Saxophone virtuoso Charlie "Bird" Parker began playing professionally in his early teens, became a heroin addict at 16, changed the course of music, and then died when only 34 years old. His friend Robert Reisner observed, "Parker, in the brief span of his life, crowded more living into it than any other human being." Like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane, he was a transitional composer and improviser who ushered in a new era of jazz by pioneering bebop and influenced subsequent generations of musicians.
Meticulously researched and written, Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker tells the story of his life, music, and career. This new biography artfully weaves together firsthand accounts from those who knew him with new information about his life and career to create a compelling narrative portrait of a tragic genius.
While other books about Parker have focused primarily on his music and recordings, this portrait reveals the troubled man behind the music, illustrating how his addictions and struggles with mental health affected his life and career. He was alternatively generous and miserly; a loving husband and father at home but an incorrigible philanderer on the road; and a chronic addict who lectured younger musicians about the dangers of drugs. Above all he was a musician, who overcame humiliation, disappointment, and a life-threatening car wreck to take wing as Bird, a brilliant improviser and composer.
With in-depth research into previously overlooked sources and illustrated with several never-before-seen images, Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker corrects much of the misinformation and myth about one of the most influential musicians of the twentieth century.
About the Author
Chuck Haddix is the director of the Marr Sound Archives of the University of Missouri-Kansas City Libraries. He is the coauthor of Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to BebopA History and the producer and host of KCUR-FM's "The Fish Fry," a popular radio program.
Read an Excerpt
THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF CHARLIE PARKER
By CHUCK HADDIX
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESSCopyright © 2013 Charles Haddix
All rights reserved.
Kansas City Blues
Charlie "Bird" Parker grew up in Kansas City, a community divided against itself by the Kansas-Missouri state line. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Charlie came of age musically while hanging around the alleyways behind the nightclubs that lined Twelfth Street in Kansas City, Missouri. The two Kansas Cities were, culturally and politically, worlds apart. Kansas City, Kansas, established by the Wyandotte Indians, faced its larger counterpart Kansas City, Missouri, across the Kaw Valley at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. Bassist Gene Ramey summed up the difference between the two Kansas Cities during the 1920s and 1930s. "Kansas was a dry state in the days I'm talking of, but Missouri was wide open," Ramey explained. "People who lived in Kansas went over to Missouri and raised hell. It was like some people say of New York—a place to go and have fun in, and then you get on out."
Democratic political boss Tom Pendergast lorded over Kansas City, Missouri, which was known as the "Paris of the Plains." Gambling, drugs, and prostitution thrived as local authorities looked the other way. During Prohibition, liquor flowed freely in the hundreds of clubs dotting Kansas City south from the Missouri River to beyond the city limits, known as "out in the county." Musicians from across the southwestern territories flocked to Kansas City, where jobs were plentiful. Pianist Mary Lou Williams found Kansas City to be a "heavenly" place, with "music everywhere in the Negro section of town, and fifty or more cabarets rocking on 12th and 18th Streets. ... Now at this time, which was still Prohibition, Kansas City was under Tom Pendergast's control. Most of the night spots were run by politicians and hoodlums, and the town was wide open for drinking, gambling and pretty much every form of vice. Naturally, work was plentiful for musicians." "Tom's Town" served as a business and entertainment center for the Midwest.
Kansas City, Kansas, grew at a slower pace than Kansas City, Missouri. At every turn, Kansas City, Missouri, out-hustled its smaller counterpart on the Kansas side. Being located in Kansas further inhibited the junior Kansas City's growth. Kansas, an agricultural state with vast wheat fields, cultivated few major cities. The state legislature, dominated by farmers from small towns, voted for rural interests at the expense of Kansas City, Kansas, and other metropolitan areas.
Missouri joined the union as a slave state in 1820 as part of the Missouri Compromise. Kansas, settled by abolitionists from the East Coast, entered the union as a free state in 1861. The town of Quindaro, located in the river bottom below Kansas City, Kansas, served as a stop on the Underground Railroad, offering refuge for slaves fleeing Missouri. During the Civil War, murder and mayhem swirled across the state line as local militias—Jayhawkers from Kansas and Bushwhackers from Missouri—traded raids on towns and farmhouses. After the war, bitterness smoldered across the state line.
Kansas, a state of reformers and crusaders in the spirit of abolitionist John Brown, took the lead in the temperance movement. In 1880, Kansas became the nation's first state to amend its constitution to prohibit the sale and possession of alcoholic beverages. A decade later, Carrie Nation, a large, stern woman clad in black, embarked on temperance crusades across Kansas, smashing up saloons with a hatchet.
In April 1901, Nation arrived to a chilly reception in Kansas City, Missouri. After staging an impromptu temperance rally in front of the saloons on Twelfth Street, she landed in jail, charged with blocking the road. Judge Thomas McAuley fined her five hundred dollars and ordered her out of town by six o'clock that evening, with the stipulation that the fine would be suspended if she never returned to Kansas City. When handing down Nation's sentence, the judge advised her that "Missouri is not a good place for shorthaired women, long-haired men and whistling girls." The judge then added, "You may smash saloons in Kansas and raise all kinds of trouble there, but you must observe the law here. Kansas City is a law-abiding city." To that irony, Nation retorted, "Kansas City ships all this hell-broth into Kansas." Nation's campaign, as well as widening support for prohibition through the First World War and pressure from groups like the Anti-Saloon League, led to the enactment of the Volstead Act in 1919, banning the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol nationally. While Kansas held the dry moral high ground, Kansas City prospered handsomely from Prohibition brought about by the influence of Nation and other temperance crusaders.
The completion of the Hannibal Bridge in 1869, the first bridge across the Missouri River, brought the railroad to Kansas City and transformed it from a trading outpost on the frontier into a railroad hub and center of commerce. In 1917, at the peak of rail traffic, 271 trains passed daily through Union Station, the massive stone Beaux Arts train station located on the southern edge of downtown. The Irish and other immigrants flooded Kansas City to work on the railroad and meatpacking plants. African Americans migrated in droves to Kansas City, the first stop outside the Deep South. New arrivals settled in African American communities in the Steptoe community of Westport, the Eighteenth and Vine area in Missouri, or across the river in Kansas City, Kansas. Like other migrants, Charlie's parents, Addie and Charles, gained a foothold in Kansas City, Kansas, and then stepped up across the state line.
Addie Brower Boxley was the youngest daughter of five children born to Alfred and Myriah Boxley. Petite with long, straight hair and high cheekbones, Addie grew up in Pittsburg County, located in the rolling hills of southeastern Oklahoma. As a teenager, she worked as a maid for a household of six headed by Mary H. Morris on Main Street in McAlester, the county seat. Seeking to improve her life, Addie caught the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad, affectionately known as the "Katy," to Kansas City, where she met Charlie's father.
Like Addie, Charles came to Kansas City from the South. He was born in 1886, the first of six children, to Ella and Reverend Peter C. Parker, an evangelical preacher. The family traveled widely across the South, living at various times in Mississippi, Tennessee, and Alabama. As a youth, Charles strayed from the straight-and-narrow path traveled by the rest of his family. A dancer and entertainer, he toured on circus and vaudeville circuits. After Reverend Parker died around 1909, Ella, Charles, and other family members moved to the Kansas City area. They lived briefly with Ella's mother Jane Goodloe and her sister in a rooming house at 311 West Sixth Street in the heart of a crowded slum on the northern rim of downtown Kansas City, Missouri, before moving to Kansas City, Kansas. Charles and his younger brother John Francis Parker helped support the family by working as waiters on the railroad. Charles, who fancied himself a man about town, freelanced as an entertainer on the side.
A few years later, Ella bought a brick duplex at 844 Washington Boulevard, three blocks north of Minnesota Avenue, the main business thoroughfare in Kansas City, Kansas. The family, including Charles and John, moved in with Ella. Charles and John spent long stretches away from home working on the railroad. During layovers in Chicago, Charles romanced a young woman of Italian descent. In 1914, she bore a son named John Anthony Parker. Shortly afterward, Charles moved John Anthony and his mother from Chicago to Ella's duplex. Ella lavished affection on her new grandson, whom the family nicknamed Ike. A year later, Ike's mother decided to return to Chicago. She wanted to take the light-skinned Ike with her and pass him off as white, but Ella and Charles vigorously objected. Recognizing Ike's strong bond with Ella, his mother left him in his grandmother's care and returned to Chicago.
Soon after, Charles met Addie, and they married in 1916. The newlyweds moved in with Ella and the extended family. When Addie became pregnant, they moved into a two-room apartment at 852 Freeman Avenue, above the Kesterson and Richardson Grocery Store, a two-story brick building located in the heart of the African American community scattered across the steep hill bordering the northeastern edge of Kansas City, Kansas. Streets paved with bricks terraced the incline that ended abruptly at limestone bluffs overlooking the city of Quindaro nestled in the Kaw River Valley.
On August 29, 1920, Doctor J. R. Thompson delivered Charlie Parker in the family's apartment. Addie, a doting mother, spoiled Charlie, a pudgy precocious child with a cherubic smile. She dressed him in the finest clothes and fussed over his long hair. Charlie walked at eleven months and began speaking complete sentences at age two. "He was the most affectionate child you ever saw," Addie declared years later. "When he was two he'd come to the door and say, 'Mama are you there?' And I'd say, 'Yes I'm here,' and he'd go on playing. Since he could talk he'd say 'Mama I love you.'"
Addie paid less attention to Charlie's older half brother Ike, who lived up the hill with his grandmother. Ike was well aware that Charlie received more affection from Addie and Charles. Nevertheless, he adored his younger brother. Ike often ambled down the hill to play with Charlie, who affectionately called his older brother Ikey.
Working as a waiter on the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad, Charles traveled widely, staying away from home for long periods. During his short stints at home, Charles spent more time in the nightclubs on the Missouri side than at home, much to Addie's concern. His drinking and long absences alienated Addie. Years later she explained, "He was a drunkard. I tried so many times to get him to stop but all he would say was 'Ten years from today I will stop drinking.'" The couple separated in 1924. Charles moved to his mother's duplex up the hill. Addie stayed at the apartment on Freeman and found work as a cook.
In September 1925, Addie enrolled Charlie in Douglass School, located at Ninth Street and Washington Boulevard, a block west of Ella's duplex. Kindergarten through seventh-grade students attended the twenty-room brick schoolhouse named for abolitionist Frederick Douglass. After graduating from Douglass, students moved next door to Sumner High School. Charlie, an enthusiastic student, missed only one day of school his first year. Schoolmate and future bandleader Oliver Todd remembered Charlie as a feisty scrapper. "It was about 1925 or '26. I was on the school playground when this little guy [Charlie] would come from out of nowhere and started beating on me. The guys on the school ground would say, 'Hey Ollie here comes your boy.' He was a little bitty guy. Small for his age then." Charlie attended Douglass through the second grade.
During the summer of 1927, Addie and Charles reconciled and moved to Kansas City, Missouri. As before, Ike stayed behind with his grandmother. Charles quit the railroad and settled down to work as a janitor for a brick six-apartment building on the northeast corner of Thirty-Sixth and Wyandotte in a middle-class white neighborhood, known as Uptown. Two-story shirtwaist houses, duplexes, and apartment buildings lined the broad streets of the Uptown area, which was bordered by Main Street on the east and Broadway to the west, Kansas City's two main north-south commercial strips. The Pla-Mor entertainment complex, located a few blocks north, boasted the glittering "million dollar ballroom," a regular stop on the national band circuit.
The family moved into a spacious upstairs apartment in a brick fourplex at 3527 Wyandotte Avenue, just north of the apartment building where Charles Sr. worked. Tall, white, fluted Ionic columns framed the unit's broad, gray, wood front porches. Charlie played on the sidewalk in front of the apartments beneath elm trees arching over the street. He attended Penn School in Westport, a historic area located a mile south of the family's apartment.
Settled in the 1830s, Westport prospered by outfitting wagon trains embarking on the trails west. In October 1864, Westport was at the center of the largest Civil War battle west of the Mississippi River, ending with the rout of the Confederate forces led by General Sterling Price. Union sentiments prevailed, and Westport became a mixed-race community. Arthur Saunders, a classmate of Charlie's at Penn School, recalled, "There was not much prejudice in Westport. There were three main groups—white, black, and mixed. At a club in an area known as The Valley, mixed-race couples gathered to socialize. No one bothered them."
Penn School, located at 4237 Pennsylvania Avenue, was the first school established west of the Mississippi River devoted to educating African American children. The red-brick three-room schoolhouse, named after Quaker William Penn, stood on a limestone outcropping just west of Broadway. Parents of students who attended Penn worked as janitors, domestics, and laborers in the area. Art Saunders's mother, the school's janitor, fired up the potbellied stove on chilly mornings. Students shared a cup for drinking water. The ring of an old-fashioned bell marked the day's schedule. During recess, students played on the grassy knoll down the hill south of the school. After school, Charlie and his friends flocked to Manor Bakery, located a few blocks north, to pick up day-old cakes and cookies.
Fellow student Jeremiah Cameron fondly recalled his days at Penn School and his friendship with Charlie. "There was much warmth everywhere in that room in the Great Depression days of the early 1930s, from Miss Brownlee Baird, the teacher who taught me (us) what the English sentence was all about, to us poor students, who I think realized in those days of Jim Crow, that though we had little of this world's goods, we had each other." Cameron recalled Charlie as "no great light as a student," but "someone who was soft-spoken and gentle; though like me, he was not a Westporter, living in janitor quarters, like me, down near 36th and Broadway, he had all that kindness and sense of inclusion that marked the old Westport area, a little black village, surrounded by an uncaring and separate white community." Traveling between the two communities, Charlie learned early on how to navigate the white world.
Charlie walked to school up Broadway, past the art deco Uptown Theater, drug stores, grocery stores, hotels, and apartments. Arthur Saunders met Charlie the first day of school, and they became fast friends. Saunders described Parker as "pleasant and intelligent—a nice guy, who was popular at Penn. I wanted to be an artist and he wanted to be a musician." Saunders distinctly recalled Charlie's picking up the alto saxophone during the fifth grade, when the school district introduced a music program at Penn. In an interview with Marshall Stearns in 1950, Charlie remembered not being ready for his first saxophone. "Well, my mother bought me a horn ... but I wasn't ready for it then. I didn't get interested in a horn until I got interested in the baritone horn when I was at High School. But I'd had that saxophone for a few years."
In 1931, Penn students donned wings for a pageant, "Birdland," held at the local Baptist church. Decked out in winged costumes, they lined up in rows in front of the school for a photograph commemorating the event. According to Frank Douglas, whose father, Dale F. Douglas Sr., attended Penn, "They had this pageant and the students were playing birds in costume. When the music teacher caught the boys goofin' off he told them 'you yardbirds get here in the school.'" Charlie picked up on the colloquialism and began referring to his favorite food, chicken, as yardbird, foreshadowing his future nickname.
In the summer of 1932, Addie left Charles Sr. for good. She found work as a custodian in the offices of Western Union in Union Station and rented a spacious two-story house at 1516 Olive Street located northeast of Eighteenth and Vine, the business and spiritual center for the African American community. To help make ends meet, Addie took in boarders. Charlie completed seventh grade at Sumner School, located at 2121 Charlotte Street, one of four grade schools for African Americans in the Kansas City, Missouri, school district.
Excerpted from bird by CHUCK HADDIX. Copyright © 2013 Charles Haddix. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents
1 Kansas City Blues 5
2 Buster's Tune 23
3 Hootie Blues 39
4 Bebop 59
5 Relaxing at Camarillo 85
6 Dewey Square 105
7 Parker's Mood 131