How That Flawed Man Flew

Beyond the Myth of Charlie Parker

by Will Layman

22 October 2013

Chuck Haddix's new biography of the great alto saxophonist unearths fresh details of his early life—and helps us to see more clearly his genius and his tragedy.
cover art

Bird: The Music and Life of Charlie Parker

Chuck Haddix

(University of Illinois Press)
US: Aug 2013

Every great art form has its legends, its tales, its mythic characters. Jazz is rich with them, created by the passage of time, by a history of colorful stylists, and by the romanticism of intense fans.

In the early days before “jazz”, there was Buddy Bolden, a pre-Louis Armstrong New Orleans trumpeter who was never recorded—and whose loud, improvised style is nearly as famous as the fact that he went crazy at 30 and spent the rest of his life in Louisiana State Insane Asylum at Jackson.

A little later, you have the self-mythologizing of “Jelly Roll” Morton, a great pianist and composer who, in a series of recordings made by Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress, claimed to have “invented jazz” in 1902, a boast accompanied by changing his birthday to make the claim more credible.

There are the great mythic anecdotes: how the dancers “Stump and Stumpy” fell on Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet in 1953, bending the bell and convincing him forever after to play only trumpets with the bell bent upward by about 40 degrees; how Miles Davis acquired his signature rasp after arguing with a club owner just days after having throat surgery; how Miles was beaten by a policeman’s blackjack while taking a break outside of Birdland in 1959; or how John Coltrane, during club dates, would head to men’s room and practice for the entire 20-minute set break, so dedicated was he to his art.

But no jazz musician has a larger mythic profile than Charlie Parker, the masterful alto saxophonist who rose to prominence in the ‘40s as one of the inventors of “bebop”, the ornate modern style of jazz, and died tragically at just 34. Jazz fans all can see him: smiling, stuffed full of life, the blues pouring from his horn—more than likely an alto he had hocked earlier in the day to pay for a fix. Parker’s nickname, “Yardbird”, has a great story behind it, and even his legacy is a kind of myth: the graffiti “Bird Lives” scrawled all over New York City after he died in 1955.

Myth meets reality in the new biography, Bird: The Music and Life of Charlie Parker, by Chuck Haddix. Haddix is an archivist, historian, and radio host in Kansas City, Parker’s hometown, and he has written what is clearly the most complete account of the saxophonist’s early life and career, with personal details we just didn’t know before now.

Haddix’s writing style isn’t flashy or all that exciting, but who cares? This is the Charlie Parker story that we have never heard before. Some of the great myths are cleared up here. So, yes, Bird got his nickname because he loved chicken, specifically when the Jay McShann band was making a date in at the University of Nebraska and a bandmate’s car ran over a “yardbird” in the road. Parker made them stop so he could grab the chicken, then take it with him to the private home where they were staying that night, and convince a lady to cook it for him.

Is it true that Parker was inspired to improve his playing when Basie’s drummer, “Papa” Jo Jones, threw a cymbal at his feet in disgust at a jam session? Haddix tells it that way, too.

But mostly what emerges from Bird is a much more human tale that we have not heard before. We learn in riveting, early chapters about Parker’s mother Addie, who would do anything for her son—who babied him and really could not say no. Addie left Charles, Sr. and took on borders in a new house—including a child named Rebecca who would become Bird’s first love and, when he was just 15, his first wife. Addie consented to the marriage just to make Charlie happy, and it was around this time that the young saxophonist started taking gigs in the resorts of the Ozark mountains—where his hard practice would make a difference.

Haddix is every bit as good in detailing the previously unknown stories of Bird’s working life before he hooked up with McShann and Earl Hines and Billy Eckstine. There were, we learn, plenty of fine bandleaders who gave Parker a break and who heard something great in his playing. But Parker was not the only good alto player in Kansas City, and the story clearly emerges of a man striving to be better, to make it, but also to find himself. Parker, the man as well as the legend, is idiosyncratic and brilliant but mortally flawed.

The brilliance is not just musical. Haddix’s Bird emerges as charismatic and articulate. A favorite story of Dizzy Gillespie, recounted here, is of the time Gillespie chose to use a “white only” men’s room in Arkansas while he and Parker were touring with the Earl Hines band. A white patron smacked Gillespie on the head with an empty bottle, at which point Parker stepped in and said, “You took advantage of my friend, you cur!” Dizzy loved that: “The guy probably didn’t even know what a cur was, man. That was funny.”

But Parker’s flaws are legion. He’s addicted to heroin early on, a story that begins and never really ends, with various bandleaders getting fed up with him, but another always willing to take a risk on his quicksilver soloing. But Parker’s appetites are essentially without boundary. One club owner discovered that Parker was using the restaurant as a supplier of nutmeg, which he was using to get high, and Parker would also sleep there on a tabletop, littering the floor around him with “a blizzard of empty white Benzedrine inhalers.”

Parker is depicted as a devoted husband and father when he’s home, but on the road he’s the dog of dogs. Once he got to New York in 1945, he had cut entirely free of Rebecca and his Kansas City home—dating Chan Richardson, then living with Doris Sydnor, both white women he met in the New York music scene who, in different ways, took care of him and allowed him to tend to either his music or his drug habit. Parker, Haddix demonstrates, had a knack for finding women who, much like his mom, would dote on him in a way that kept him happy in the short run and childish in the long run.

Particularly compelling is Haddix’s recounting of the famous trip by Parker and Gillespie to the west coast in late 1945. The band was essentially debuting bebop in Los Angeles, and the press accounts of Bird’s playing suggest it was some of the most majestic of this career. But Parker was constantly late for gigs, wandering off, missing his connections to trains, you name it. The punctual and businesslike “Dizzy” was hilarious and entertaining on the bandstand, where Parker was focused and all-business. But still, this set of dates would be the last time the two men really worked together. Bird stayed on the West Coast, making a famously ill-fated recording session for Dial that essentially caught Parker on microphone as a deteriorating, strung-out mess. Haddix writes it all with little mercy. (Parker’s tragic version of “Lover Man” from this date is recounted in detail.)

Soon arrested, Parker would spend six months in the Camarillo State Hospital.

The Mythically Tragic End

A wealth of detail follows—about record dates, club appearances, Parker’s marriage to Doris, his reuniting with Chan, but it’s all a combination of inevitable decline, musical brilliance (though, truthfully, also musical stasis, as Parker’s bebop breakthrough matures but does not necessarily lead him anywhere truly new), and crazy anecdote. We learn about the backstage politics of the famous 1953 Jazz at Massey Hall concert, Chan’s health problems after being bitten by the family cat, Orpheus, and finally the tragic death of the couple’s daughter, Pree. Parker’s decline and suicidal thoughts, his tragic violence against himself and, alas, toward the people he loved, brings him to the mental ward at Bellevue Hospital in New York.

The story of Bird’s death—while watching the Tommy Dorsey TV show at the Baroness Pannonica’s apartment—is hardly new, but it lands with particular weight at the end of this book because for the first time Parker seems less like a mythic figure than like a man. A funny, sad, brilliant, horrible man.

(The most famous telling of the Parker myth, no doubt, is the 1988 feature film, Bird, directed by jazz fan Clint Eastwood, which won Forest Whitaker the best actor award at that year’s Cannes Film Festival. Like most jazz movies, Bird was a game attempt but weirdly unsatisfying. In the end, the answer is always the same with jazz: just listen to the music.)

Bird Lives

For a huge jazz fan like me, the real story of Parker is irresistible, and it seems crazy that it has taken this many years for someone like Haddix to track down more of the true, human, personal details. Parker is arguably one of the most important musicians of the 20th century. Why the delay?

I suspect that the myth of Parker was simply good enough for most of us. And, despite being myth, it was mostly true. Parker was joy and tragic excess, talent and hard work. He was innovation and weakness all at once.

For me, the true Parker story will always be in his recordings—in the awesome speed of “Koko”; in the blues-drenched opening minute of “Parker’s Mood”; in the dancing swing of “Now’s the Time”; in the lyricism of his “with strings” version of “Autumn in New York”; in that legendary alto break on “A Night in Tunisia”—particularly the one from Massey Hall where Bird’s control and precision is matched against a sense of fire that was ideal.

When I first started hearing jazz, Parker was one of the first musicians that I could always identify just by hearing a single phrase of his playing. He was the musician who taught me that greatness was in being utterly yourself, utterly one of a kind.

And Bird, he was.

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