Charlie Parker: The Young Man, the Music, the Memory


Richard Simon

Part I: The Young Man

As modern history rushes towards a new millenium, breezing along (depending upon one's temperament and vantage point) or stubbing its toe near the finish line of this tumultuous century, we look around for meaning. Old ideologies have risen, clashed and dissolved. Barriers have been erected and razed. Lines have blurred.

"It's all crossover. There's no pure music. There's no pure culture," proclaims cellist supreme, Yo-Yo Ma.

How unfortunate for Charlie Parker to have waged his personal battles in a period much less tolerant than our own. For despite his enormous contribution to modern music (evidenced by several generations of musicians steeped in his style, and a mass culture that "borrows" his musical ideas shamelessly for use in commercials, elevators and soundtracks), recognition during his lifetime was largely limited to a small circle of musicians, devotees and myth-makers.

And yet, strangely, the small circles that circumscribed his early life were quite possibly keys to his eventual emergence as a jazz giant. For what it might reveal of the transformation of an overprotected, unexceptional Midwestern child into of one of this era's seminal figures, it's worth looking again at his "formative" years.

When Charles Parker, Sr., a singer and dancer on the vaudeville circuit, landed in Kansas City, Kansas, it is said he was "between jobs." Then, as now, the vagaries of the travelling entertainer's life were such that no one could have predicted the zigzag course that took him from Mississippi to Memphis to the "heart of America," where he settled for a time and married 17-year-old Addie Boyley. He already had a son, John, when on August 29, 1920, Charles Parker, Jr., was born.

What elements of or interest in music or "show-biz" he imparted to his sons aren't discussed in the major biographies. Difficulties finding work are mentioned, along with a reference to heavy drinking. He eventually began to work as a Pullman chef, which meant spending prolonged periods away from home. By the time his younger son was eight or nine, his father had left the home altogether, his older son in tow.

What is documented is Addie's devotion to little Charlie. Her remarks in interviews, corroborated by others close to the family, have buttressed the image of Charlie as Mama Addie's boy: spoiled and pampered. It is reported that he once asked to have a newspaper route, but she refused permission. She enrolled him first in parochial school, then public grammar school, where he is said to have been a good student.

Some time around Charlie's eighth or ninth year, they moved across the Kaw river to Kansas City, Missouri, where Addie worked nights for Western Union. Mrs. Parker had unwittingly placed her coddled son in what would become the hotbed of corruption and, more fortuitously, one of the country's top centers for jazz.

There's a memorial of sorts from that era that bears silent witness to the chicanery of Kansas City, circa 1920's. A tiny stream, Brush Creek, trickles along the western portion of the city. As it enters the now-glittering area of fountains, fancy shops and stately apartment buildings known as the Country Club Plaza, Brush Creek becomes a "walled-in pond" (apologies to Henry David Thoreau), with a broad expanse under its generally puny flow, and impressive embankments on either side. This grand channel is lined in concrete--huge amounts of it, "protecting" the city from the "ravages" of a usually insignificant ribbon of water. This is one of the few visibile vestiges of the fabled Pendergast reign.

Tom Pendergast was one of those legendary machine politicians who could deliver votes (and almost anything else his favored constituents wanted). Kansas City became one of the centers of organized crime--mobsters such as Pretty Boy Floyd operated from here. Prohibition, enacted in 1920, provided the opportunity for much of the corruption; for as much as the Volstead Act purported to stem the legal flow of liquor, it didn't stop the demand for it. Indeed, it fostered an array of allied industries such as gambling, prostitution and narcotics distribution. Politicians of Pendergast's stripe usually ran "legitimate" businesses to mask their illegal activities. And with his influence, and his ownership of a concrete company, small wonder that little Brush Creek became Kansas City's paved river.

But flowing like a torrent, providing a backdrop for all the bootleg boozing, was jazz. And Charlie and Addie Parker now lived at 1516 Olive Street, just blocks from the center of it all.

This was the place to hear the world's great musicians. In Bird biographer Ross Russell's words, this was " the last of the black ghettos that evolved a coherent jazz style."* Ben Webster, Lester Young and Herschel Evans held forth here nightly. Count Basie was "discovered" here. Author Gary Giddins provides an impressive list of some of those who were drawn to Kansas City at that time, including Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page, Jo Jones, Gus Johnson, Gene Ramey, Budd Johnson, Pete Johnson, Benny Moten, Tadd Dameron, Charlie Christian, and the big bands of Calloway, ellington, Henderson and Lunceford, with their stars Johnny Hodges, Dizzy Gillespie and Chu Berry among them.**

Charlie's emergence into that scene would have been impossible to predict. From the obedient and successful grammar school student grew an irresponsible truant. Although he entered Lincoln high school in 1932 at the age of 12 (not atypically in those days) and received his first alto sax a year later, he demonstrated no particular scholastic or musical aptitude. He switched first to alto horn, then baritone horn, under the tutelage of the respected marching band director Alonzo Lewis. Staying away from school frequently, his only interest at Lincoln (aside from seeing more of Rebecca, now a boarder in Mama Addie's house and Charlie's first sweetheart) was to play in the band.

Scholar Giddins writes of the "obsession, a burning faith" that characterized Charlie's constant questioning of his fellow band members about music. He picked up the alto sax again and spent hours trying to teach himself when he wasn't picking the brain of classmates such as pianist Lawrence Keyes, leader of a band called Deans of Swing; its trombonist, Charlie Simpson; and idols such as Buster Smith (whose "double-time" phrasing is said to have had a lasting effect on Charlie). He was a determined, if slow learner; he tried "jamming" with some older kids, but left in humiliation.

Eventually Charlie was invited to join the Deans of Swing, and his mother rewarded Charlie with a silver Conn alto, a much better instrument than the cellophane-and-tin-foil patchwork of his original instrument. They played for dances at Lincoln Hall to overflow crowds for a percentage of the door. It was during this period that an emboldened Charlie Parker, already familiar with haunts such as the Reno Club where he often heard Count Basie's band, experienced that better-known, ill-fated attempt to sit in at a jam session. This time, like the last, he was unable to keep up. Only this time, the effort ended, literally, with a crash: drummer Jo Jones had tossed a cymbal in Charlie's direction, sending him off crushed but determined.

Nothing, it seemed, could stop him now. He and Rebecca were married at the age of 16 (after which his father made a brief re-appearance). But he was practicing more than ever now, staying up late to visit the clubs and hear his idols. He accepted a gig out of town, but an auto accident--which killed bassist George Wilkerson--left him with broken ribs and forced him back home, where his wife, mother and other others living in the house attended to his every need. The other benefit from the accident was an insurance settlement, which left Charlie enough money to buy a new, gold Selmer alto saxophone.

Once mended, he resumed work, and began to show signs of dissipation. There were drugs aplenty, mostly marijuana (still legal then) and benzedrine, wine, and a disinclination to sleep at night, resulting in a disorderly appearance. He was attracting the attention of more and more prominent musicians and bandleaders, not always for his burgeoning musicianship. By the age of 17, Charlie Parker was mainlining heroin.

Around town, word spread about his unique sound. Jobs were plentiful, as scouts were continually combing the ranks to hire players to tour. Buster "Prof" Smith hired Charlie in a band that included Jay McShann, soon to be his steadiest employer. Down in the Ozarks, a verdant vacation resort area, a band led by George Lee brought Charlie in the company of three individuals important to his musical development. Pianist Carrie Powell and guitarist efferge Ware took him aside to explain music's circle of fifths, an indespensible harmonic concept heretofore absent from Charlie's understanding. The third person was present in the form of Count Basie records Charlie picked up the moment they were available of a quintet that featured the solos of the President himself, Lester Young.

Things started deteriorating rapidly, both in the larger circle of Kansas City and in the smaller one occupied by the Parker family. Toward the end of the bacchanal decade of the 30's, Pendergast was finally reigned in by legal authorities. As the clubs closed, naturally, gigs were drying up, so players were beginning to look elsewhere for work. Charlie's wife delivered a baby while he was away--a boy Charlie named Frances Leon Parker--the first, for the composer of the Star Spangled Banner (the first tune Rebecca had heard him play), and Leon after saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry. But Charlie was hardly the model father, pawning household goods for fixes, doing short time over a knife fight, engaging in an affair. From above and below, it looked like a good time to get out of town.

The Charlie Parker he saw turn up in Chicago gave singer Billy eckstein the impression that this was "the raggediest guy you'd want to see." But when the shabby teenager made his way to the bandstand and asked to play altoist Goon Gardner's horn, reports are that his playing was stunning. He was clothed and fed, even given a clarinet, by Gardner, but before long he'd pawned the horn (having long since pawned his own) and caught a bus for New York.

Finally arrived in the city of his dreams, Addie's little boy had to swallow a bitter pill: the only job he could find right away was his only non-musical one: cleaning pots and pans in a restaurant. But this was Jimmy's Chicken Shack in Harlem, and the featured performer when Charlie tied on his apron was none other than the king of piano, Art Tatum, whose impact on the still-developing young dishwasher/saxophonist can be assumed.

As before, Charlie sought out the best musicians--and most patient teachers. In New York he befriended a guitarist, Bill "Biddy" Fleet, and resumed his study of harmony, and sat in where the "modern" players could be found. There was work in taxi dance halls, where the rigors of playing a succession of "minute-waltz" numbers offered a paid course in learning the popular tunes of the day. His relentless pursuit of a sound he could hear but not quite execute paid off one evening as he was practicing one of his favorite improvisatory vehicles, "Cherokee":

"...I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I'd been hearing. I came alive."

This revelation would of course change not only this saxophonist's way of playing, but would revolutionize jazz to a degree that no one since Louis Armstrong had done The rest of us are left to wonder at the brilliant simplicity of it: driven as if by a demon to absorb the best-played music of his time, without formal training, this erratic, charming, spoiled kid willed himself into a place where no one before him had been.

But for knowledge to become wisdom, there must be sufficient experience. Thus, when news of Charlie Parker's father's death summoned him back to Kansas City, he seized an opportunity there to develop alongside others from whom he could augment his awareness of music theory. Bandleader Harlan Leonard put him to work, and to Charlie's delight the band provided his newest mentor: pianist/arranger Tadd Dameron.

His next association would prove to be his passport to wider recognition, with pianist bandleader Jay McShann. Their relationship was such that when Parker would need "time off" to recover from drug-induced problems, McShann granted it. [Note: Gary Giddins relates that Bird received his nickname during the three-and-a-half-year McShann tenure: once, while riding in a car that hit and killed a chicken, Charlie is said to have ordered the driver, "Man, go back, you hit that yardbird," whereupon he retrieved the dead fowl and later had it cooked for dinner. Reed virtuoso Buddy Collette demurs, saying that Parker's all-night practice sessions would often continue into dawn, when usually just the chickens were up and active. either way, Charlie Parker would be known as Bird by the time he returned to New York with McShann.]

McShann proved to be a durable employer and friend. Heartened by the stability of the job and the relationship, Parker became more expansive, helping rehearse the band and working on his reading. The band toured extensively, its leader repeatedly disappointed by the lukewarm reception given his new star alto soloist. Giddins describes his playing at this period: "Parker was achieving the kind of fluency that only the greats can claim: complete authority from the first lick, and the ability to sustain the initial inspiration throughout a solo, so that it has dramatic coherence." The first recording of the band, done in Wichita, Kansas, features Bird paying musical homage to Chu Berry, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, with of course some flourishes all his own.

Ultimately, the popular palate -- and most jazz musicians -- still preferred the tried-and-true. The tune that brought McShann's band its greatest success was a rhythm-and-blues number, "Confessin' the Blues," sung by Walter Brown, backed by McShann and his rhythm section. The record sold half a million copies, and McShann could now book the band where it would catapult Parker into a stratum he could only have dreamed about when he first arrived there...New York.

Concludes Giddins of Charlie Parker, upon his return to New York in 1942: "His technique and speed, logic and lyricism, fire and shrewdness all added up to a way out of the woodshed of experimentation and into the light of accomplishment."

This time he wouldn't have to wash pots and pans, or play for taxi dancers. He was not everyone's favorite 22-year-old, but for the cognoscenti, he was the young man with a horn.

*Ross Russell, Bird Lives, Da Capo Press, 1996 edition.

**Gary Giddins, Celebrating Bird, William Morrow Co., 1987.