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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Portraits of the Past: What was, and could have been, for the great Charlie Parker

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  • Charlie Parker was a Kansas City boy who became a world renowned jazz saxophonist and composer. He loved jazz from the first time he heard it as a child.
    At 17, he began traveling with jazz bands, earning the nickname “Bird” when he asked someone to roast a chicken that had been struck by a car along the road.
    Charlie Parker formed his own jazz bands in the 1940s and headed for the Big Apple. Parker lived a fast, but short lifetime from 1920-1955.
    It is the consensus of most jazz critics that no modern jazz musician played with the brilliance of alto saxophonist Parker. His professional career lasted some 17 years, and he left as his legacy of about 100 records made during his last decade. They preserve examples of the melodic bursts and rhythmic innovations equal to his nickname, “Bird” or “Yardbird,” because his inspiration and the purity of his music were considered birdlike.
    According to Dizzy Gillespie, Parker invented bebop, the jazz sound of the postwar period. He was so highly regarded that in 1949, when he was 29, a jazz club on Broadway in Manhattan was renamed “Birdland” in his honor.
    Parker was a legend before his death at the age of 35, a man of huge appetites who overindulged in everything. He was a neurotic, hospitalized twice for mental breakdowns, and he was a drug addict whose habit caused him to misbehave flamboyantly.
    In February 1954, his 2-year-old daughter, Pree, died of pneumonia. After that, Parker was through. He was unable to reconcile himself to her death, and what had been a dangerous drug habit became a suicidal plunge into despair.
    In August 1954, he was booked to play Birdland with singer Dinah Washington. Both she and Parker had August birthdays and held legendary capacities for alcohol. They both got drunk, and he was unable to perform as contracted.  The manager had a camera girl take Parker’s picture for posterity and then fired him from the club that was named in his honor.
    Parker went home, argued with his common-law wife Chan, and attempted suicide by drinking a bottle of iodine. He was committed to Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, where he stayed until mid-October.
    Two weeks later, he played a club called Town Hall in New York City, followed by a succession of grueling and demeaning club dates that only deepened his depression.
    Charlie Parker’s last public appearance was at Birdland on March 5, 1955, and the show was as stormy as in 1954. After a Saturday evening of unprofessional bickering with his sidemen, he stormed off the stage and was banished from Birdland once again.
    The following Saturday he collapsed while watching the Tommy Dorsey variety show on television. He died from a heart attack, induced apparently by bleeding ulcers and cirrhosis of the liver.
    Page 2 of 2 - Parker died broke. A benefit concert for his son and wife at Carnegie Hall in April sold out, raising about $5,740.
    At 3:40 a.m., police closed down the show, which had begun at midnight, and the musicians who had not yet had an opportunity to play their tribute to Parker created a scene. 
    Gillespie, Art Blakey, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, Oscar Pettiford, Lester Yong, and Horace Silver were among the musicians who appeared on the stage in front of an audience of 2,760 jazz fans that night. It was a fitting tribute to the greatest of all bebop saxophonists, who found perfection in his music and bitter disappointment in the rest of his life.
    It makes you wonder what he could have accomplished if not for the drug addiction.
     
    Information from "Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker," by George Reisner, was used in this column.
    To reach Ted W. Stillwell, email teddy.stillwell@yahoo.com or call (816) 252-9909.

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