teens, jamming in a Kansas City club, I was doing all right until I tried doing double tempo on Body and Soul,” Charlie remembered. “Everybody fell out laughing. I went home and cried and didn’t want to play again for three months.”
Gene Ramey remembers meeting a downcast Bird on the street. (As an index of the musical liveliness of Kansas City around this time, Count Basie was playing on one side of that street and Duke Ellington on the other, with the local musicians running from one club to the other during intermissions.) Bird told Ramey that while there were an awful lot of jam sessions in town, he, Bird, was one of the few musicians who were never allowed to sit in.
The ban relaxed, however, and one night Ramey and Bird sat in at the Reno Club where Count Basie was working. Jo Jones was on drums, and Bird, though starting well, suddenly fell out of the key, couldn’t find it again, and then lost the time. Jo Jones stopped drumming. In the awful silence Jones took one of his cymbals and threw it at Parker’s feet (as he was to do many years later in New York when Cecil Taylor tried to sit in with a group that included the fiercely exacting drummer). There was laughter, and Bird, humiliated, packed up his horn and left the club.
“I’ll fix these cats,” Bird told Ramey. “Everybody laughing at me now, but just you wait and see.”
Bird proceeded to woodshed, memorizing Lester Young solos from recordings and, during a job in the Ozarks, acquiring postgraduate chordal knowledge from guitarist Efferge Ware. “It was from Ware,” Ramey is convinced, “that Bird fully learned the relationship of the chords and how to weave melodies into them.”
When Bird came back to Kansas City from the Ozarks he had so grown musically that he began to get plenty of work and had no more problems holding his own in jam sessions. “Bird,” says Ramey, “had his own sound by that time. Clean and without much vibrato. He hadn’t given up on his strange ideas, stuff like double-timing and weird modulations in and out of key, but they made a little sense now … He sounded almost exactly like Lester Young, Lester playing alto, but with something else of his own that was beginning to come through. The difference [between Bird before he left for the mountains and after] was unbelievable.”
In time, however, jobs became scarce in Kansas City; there were tensions at home with Rebecca, his first wife; and Bird, pawning his horn, left town for a period of scruffy wandering.
He showed up in Chicago at a session at which Billy Eckstine was in attendance and years afterward described: “The vogue before the war was to have a breakfast dance on one day of the week. Every club in Chicago, at some time or another, would have a breakfast dance, with the show going on at six thirty in the morning.
“One spot there, the 65 Club, had a breakfast dance one morning, and they had a little combo with King Kolax on trumpet; a kid named Goon Gardner, who could swing like mad, on alto; John Simmons on bass; and Kansas Fields, drums.
“It was more or less a jam show, for after the show all the musicians would blow in there. We were standing around one morning when a guy comes up that looks like he just got off a freight car, the raggedest guy you’d want to see at this moment. And he asks Goon, ‘Say, man, can I come up and blow your horn?’
“Now Goon was always a kind of lazy cat. Anybody that wanted to get on the stand and blow, just as long as Goon could go to the bar and talk with the chicks, it was all right with him. So he said, ‘Yes, man, go ahead.’
“And this cat gets up there, and I’m telling you he blew the bell off that thing! It was Charlie Parker, just come in from Kansas City on a freight train. I guess Bird was no more than about eighteen then, but playing like you never heard—wailing alto then….
“He blew so much until he upset everybody in the joint, and Goon took him home, gave him some clothes to put on, and got him a few gigs. Bird didn’t have a horn, naturally, so Goon lent him a clarinet to go and make gigs on. According to what Goon told me, one day he looked for Bird, and Bird, the clarinet, and all was gone—back somewheres.”
The somewheres was New York and Bird himself took up the story at this point in an interview some twelve years later in Down Beat: “For three months he washed dishes in Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in Harlem. This was at the time Art Tatum was spellbinding late-hour Shack habitues. Charlie got $9 a week and meals. Then [when Tatum left] he quit and bummed around a while, sleeping where he could.
“’I didn’t have any troubles with cops,’ he recalls. ‘I was lucky. I guess it was because I looked so young.’ There was a series of skimpy jobs, such as a gig at Monroe’s Uptown House where Charlie sometimes got 40 or 50 cents a night. If business was good, he might get up to $6.
“‘Nobody paid me much mind then except Bobby Moore, one of Count Basie’s trumpet players,’ Charlie said. ‘He liked me. Everybody else was trying to get me to sound like Benny Carter.’”
During this same period Bird experienced an epiphany, or so he said later. At a chili house on Seventh Avenue in Harlem Bird used to jam with a guitarist named Buddy Fleet. He had become bored with the standard chord changes, even the advanced standard chord changes, and, he later told an interviewer, “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.” Then one night, as he and Fleet were improvising on Cherokee, Bird discovered that by making a melody line of the higher intervals of a chord—and then using appropriate changes for that new chord-derived melody line—he could indeed play what he had been hearing.
Bird went back to Kansas City for his father’s funeral, played with Harland Leonard’s band for five weeks (being asked to leave for chronic lateness), and joined Jay McShann’s band, coming out of Kansas City.
Gene Ramey has described the McShann band of that period and the restless Parker: “The Jay McShann band was the only one I’ve ever known that seemed to spend all its spare time jamming or rehearsing. We used to jam on trains and buses, and as soon as we got into a town, we’d try to find somebody’s house where we could hold a session. All this was inspired by Bird because the new ideas he was bringing to the band made everybody anxious to play.
“We were at a club in New Orleans on one occasion, playing a one-nighter, when we were informed by Decca that we were due for a record session in a couple of weeks. McShann suggested that we get together and do something real quick. It was one of those real warm days in New Orleans, but we got together and had a little session and the ideas came across. I guess in about forty-five minutes we had The Jumpin’ Blues ready. This arrangement was all a ‘head’ put together by Bird, and the record featured one of his first great solos on wax.
“Bird was one of the reasons it was such a happy-go-lucky band. He used to say: ‘If you come on a band tense, you’re going to play tense. If you come a little bit foolish, act just a little bit foolish, and let yourself go, better ideas will come.’
“Everything had a musical significance for Bird. He got into his music all the sounds right around him—the swish of a car speeding down a highway, the hum of the wind as it goes through the leaves. Everything had a musical message for him. If he heard a dog bark, he would say the dog was speaking … And maybe some girl would walk past on the dance floor while he was playing, and something she might do, or an expression on her face, would give him an idea for something to play on his solo. As soon as he would do that, we were all so close we’d all understand just what he meant. He might be looking another way, but as soon as he played that little phrase, everybody would look up and get the message …
“Now that I look back on it, Bird was so far ahead of his time that nobody really appreciated just how radical his ideas were. For instance, we used to jam Cherokee a lot, and Bird had a way of starting on a B natural against the B flat chord and he would run a cycle against that—and probably it would only be two or three bars before we got to the channel [middle part] that he would come back to the basic changes.
“In those days we used to call it ‘running out of key.’ Bird used to sit and try to explain to us what he was doing. I am sure that at that time nobody else in the band could even play, for example, the channel to Cherokee. So Bird used to play a series of Tea for Two phrases against that channel, and since this was a melody that could easily be remembered it gave the other guys something to play during bars.”
After traveling to Texas and then the Carolinas, back to Chicago and Kansas City, the McShann band headed to New York and the Savoy. In New York, Bird quickly attracted musicians’ attention, both with the McShann band and at Monroe’s in Harlem, where he doubled at night.
Kenny Clarke, a drummer who had already been developing rhythmic changes that were to be central to modern jazz, recalls: “We went to listen to Bird at Monroe’s for no other reason than the fact that he sounded like Prez, like Lester Young. That is, until we found out that he had something of his own to offer. He was into figures I thought I had invented for drums. Bird was twice as fast as Prez and into harmony Prez hadn’t touched. Bird was running the same way that I, and musicians who thought as I did, were going. I mean people like Dizzy and Monk. But Bird was way out ahead of us. He was playing things rhythmically and harmonically we’d never heard before.”
In Ross Russell’s biography of Charlie Parker, Bird Lives!, Clarke adds that he and his musical colleagues persuaded Parker to move from Monroe’s to Minton’s. “Pretty soon Minton’s got to be a bad place for older cats. Dizzy began coming up regularly and that gave us the four key instruments—trumpet, alto, piano [Thelonious Monk], and drums. That, plus a good bass, was the band of the future.
One night, after weeks of trying, Dizzy cut Roy Eldridge. It was one night out of many that he’d been trying, but it meant a great deal. Roy had been top dog for years. We closed our ranks after that.”
Parker left the Jay McShann band at the end of 1941, worked intermittently and unsatisfyingly with other bands, and finally joined an Earl Hines orchestra which included Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Harris, and Sarah Vaughan. Hines needed a tenor saxophonist at the time, and so he bought a tenor for Bird. With the band rehearsing days, Parker and other sidemen jammed at Minton’s by night.
Billy Eckstine, then singing with the Hines band, recalls the night Ben Webster, the huge-toned, deeply swinging tenor with Duke Ellington, walked into the club: “Charlie’s up on the stand and he’s wailing the tenor. Ben had never heard Bird, you know, and he says, ‘What the hell is that up there? Man, is that cat crazy?’ And he goes up and snatches the horn out of Bird’s hands, saying, ‘That horn ain’t supposed to sound that fast.’
“But that night,” Eckstine continues, “Ben walked all over town telling everyone, ‘Man, I heard a guy—I swear he’s going to make everybody crazy on tenor.’ The fact is Bird never felt tenor, never liked it. But he was playing like mad on the damn thing.”
As with Jay McShann, Bird was not a model of professional responsibility while with Earl Hines. Months before Hines had actually hired Bird, he had called McShann to tell him he wanted his alto player but didn’t want to poach. McShann, however, had told Hines: “The sooner you take him, the better. He just passed out in front of the microphone right in the middle of Cherokee.”
So Hines had been forewarned. This incident with McShann—and others to be related which took place while Bird was with Hines—indicate, moreover, that the notion in later years that “society,” “the system,” eventually caused the terminal disintegration of Bird has to be measured in the context of what Bird did to himself for much of his life. The other members of the McShann and Hines bands had, after all, also been black and had also been certainly sensitive to the overwhelming racism in the society at large. But it was Bird who chronically goofed off.
“Bird,” Billy Eckstine has written in the Melody Maker, “used to miss as many shows as he would make [with Hines]. Half the time we couldn’t find Bird; he’d be sitting up somewhere sleeping. So he often missed the first shows, and Earl used to fine him blind … We got on him too because we were more or less a clique. We told him, ‘When you don’t show, man, it’s a drag because the band don’t sound right. You know, four reeds up there and everything written for five.’ We kind of shamed him.
“So one time we were working the Paradise Theatre in Detroit, and Bird says, ‘I ain’t gonna miss no more. I’m going to stay in the theater all night to make sure I’m here.’
“We answered, ‘Okay. That’s your business. Just make the show, huh?’
“Sure enough, we come to work the next morning, we get on the stand—no Bird. As usual. We think, so, he said he was going to make the show and he didn’t make it.
“This is the gospel truth. After we played the whole show, the curtains closed, and we’re coming off the band cart, when all of a sudden we hear a noise. We look under the stand, and here comes Bird out from underneath. He had been under there asleep through the entire show!
“Another thing happened at the Paradise. You see, Bird often used to take his shoes off while he was up on the stand and put his feet on top of his shoes.
“He wore those dark glasses all the time he was playing, and sometimes, while the acts were on, he would nod and go off to sleep. This particular time, the act was over and it was a band specialty now. So Bird was sitting there with his horn still in his mouth, doing the best faking in the world for Earl’s benefit.
“Earl used to swear he was awake. Bird was the only man I knew who could sleep with his jaws poked out to look like he was playing, see? So this day he sat up there, sound asleep, and it came time for his solo.
“Scoops Carey, who sat next to him in the reed section, nudged him and said, ‘Hey, Bird, wake up, you’re on.’ And Bird ran right out to the mike in his stocking feet; just jumped up and forgot his shoes and ran out front and started wailing.”
Bird was with Hines for ten months, playing tenor. He was making $105 a week, the largest sum he’d ever earned. (He used to average $55 to $60 with McShann). But the salaries started going down as the band hit an Army-camp tour in a package involved with a beer company. There were also booking hassles, and finally Charlie dropped out in Washington in late 1943.
Unfortunately, the Hines band that possessed all this explosive talent capped by Dizzy and Bird never got a chance to record. The recording ban had gone into effect August 1, 1942, and lasted all the time Bird was in the band and beyond, into November 1944.
After Bird worked for a time with Sir Charles Thompson, there came other gigs, including stays with Cootie Williams, Andy Kirk, and Carroll Dickerson in Chicago. In 1944 Bird went on the road with a Billy Eckstine band which included Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Gene Ammons, and Art Blakey.
The Eckstine band, however, was too experimental to make it commercially at that time and finally evaporated. Bird, meanwhile, had tired of the big-band scene and returned to New York for the freedom of small combos. His influence grew more and more rapidly as he played frequently along 52nd Street in bands led by Ben Webster, Dizzy Gillespie, and a group Bird himself headed at the Three Deuces with Miles Davis, then 18, on trumpet. He also made records through 1944–45, starting with his first small band date under Tiny Grimes on Savoy, followed by sessions with Clyde Hart, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Red Norvo, Slim Gaillard, and dates under his own name on Savoy that included Ko-Ko, Billie’s Bounce, Now’s the Time, and Thriving from a Riff (which contained a chorus that later became Anthropology).
Bird’s renown among musicians in the East accelerated and his records expanded the impact across the country and eventually into Europe. Tony Scott, then a youngster fresh from Juilliard and an Army stint, describes Bird’s impact on a characteristic newcomer to jazz: “The first time The Street heard Bird, I think, was around 1942. Bird came in one night and sat in with Don Byas. He blew Cherokee and everybody just flipped.
“Then, when Bird and Diz hit The Street regularly a couple of years later, everybody was astounded once again and nobody could get near their way of playing music. Finally, however, Bird and Diz made records; and at that point guys could imitate it and go from there.”
In late 1945 Bird went out to the West Coast and a date at Billy Berg’s with a band led by Dizzy Gillespie that included Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, Al Haig, and Stan Levey. Bird now was close to the breaking point both physically and emotionally.
The time-bomb of Bird’s collapse had been set many years before. Bird was to describe the process that brought him to the chasm in California in a Metronome interview with Leonard Feather two years after the event: “Charlie was around show people when he was very young. ‘It all came from being introduced too early to night life,’ he told Feather. ‘When you’re not mature enough to know what’s happening—well, you goof.’”
Parker had started his heroin habit at the age of 15. It remained with him for most of the rest of his life. Like most addicts he became a reasonably expert hustler—“borrowing” money, clothes, and sometimes horns.
All his appetites were large. As prodigious, for instance, as was Parker’s capacity for drugs, so it also was for sex. He lived hard; and a hedonist would say he lived most fully. But between swift peaks of pleasure there was constant scuffling. Or, as he told Leonard Feather, “I became bitter, hard, cold. I was always on a panic—couldn’t buy clothes or a good place to live.”
The breakdown, the first widely visible breakdown, took place during that mid-forties engagement on the West Coast where, as Parker felt, “Nobody understood our kind of music. They hated it.” Yet Dizzy Gillespie, experiencing the same hostility, did not collapse. But Dizzy had not already weakened himself by years of addiction and other ways of self-destruction.
At Billy Berg’s Bird missed sets and even whole nights. Lucky Thompson was hired as a kind of permanent substitute and he was often needed. Dizzy left for the East and Bird remained—harried, rushing closer to disintegration.
He continued making records, recording now for Dial, a label owned by Ross Russell. With Miles Davis, Lucky, Dodo Marmorosa, and others he cut A Night in Tunisia, Yardbird Suite, Ornithology, and Moose the Mooche, among other performances that have become quasi-legendary. But Bird had been hanging onto a thread all this time and it finally broke. “As his craving for and dependence on dope grew worse,” Feather later described Bird’s descent: “He developed violent tics. On the night of July 29, 1946, his limbs and muscles jerking and twitching uncontrollably, he went to a recording studio on a session organized by Ross Russell … He was only able to struggle through two sides before he left. (A fictionalized account of that date is Elliott Grennard’s “Sparrow’s Last Jump,” Harper’s, May 1947.)
“That night he set fire to his hotel room and ran down into the lobby naked and screaming. Russell helped with the arrangements in sending him to Carmarillo State Hospital after his arrest, but to his dying day Parker never forgave Russell for releasing Lover Man, recorded on that disastrous night and a shamefully unrepresentative sample of his work.”
Parker was at Camarillo for almost seven months. When he was released he recorded again for Dial in February 1947. He sounded recovered, and was playing brilliantly again.
Back in New York in 1947, Bird headed a series of small combos, continued to record, toured with Jazz at the Philharmonic in 1948, was in Europe in the summer of 1949, worked the new Birdland club (named in his notorious honor) in 1950, when he also signed a new recording contract, this one with Norman Granz, that offered him more security than any recording agreement he had yet had. By this point Bird was also getting broader recognition from the jazz audience—though not from the general public. Starting in 1950, he won the Down Beat poll every year, as well as almost all other ballotings in both American and foreign jazz publications.
For a time Parker recorded and toured with strings, the touring being much less orderly than the recordings. Never the most stable of performers, before or after Camarillo, Bird became increasingly unpredictable, as Ross Russell details in his biography of Parker. Trying to avoid narcotics he became a sometimes heavy drinker, the latter addiction leading to a serious ulcer attack which hospitalized him. Still, there were occasional periods of surface calm and highly expert playing. But more and more frequently Bird acted bizarrely. And when not bizarre he was often desolate.
One night, going down the stairs to Birdland, I saw Bird, tears streaming down his face, coming up. He stopped and said, “I’ve got to see you. It’s very important. Very. I’ll call you tomorrow.” He never did.
In March 1954, Parker’s three-year-old daughter, Pree, died suddenly of pneumonia while he was on the road, and that grief never left him. Meanwhile, his behavior grew more strange. In the fall of that year, during an engagement at Birdland with a string group, Parker started lacerating his sidemen on the stand and then summarily fired them. Having been drinking all that evening, he topped his straw-boss performance by slumping into a chair on the bandstand and falling asleep. Later that night he attempted suicide.
Shocked by how close he had come to actually ending himself, Bird stopped drinking and agreed to report regularly to the out-patient clinic at Bellevue for psychotherapy. The cracked center would not hold, however. His drinking began again, and Bird was now traveling from city to city as a single, working with local rhythm sections. There were times when he still played well, but much of his work was considerably below what listeners expected of him. “He’s just an historical figure now,” one musician said sadly.
On March 4, 1955, Parker figured in an utterly dismaying scene, the most painful I have ever witnessed in more than thirty years of jazz listening. He had been booked for two nights at Birdland with Bud Powell, Charles Mingus, Kenny Dorham, and Art Blakey. Powell, mentally awry and drunk besides, began the evening by insulting Bird (“You ain’t playing shit no more”) and then being himself unable to play with even minimal coherence. After Parker and Powell exchanged bitter curses on stand, Powell smashed the keyboard and walked off. Then for what seemed to be an awfully long, oppressive time, Bird just stood at the mike calling again and again, “Bud Powell! Bud Powell!”
A disappearing soul calling out to a spirit already irredeemably hidden from everyone, including itself.
The other musicians tried rather bravely, and poignantly, to make some kind of musical sense out of the void until Charles Mingus came to the mike and said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please don’t associate me with any of this. This is not jazz. These are sick people.”
Finally the stage was empty.
Wednesday of the next week, in the apartment of a friend, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a woman who was also a genuine friend of Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, and other jazz musicians, Bird died. Among the causes of death were stomach ulcers, pneumonia, advanced cirrhosis of the liver, and a possible heart attack. The attending physician, basing his judgment on the physical condition of the corpse, estimated Bird’s age as between 50 and 60. He was 34.
* * * * *
The Sunday afternoon before he died, Bird was to have played at the Open Door. The Open Door was a large, perpetually barren-feeling room (even when filled) in a drab, past-caring-to-care section of Greenwich Village. He had played there several times before at Sunday sessions. This Sunday he played not at all. He made an appearance, but all the time he was there he ignored his horn. At one point a friend, another musician, found him in the men’s room. Bird was looking at himself in the washroom mirror. He was slowly, carefully and firmly putting himself down in a conversation with the face in the mirror. The conversation went on for some time, adding the newcomer in an odd trialogue. Finally Bird looked hard at the mirror and harshly called the image the worst enemy he had. But, the other musician observed drily, “You’ll never have a friend closer to you than that.” Bird laughed and went out into the club. But he didn’t play.
This same musician tells how Bird would often clam up for several hours, not say a word to anyone. Then, in the same evening, he might suddenly talk for a long stretch—and talk with brilliance.
“God knows,” this musician said after Bird’s death, “we all owed him so much, all of us who played modern. But which of us could afford him? He’d come to my place and stay for a time, and I’d share whatever I had with him. But eventually, if I wasn’t getting many gigs, I’d run out of resources myself and he’d go somewhere else. Who could afford him? I mean that literally. And I mean it the other way, too. Which of us could pay him what we owed him?”
“You know,” this musician said as an afterthought, “in one thing he was consistent. He was wonderful with children.” Chan Parker, with whom he lived last, has a young daughter from a previous marriage, a child of unusual sensitivity. The child needed love, very much love. Bird gave it to her without reservation.
“Bird,” says Chan, “was a gentle man although he hid it much of the time.” Chan tells of Bird’s delight in shopping in joke shops for such child-surprising excitements as a can labeled peanut brittle which exploded on opening into a swirling of snakes. When he came home from the road, whether he had much money or barely any, he’d bring presents for the kids.
Bird was ambivalent about the road. “There were sections of the country he didn’t want to work,” Chan recalls. “The West Coast because of the bad memories of what happened there. And the South for obvious reasons. He went South with the Stan Kenton tour the year before he died because so much loot was involved. But ordinarily he didn’t want to work west of Chicago or south of Washington. He didn’t like all the places he worked within those boundaries either. ‘Why,’ he said once, ‘am I playing in cellars?’ And he was bruised again each time the police shook him down in a new town. And some of the club owners were far from human to him.
“He was always hoping to study, maybe with composers like Edgar Varese or Stefan Wolpe. He knew them both, was friendly with Varese, and had met Wolpe through Tony Scott, who had studied with him. It’s kind of ironic. The guys in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra called and sent condolences when he died.”
As far back as 1949 Bird was talking about how he wanted to study more, though he never did. John Wilson and Mike Levin reported in an illuminating Down Beat interview of that year: “For the future, he’d like to go to the Academy of Music in Paris for a couple of years, then relax for a while and then write. The things he writes all will be concentrated toward one point: warmth. While he’s writing, he also wants to play experimentally with small groups. Ideally, he’d like to spend six months a year in France and six months here.
“’You’ve got to do it that way,’ he explains. “You’ve got to be here for the commercial things and in France for relaxing facilities.’
“Relaxation is something Charlie constantly has missed. Lack of relaxation, he thinks, has spoiled most of the records he has made. To hear him tell it, he has never cut a good side. Some of the things he did on the Continental label he considered more relaxed than the rest. But every record he has made could stand improvement, he says. We tried to pin him down, to get him to name a few sides that were at least better than the rest.
“’Suppose a guy came up to us,’ we said, ‘and said “I’ve got four bucks and I want to buy three Charlie Parker records. What’ll I buy?” What should we tell him?’
“’Tell him to keep his money,’ he said.”
And in a radio interview with me in Boston in 1953 Bird was on the same kick. “Everytime I hear a recording I’ve made,” he said, “I hear all kinds of things I could improve or things I should have done. There’s always so much more to be done in music. It’s so vast.”
That same evening, Charlie amplified further on some of his plans: “I’d like to do a session with five or six woodwinds, a harp, a choral group, and full rhythm section. Something on the line of Hindemith’s Kleine Kammermusik. Not a copy or anything like that. I don’t want ever to copy. But that sort of thing.”
He also talked of other classical music he liked. I have no way of knowing how intimately he knew these works, but I can testify that he spoke with a strength of emotion that could not have been entirely put on. Or maybe, being Bird, it could have. Anyway, this is what he said: “I first began listening seven or eight years ago. First I heard Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. In the vernacular of the streets, I flipped. I guess Bartok has become my favorite. I dig all the moderns. And also the classical men, Bach, Beethoven, etc.
“It’s a funny thing, listening to music, any kind,’ Bird went on. “What you hear depends on so many things in yourself. Like I heard Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto over here, and later I heard it again in France. I was more acclimated to life then, and I heard things in it I never heard before. You never know what’s going to happen when you listen to music. All kinds of things can suddenly open up.”
In many ways Bird was a protean master of the put-on, including, of course, his ability to put himself on. But there is no question that, when he wasn’t obsessed elsewhere, Bird found music to be the only element of his life which gave him some realistic promise that all kinds of things could suddenly open up.
On the other hand, for all the adulation he eventually received from hordes of younger musicians, he was insecure more often than not because he strongly sensed, I think, that he had only fulfilled part of his potential, maybe only a small part, and he did not know how to make the next leap. Bird did not have, to say the least, the discipline that John Coltrane relentlessly exercised in his last years, a discipline by which Coltrane kept forcing himself to dig deeper and deeper into his resources, his potential, while adding to those resources.
Bird was too often on the run. He could almost always blow, but reflection and study were something else. Something else he could never get together. Gigi Gryce, an alto saxophonist and a friend of Bird, recalled after Parker’s death: “Charlie used to get very depressed when he couldn’t execute all the things he wanted to. He felt he hadn’t even gotten started as to what he could have done. He often said he’d failed in his music.”
He hadn’t failed, of course. Bird turned jazz around, as Louis and Duke had before him, and Coltrane was to afterward. But he could have gone further and he knew that.
Bird really did marvel, in his way, at the myriad pleasures in music, all kinds of music. Once, at a musicians’ bar, Bird insisted on playing some country music recordings on the jukebox. He had no patience with the jibes of other jazzmen present that these were the corniest of sounds. “No,” Bird insisted, “they’re telling stories that are real to them. I hear what they’re saying.”
Or, as Gigi Gryce put it: “Bird loved just about anyone who played.” And Billie Wallington, wife of pianist George Wallington and currently an executive at Warner Brothers Records, remembers: “A few weeks before his death, Bird was walking along Broadway with just fifty cents in his pocket. He met a blind beggar who was playing the accordion. Bird dropped a quarter into the blind man’s bowl and asked him if he’d play All the Things You Are. A few minutes later, Parker walked by the accordionist again and the latter was still playing the same song. Charlie laughed and said to the person with him, ‘This guy plays the right chords.’ He then took his last twenty-five cents out of the pocket of his old pants and gave them to the blind man.”
* * * * *
The late Dave Lambert, who had known Bird very well, said, “He had experienced everything in his life except peace.” Whose fault was that? And another musician, Teddy Blume, who managed Bird for a time, said that being with Charlie Parker over a long period was like “having a terrible disease.” Whose fault was that?
To some, it was our fault. Society’s fault. Kenneth Rexroth saw Bird and Dylan Thomas, “the heroes of the postwar generation,” as having been “overcome by the horror of the world in which they found themselves, because at last they could no longer overcome that world with the weapon of a purely lyrical art.”
In Ross Russell’s biography of Bird, pianist Hampton Hawes ascribed Bird’s long plunge to destruction to “how deeply he felt about racism.” Unaware of the strong black consciousness of Duke Ellington, Rex Stewart, Lester Young, Frankie Newton, and hundreds more jazzmen who preceded Bird, Hawes said of that “he was the first jazz musician I met who understood what was happening to his people. He couldn’t come up with an answer. So he stayed high.”
Ross Russell himself appears to believe that Bird, being black in a white society, was foredoomed: “In spite of his successes and growing prestige, Charlie saw no future for the music he played, or for his race in America. To live once, and to the limit—that was his game plan.”
Bird believed some of that himself. When Babs Gonzales, the singer and antic entrepreneur, tried to persuade Parker to get off drugs, Bird’s answer was, “Wait until everybody gets rich off your style and you don’t have any bread, then lecture me about drugs.”
Yet notwithstanding the pervasive racism in America, including the jazz business, the death-of-Bird-at-the-hands-of-society is too simplistic a conclusion. His bitterness and many of his wounds were caused by racism, and his fundamental insularity may well have had part of its base in racism. (“I don’t let anyone get close to me,” Bird once said to a man who thought himself a close friend. “Even you. Or my wife.”)
But why did others survive? Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Cecil Taylor? I don’t know and I doubt if anybody else really does. But just as there is no quick, easy way to explain Bird’s astonishing creativity, so there is no instant explanation of his greatly premature extinction. More than any critic or biographer, it would more likely be a novelist, a black novelist, who might eventually illuminate those parts of the cold inner darkness that finally took over all of Bird.
Duke Jordan recalls, “As years went by, Bird started cooling. He went to a doctor in 1948 and was told he had about six months to live unless he took a complete rest for a few years, which he never did. His ulcers were bad, and his whole body was filled with a terrible cold.”
There have been many tragic figures in jazz, but perhaps none was so rudderless, so beset by hellhounds on his trail, than Bird. And some of those hellhounds had his face.
Once, near the end of his life, on a street in Greenwich Village in front of a night club, Charlie Parker ordered one of his protégés, Jackie McLean, “I want you to kick me in the ass.” McLean kept refusing and Bird kept insisting. “I want you to kick me in the ass for letting me get myself in this position.”
Finally, McLean obeyed Bird’s command. “Don’t you ever allow this to happen to you,” Bird said to him.
Bird knew it wasn’t only “they” who had destroyed him. But he never knew how he could keep himself from helping “them” to destroy him. All the other changes he knew, but not that one.