"...the neighbours threatened to ask my mother to move once when we were living out West. They said I was driving them crazy with the horn. I used to put in at least 11 to 15 hours a day [...] I did that for over a period of 3 to 4 years." Charlie Parker - 1954
Many critics dismiss this quote by Charlie as bravado, but in actuality, it is probably more accurate than has been credited. The length of time it took Charlie to go from a near non-musical child to a professional musician, albeit of an average quality, was extremely brief. At about 12 or 13 years old, he received/retrieved a saxophone, and by 15, he is a professional musician playing in the clubs of Kansas City, Missouri. By 17, he is a fully formed jazz musician, and by 19, he experiences the musical 'epiphany' that would lead to the genius of Charlie Parker.
Of all the periods of Charlie's life, the teenage years are the hardest to map chronologically because of the usual contradictory dates and events preventing an accurate understanding of his development. There is an inclination to force a logical chronology to known events and sometimes this runs contrary to established Parker folklore. Nevertheless, even attempting to understand the events only highlights the remarkable, almost miraculous, possibly obsessive, musical development of a seemingly average child to a master of his instrument.
Doris Sydnor, Parker's third wife said, "I had a very wonderful childhood, and Charlie had no childhood whatsoever … His kind of fun at fourteen was going on Benzedrine parties with his friends. At fifteen, thanks to some character in Kansas City, he became a drug addict." By way of repetition, she later says, "Charlie's childhood did not ruin Charlie - he had no childhood". This view of Parkers' youth may not be entirely accurate, but the roots of Parker's self-destruction lie in his youth, and this is what Doris is implying. The effects of a doting mother, an alcoholic, absent father, and living in a musical but hedonistic city, may have contributed to the destructive element into the Parker personality. Either way, the damage these and other influences may have inflicted on the maturing boy arguably resulted in an adult whose appetites resembled those available in 1930's Kansas City, Missouri.
Not much is known about Charlie in the years, but in April 1930, he is 9 years old and living with his parents at 109 W34th Kansas City, Missouri in a house that still stands today. Charlie is still attending Penn School in the affluent, white Westport district, and the family had moved at least once since arriving in Missouri. The enrolment records for Penn school in 1927 state that Charlie lived at 3527 Wyandotte and this must have been their first dwelling after leaving Kansas.
3527 Wyandotte as it stands today. Is anyone going to preserve these buildings?
The 1930 census describes a nuclear family, with Charles Senior employed as a janitor and Addie as the home-maker but not in employment. Oddly, the census states that Charlie could not read or write and had not been in school at any time since the previous September. (The census was taken in January, 1930). This is contradicted by the records for Penn School that state Charlie was there from 1927 to 1932, and it must be assumed by staying in school for that period, he was literate, or he would not have progressed through the grades.
Between 1930 and 1932, school records place the family at 3527 Wyandotte, slightly closer to Penn School than their previous home on W34.
In September 1932, school records state that Charlie entered 7th grade at Sumner Elementary/Middle School, in another part of town and perhaps far enough away from Penn to force a change of address This change of school appears to coincide with the relocation to 1516 Olive Street, which would have occurred in the summer of 1932. Nevertheless, in the space of five years, the family had moved homes three times, and perhaps it was this last move that disturbed Charlie enough to initiate the waning of his academic interest.
A derelict 1535 Olive Street
This move to Olive Street may also have coincided with the departure of Charles Senior, although it is not clear exactly when Parker Senior departed. It was accepted Parker folklore that when Charles Senior left, he took John with him. However, recent research indicates that John had remained in Kansas with his grandmother, Ella Parker. The census for both 1920 and 1930 states he is resident at 844 Washington in the Kansas side of the city. John remained in Kansas and completed Douglass, Sumner and North East High, obtaining his high school diploma. As an adult, he worked for the Kansas City postal service.
It has long been stated that Crispus Attucks Elementary School as the school Charlie attended in Missouri. Charlie, his mother, friends, and even a teacher are all on record as stating that he attended this school. However, the Student Records Office for the Missouri School District, has no records of Charlie at this school? How it entered the consciousness of so many people as being Charlie's alma mater is unclear, except that the school itself was very close to the 18th and Vine district and perhaps it's proximity to the district that gave Charlie an education in jazz, might have been extended to cover his academic education also?
1535 Olive Street just before demolition
It is also unclear when Charlie got his first saxophone. Dates vary, but as he apparently asked for his first instrument, an alto saxophone, after hearing Rudy Valee, this would probably date the request around 11 years old. Apparently, he became bored with it and lent it to friend, (the action, it could be said, of a spoilt child), who kept it for 2 years! Addie said it cost $45 but more to restore. Either way, it is untrue to suggest that Charlie was obsessed with the alto saxophone at this age, as Giddins suggests in his DVD and book, 'Celebrating Bird'.
Charlie enrolled in Lincoln High in September 1933. At high school, he began learning baritone and alto horn, under the tutelage of Alonso Lewis a respected musician and bandleader, and at some point retrieved his alto saxophone. It has been stated that he tired of these other instruments and concentrated on saxophone from this point forward. This appears to be untrue, as almost two years later, in June 1935 he is still playing a valve instrument in the school orchestra and played for Rebecca Ruffin's graduation. In addition, Charlie is stated as saying the baritone horn, "...was loud and boisterous and dominated the band so much the judges could scarcely ignore it". (Keepnews) It then must be assumed that Charlie's development on the saxophone ran in parallel with his activity on the valve instruments and he must have practiced valve and reed instruments at the same time. This combination of techniques would have strengthened his embouchure and perhaps helped his technique, though one may have interfered with the progress of the other. However this might go part way to explaining the difficulty other saxophonists had playing Charlie's saxophone, as he used a very hard reed and needed exceptional strength to play it.
Strangely, on the 9th of May 1934, at the end of his first year, a 13-year-old Charlie withdrew from Lincoln High School. We can only speculate why he did this, and perhaps it is related to his father's departure. Perhaps young Charlie wanted to fulfill the role of head of the house. Addie refers to working night and day for two years, and this might have been the result of an agreement with her son to continue school, as on September 1st, 1934, at the age of fourteen, Charlie re-enrolled in Lincoln High. This withdrawal from school is probably an indication of his disinterest with school and may corroborate the many statements of his truancy and absences. Charlie is quoted as saying he, "…spent three years in high school and wound up a freshman”. This is not exactly true, and he does not support the belief that he had to retake his freshman year as have been quoted elsewhere. School records state that he completed his grades in consecutive order, which perhaps supports Addie's statement that school was too easy for him, and when music appeared in his life education simply lost his attention?
If this withdrawal from school could be interpreted as a disinterest with school and a willingness to become a musician, it would presuppose he had already been sampling the nightlife close to his new home. If so, then the stories for his trawling the clubs late at night at an early age are true, and further, it is probably safe to assume he was at the very least, exposed to narcotics by the age of 13.
In the vague chronology of his life at this time, a 13-year-old Charlie Parker must have begun practising the alto saxophone in earnest. It would be naive to suggest he did not start practising hard until he was older. In a little over 2 years, he would be a member of the local Musician's Union 627, and working professionally with the Ten Chords of Rhythm and Lawrence Keyes (Keys) in the clubs of 18th Street.
Why Charlie chose to become a musician is unclear, but in a quote he implies he needed to find work, and music, "...seemed easy, looked glamorous, and there was nothing else around". This quote probably confirms he was sampling the nightlife and seeing some of the greatest jazz musicians of the day. He may have become inspired and captivated with the music and the lifestyle of the musicians he was witnessing. If this is correct, then he was around 12 or 13 years old when he was staying out nights watching such great talents as Lester Young, Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Joe Turner, and Count Basie.
Corner of 18th and Vine
Too young to enter some clubs he would linger in the alleys behind the clubs, listening to the musicians, sometime bringing his own saxophone and finger the keys as if playing and sometimes he would be fall asleep there. One theory about his nickname comes from this time. They called him 'Yardbird' because he was always hanging out in the yard behind the clubs.
Addie worked nights leaving Charlie free to explore the clubs, and because of these night time excursions, there is no wonder that he was a terrible truant. These excursions are substantiated by Ernest Daniels, a childhood friend who said, "When we first got to know each other he used to come by my window, at twelve or one in the morning, throw a pebble against the window, and we'd go to jam sessions and play. I'm not positive about the years, but I'd say it was around 1934-35 that we played with Keyes.” Giddins substantiates this saying that "Addie looked the other way when he disappeared, although she forbade from walking into the combat zone around Twelfth Street, where many of the best musicians could be heard". However, it has been stated that Charlie preferred 12th Street to 18th and Vine, suggesting that he did not always abide by his mother’s wishes.
On April 10th 1934, a month before Charlie first withdrew from school, the Ruffin family moved into 1516 Olive Street and the 13-year-old Parker is immediately drawn to Rebecca. Fannie Ruffin was divorcing her husband, Marcus and had taken the five daughters and one son and moved in with the Parker's. Eight years separated the Ruffin children with Rebecca placed in the middle with 3 younger, 1 elder sister and brother. It must have been a brave woman who left her husband and home to become lodgers in someone else's house. The 1930 census states that the Ruffin has owned their home, Marcus Ruffin was an insurance salesman, and they owned a radio set.
It is also possible that Charlie’s withdrawal from school could have been influenced by the arrival of the Ruffin’s in Olive Street.
As the Ruffin's moved into the house, Rebecca remembers that she was rather surprised to see that Parker was still in knickers "which seemed odd for a boy as big as he was". As they moved in, the young Parker stared at them as if he had never seen girls before but made no effort to help. "You want to know about Charlie Parker? I'll tell you about Charlie Parker - he was lazy!” Ruffin said in an interview with Giddins. The author states that Charlie seemed to enjoy having children his own age around, and formed attachments to the Ruffin kids, no more so, than with Rebecca.
Rebecca said that he appeared a lonely boy, with few friends. A classmate of Parker's, Edward (Egbert) Mayfield, Junior, gives another impression, "He was kind of a bully. He was kind of a mean boy...He didn't pick on you, but he would pop you in a minute". Gene Ramey says Parker was 'very anti-social...He was an only child, sheltered and coddled, and was not used to getting along with people". Nonetheless, it appears it was the companionship of the Ruffin girl's that may have kept him in school, pursuing his blossoming musical inclination.
Not much is known about Charlie's activities in the fall of 1934 and the spring of 35, but it would be logical to assume that he was practicing hard on the alto and enjoying the company of the Ruffin children. Rebecca mentions slipping down then back staircase to listen to him practicing on the saxophone his mother had bought him.
On June 7th 1935, Rebecca graduated high school and the 14-year-old Charlie was in the Lincoln High School Orchestra and played horn for the orchestra's version of Elgar's 'Pomp and Circumstance'. It is startling to consider that two months later he will join the Ten Chords and 4 months later he will be a professional musician with provisional union membership. It seems safe to say that 1934-5 must have been a period of intense practice. Rebecca remembers, “Charlie was good, I mean really good. He would be playing his horn with his eyes closed… You know, really into it. Sometimes, I would hear notes play like I’ve never heard them before. I guess that’s what everyone is talking about (with) Charlie. He was gifted that way I know. He would be so into it he would finally stop and notice I (was) in the same room. He would just smile and say, ‘Hi.’”
Lawrence '88' Keyes
While still in high school, Charlie joined his first band, the Ten Chords of Rhythm, and began earning money as a musician, albeit a pittance. Playing in the clubs, the Ten Chords were led by Lawrence Keyes (Keys?), a high school friend five years older than Charlie. They were primarily a dance band and in August 1935, the Kansas City Call described them as “Kansas City's Newest Dance Orchestra”. Later in the year George E. Lee, hired the band for a Halloween dance and in return helped the band gain provisional membership to the local musicians union, the 627 costing $2.
Joining the union signaled the end of Charlie's academic interest and on 10th of December 1935, he officially withdrew from Lincoln High. It would be naive to interpret withdrawing from school and joining the union as unrelated events.
The Ten Chords played sporadically for the rest of the year, but disbanded after a Christmas gig at the Paseo Hall. Charlie began freelancing; sitting in with various bands and gigs, attending early morning jam sessions called 'spook breakfasts' at the Reno Club that began at 4am in the morning.
21st Dec 1935 - KC Star
Charlie's relationship with Rebecca Ruffin also developed at this time, and Giddins says they became sweethearts and spent a lot of time in each others company, eating ice creams, drinking cherry sodas, and walking around the city. Rebecca says that Parker was an innocent and a perfect gentleman. When one of Rebecca's sisters found her in Charlie's room, albeit innocently, and told their mother, Fannie, a strict Methodist, she decided the whole family must leave and forbade Rebecca to see Parker anymore. Almost exactly 2 years after moving into 1516 Olive, the Ruffin's moved out.
At the beginning of 1936, Charlie experiences his famous humiliation at the hands of Jo Jones, as depicted in the well-intentioned Eastwood movie, 'Bird'. The story is told that whilst Charlie was attempting to jam, Jones threw a cymbal on the floor, in 'gong show' assessment of Parker's playing, embarrassing Charlie who left the club in tears. Strangely, Jo Jones makes no mention of this incident in any of the numerous interviews he gave about his life and although Charlie mentions being laughed at in the Stearns interview and remembers a possible embarrassment at the hands of the Kansas City Rockets, there is only one eyewitness account. Gene Ramey said, "Jo Jones waited until Bird started to play and, suddenly, in order to show how he felt about Bird, he threw the a cymbal across the dance floor. It fell with a deafening sound, and in humiliation, packed up his instrument and left.
The closest reference Jones makes to the event is from the classic jazz book 'Hear Me Talkin' To Ya'; "In Kansas City, in that time, some younger kids would gather across the street from the clubs where jazz was being played in order to listen. They were individualist too, and they were kids who were eager to learn - Gene Ramey, Charlie Parker, and other guys. A lot of the kids, for example, that played and were to play with Jay McShann's band. In fact, some of those kids had a little band of their own then in Kansas, a little Basie band and they intended to take over and make something new." This really does not sound like a person who would intentionally embarrass a young musician trying to play a session, especially when the musicians in Kansas City were famous for encouraging and supporting young musicians who wanted to learn. Recent research suggests that Jones was not even in Kansas City at the time of the incident, and the Rockets embarrassment probably dates from the summer of 1937 and perhaps too late in the chronology to have occurred at all. Nevertheless, the embarrassment of being exposed as musically inadequate were the hazards of jamming and if Charlie were as precocious as has been implied, then he undoubtedly suffered at the hands of more experienced musicians. Gene Ramey offers another view, saying, "Bird was a little downhearted, because everybody would be holding jam sessions, and he was one of the few musicians who was never allowed to sit in". Oliver Todd, who hired a 15 year old Parker for the alto spot in his band confirms this. "...they went to jam sessions after the gig. But if they saw Charlie walk in, they'd walk off. Piano players wouldn't play with him." The frustration this must have produced would probably inspire Charlie to practice more, and as one must believe that Parker had been practising hard for the previous year at least, these incidents of humiliation would have stiffened his resolve to become a better musician, rather than rousing vengeance.
It has been stated in more than one place, that there was a time when Charlie's playing was poor. Eddie Barefield states, " I was in Kansas City when he first came out to play. He sounded so bad that we wouldn't let him play." Gene Ramey agrees. "Bird wasn't doing anything, musically speaking, at that period. In fact, he was the saddest thing in the band, and then other members gave him something of a hard time." Oliver Todd agrees, "His playing at the time was lousy. Lousy! We used to make fun of him. He played old raggedy horns, old raggedy bushings and everything."
Charlie began to interrogate other musicians in an effort to learn more about the art of playing and became somewhat of a nuisance. He obviously wanted to learn, and Buster Smith verifies that when Parker was focused, he was less of a brat than others seemed to think he was. He remembers Parker "...running around in 1932 or 1933 when he was just a kid…. Charlie was headstrong, but he wasn't a smart-alec kid. He was a good boy; he'd listen to you". Jay McShann told a story in an interview about Charlie's obsession with Smith. McShann states that Charlie had just heard Smith play something that he had not heard before and he wanted to go home and practice it. "I won't make rehearsal," McShann recalled Parker saying. "But if I miss a note tonight, you can fine me." McShann said that that night, "He just flew through the music".
Henry Franklin 'Buster', 'Prof' Smith, born on a small cotton holding in Aldorf, Texas in 1904 was somewhat of a musical prodigy, who, legend has it, taught himself to play the alto saxophone in three days. He got his start in music as the featured clarinetist in Don Albert's band playing in a section of Dallas, Texas, known Deep Ellum, an area full of speakeasies, thugs, whores and medicine shows. It was here he met and joined Count Basie's band, The Blue Devils, one of the two most important territory bands of the day. The other band, Bennie Moten's Orchestra later hired him with the offer of better money. He worked with Lester Young, Hot Lips Page, Jimmy Rushing in both bands but became unemployed when Bennie Moten died of a botched tonsillectomy. After this, he rejoined forces with Count Basie in the Barons of Rhythm and just before the band hit the big time, Buster left to join Claude Hopkins, who enticed him away with the offer of more money. It was while he was with Hopkin’s band in New York that he discovered the union favoured local musicians and 'out-of-towner's' were given the less attractive spots. Hopkins band dissolved shortly afterward Smith decided to start his own band.
Charlie called Buster 'the King'. Historians now recognise that Smith played a key role in the rise of Count Basie and co-wrote 'One o'Clock Jump', one of the better-known Basie tunes, but received little recognition during his lifetime and as Haddix states, "Basie made no mention of his long association with Smith". He lost his 'chops' (or refused to play saxophone again) in 1963 but continued to play either electric bass or piano in Dallas. He died in 1991. McShann recalls: "Buster used to play at a place called Lucille's. One particular night I happened to tune into the broadcast from Lucille's and I thought, Buster sure sounds good tonight. The next day I found out it was Bird. I said, "Wait a minute. Bird, did you make that gig at Lucille's last night?" He said, "Yeah, that was a good gig." I said "Man, you sure sound like Prof!" I couldn't tell the difference, because I'd heard Prof's broadcasts before. [...] He (Smith) was a hell of a clarinet player. It's a shame that he was never recognised for what he could do on a clarinet, because to me he was just the greatest I'd ever heard".
In an interview in 1987, Smith said, "Parker was a slow reader and the boys wouldn't fool with him, [...] But I knew he had something. So I said, Charlie, we can pull it off'. He played third reed in my band. We played hotels and (in a smaller band) played a little place on 18th Street called Lucille's Paradise. Charlie and I were the saxes, the rest of 'em was rhythm - piano, drums and guitar. We worked there to a packed house five, six nights a week. Got so they began broadcastin' out of there. But eventually business went bad and she went under. So I went to workin' Andy's Club down by the packin' houses. Used eight pieces and wasn't gettin' much money. So I said 'boys, I'm gonna try and do a little better'. Told Charlie to stay there and I'd go to New York 'cause several cats wanted me to do some arrangements for them..."
It is around this time that Charlie played with Tommy Douglas. "Charlie Parker was playing with me when I cut the band down to seven pieces. He was on alto. He was about fifteen then, and he was high then". This date clashes with the Chords of Rhythm, and other associations during this period. Chuck Haddix suggests that Charlie probably was involved with Douglas in 1938, but at any other time, his involvement is probably a freelance or short-term basis. There is little doubt that Charlie would play with anyone who would have him but exact dates and which bands he played with are unclear. There is also an unconfirmed report of Charlie playing an extended date in Oklahoma with Buster Smith, but confirmation of this has yet to be discovered.
On the 16th of June, the same night that Joe Louis lost to Max Schmelling, Charlie asked Rebecca to marry him. A little over a month later, on the 25th of July, in the record heat wave of 1936, as Jesse Owens prepared for the German Olympics, a 15-year-old Charlie married Rebecca, in the Jackson County Court House, seemingly against the wishes of her mother. As Charlie was only 15, Addie had to grant her permission and sign the wedding certificate. The way this is described in Giddins' book, makes it sound as if Addie could not wait to marry her son off to another woman? However, Rebecca remembers differently. “Mrs Parker didn’t really approve of me and Charlie getting married, […] but it was anything Charlie wanted. She would cook, clean, wash clothes…everything when we lived with her.”
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Apparently, Charlie had forgotten the wedding ring, and Addie slipped a ring off her finger and offered that as the ring that married Rebecca and Charlie, although this has not been verified. Rebecca remembered, “I remember his mother taking me downtown to get a hat and a pair of shoes. It was a wide brim hat, and I thought the shoes were what old ladies would wear, but I wore them on my wedding day.” At the wedding reception, Charlie's father and his uncle John, arrived for the celebrations.
Rebecca's age when she married Charlie has been disputed and misreported many times, even by Rebecca herself, but census records state quite clearly, almost to the month, that she was two older than Charlie having turned 18 in the previous February. In addition, a copy of the original marriage certificate misreports her age as 19! Nevertheless, there is something unusual about a beautiful 18-year-old marrying a 15-year-old mother's boy? Perhaps, the Ruffin’s divorce had something to do with it? With five girls and one boy, perhaps Rebecca's mother saw it, not so much as a good match, but as an economic necessity, and besides they appeared to be in love. However, the young lovers lived in Addie's house, and the more freedom Charlie experienced as a musician the more confined he would have felt at home, and this goes part way to explaining why Rebecca seemed to have had little idea of how he was progressing as a saxophonist.
ImageIn October, on his way to a Thanksgiving engagement in the Ozarks Charlie is involved in a car wreck that kills fellow passenger, bassist George Wilkerson. Breaking a couple of ribs and damaging his spine, he is bed-ridden for several months with fears he would not walk properly again. The upside of this was his old saxophone gets broken and with the financial settlement, he buys a brand new Selmer saxophone. Not that being stuck in bed for several months would have been intolerable as he has Rebecca and his mother at his disposal! This may also be a key incident in Charlie's introduction to intravenous drug use, as it has been implied he was prescribed morphine to help lessen the pain from his injuries. Rebecca stated that he was prescribed heroin in order to manage the pain. “The heroin eased the pain a lot but the doctor warned Charlie and his mother how bad it was for him. The doctor told me that if Charlie kept using heroin, he wouldn’t live but 18 to 20 years more.”
This new saxophone is probably Charlie's third instrument, as the first one has been described as barely playable, with bits of tape and foil holding it together. Considering he has been playing professionally for over a year, it is hard to imagine him using the first saxophone in a live environment. The second saxophone is not referred to in the available literature, however Tutty Clarkin, claimed to have bought the young Charlie a saxophone worth $190, and this may have been the second instrument.
George E. Lee
It is part of Parker's folklore that, over the course of one summer in the Ozarks with George E. Lee's band, Charlie studied with several experienced musicians and developed into a first class saxophonist. The story also states that he took several Count Basie records and learnt the Lester Young solos by heart. In reality, this Ozark excursion was probably one of a series of 'disappearances' spread over a couple of summers that helped to hone his craft. Addie said, "Charles would go away weeks and weeks. He liked to see things and do things". The actual dates for his trip to the Ozarks are usually reported as being in the summer of 1937, but this is disputed by Charles Haddix, placing them in the summer of 1936 and if Haddix is correct, then Parker was musically fully formed by his 16th birthday. However, this meant that Charlie would have been away for several months immediately following his marriage to Rebecca and this could be considered a strange thing to do. Also just a year earlier, he would have been playing a valve horn at Rebecca's graduation, which chronologically does not fit with his musical development. In addition, at the end of the year it is worth considering that he is bed ridden for several months after the accident. Perhaps, it is no wonder that Rebecca does not conceive until the following April!
11th July 1937 - KC Star
A look at Charlie's Musicians Union card reveals that he was probably not around during the summer of 1936, which perhaps corroborates Haddix's belief that he spent the summer in the Ozarks. It must also be assumed that Charlie paid his fees in person, so being out of town, he would find this impossible. He paid $2 on October 31, 1935 of an initiation membership of the Union, another $2 on November 29, and another $1 on June 12 of the following year on which day he became a full member.
Interestingly, four days after this, he proposed to Rebecca, probably believing that now he was a full union member, he would be able to provide for her. However, the next entry on the form is from September, stating, "Erased for failure to complete initiation fee, and non-payment of dues". This suggests an absence from Kansas City as if he wished to continue to work there he would need membership. Strangely, nine days after his car accident, on 9 November, while he was still bedridden in Addie's care, he is reinstated in the Union and his fees are paid. This is probably part of the same settlement that bought him a new saxophone.
Charlie's Musicians Union record - Courtesy Western Historical Manuscript Collection - KC
Charlie also appears to have been absent the following summer, as except for one payment in August there are no other payments. This suggests he was in Kansas City in the summer of 1937 at least for one day, which furthers Haddix argument. Therefore, the fabled Ozark trip could have occurred in either occasion, but, as exemplified by the abortive Halloween trip to the Ozarks that ended in a car crash, trips to the Ozarks could be made for a single gig or a residency. Therefore, as has been suggested already, Charlie probably spent parts of both summers in the Ozarks with varying durations. It is unclear whether he was working for George E. Lee for both summers or for someone else. Eddie Barfield said, "He went to Oklahoma and stayed about six months with Buster Smith, who really taught him a lot about his playing", although this has yet to be verified.
Charlie's relationship with the 627 Union is a history of erasures and reinstatements, of part payments or no payments until the 12th of November 1949 when they accepted his resignation. Interpreting the Union records, it becomes evident, even if it is stating the obvious, that Charlie paid his union fees when in Kansas City and didn't when out of town, so they are a good way to place his movements.
Either way, after the 'woodshedding' period, as Charlie once described it, in either 1936 or 1937, he appeared to be a changed musician. Gene Ramey described the metamorphosis. "He lost his Sweet Lucy sound, which is like a combination of a man talking and drinking wine at the same time (Sweet Lucy was what we called wine). His style had completely changed. He became the darling of K.C." Oliver Todd says, "He played a melody down just perfect. Then he got a-loose and tears came streamin' down my face. He looked at me, said 'What are you cryin' for?' I said, 'I seen a miracle.' And I mean it was a miracle. He showed you what study will do for you. He went down to the Ozarks and came back swingin'. He was righteous!"
One thing that seems certain is that Charlie was a fully formed jazz musician by the end of 1937. Jay McShann said, "I first ran into Charlie in November or December of 1937 at one of those famous Kansas City jam sessions. Charlie seemed to live for them. I was in a rhythm section one night when this cocky kid pushed his way on stage. He was a teenager, barely seventeen, and looked like a high school kid. He had a tone that cut. Knew his changes. He'd get off on a line of his own and I would think he was headed for trouble, but he was like a cat landing on all four feet...That fall when he came back from the Ozarks he was ready".
Jay McShann - Charlie is third from the left - Courtesy University of Missouri – Kansas City - University Libraries
James Columbus (Jay) 'Hootie' McShann was born in 1916 in Muskogee, Oklahoma, (the same place as Addie Parker, Don Byas and Barney Kessell, among others), and arrived in Kansas City in 1937. In another version of the same story, he said he first heard Charlie in January 1937 outside the Barle-Duc (sometimes referred to as the 'Barley Duke') Club on 12th Street. "We passed by and heard that music and we stopped in to see who it was […] When he finished blowing, we met him […] 'I like the way you blow'" he told Parker, "And sure enough in about two or three months, we were working together." In another interview, McShann alters the story again, "The first time I heard him playing was about three months after I got into town. […] He used to practice out in the street, (I) heard him blowing. I said, I thought I'd met all the musicians in town. Where you from?" This incident occurred just after the Ozark trip. Haddix verifies that McShann first arrived in the fall of 1936.
Another aspect of Charlie's life that emerged at this period was his heroin dependence. In the summer of 1937, Rebecca states that she witnessed Charlie using a needle for the first time, arguing that this was when he first started using intravenous drugs. This will discussed elsewhere on the site, but this is obviously not the first occasion. What it does indicate is that at this time his drug taking had developed into an addiction.
In addition, all the while, Addie must have been supplementing his income as even she states, "They paid musicians very little, and there's no record companies". In Giddins' book, he relates a couple of harrowing events that display what the drug addiction produced in Charlie, and there's no getting away from the fact that he would not be welcome in his mother's house.
It was around this time that Rebecca discovered Charlie was having an affair. In an inter view with Anita J. Dixon she said, “I remember coming home from my job where I worked part-time doing housework for a family out south (Kansas City). […] I was getting some coffee and as I looked out the window, I saw a cab pull up. […] Well that day I wasn’t feeling well – I was pregnant – and came home early. Charlie was in the cab with a light skinned girl. He pulled her to him and kissed her. Then he got out. I was mad and hurt.” She remembers love letters that Charlie kept under his pillow from the woman, and was surprised how dumb Charlie was for doing this, “…like a wife doesn’t fluff up the pillows when she goes to sleep. It goes to show how young he was.” According to Rebecca, the woman was Geraldine Scott, who would become Charlie’s second wife.
On January 10th 1938, Rebecca gave birth to his first son, Francis Leon Parker. He is named after the musicians Leon Chu Berry, a renowned alto sax player and Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Band. This was the first song he ever played to Rebecca. In an interview with Anita J. Dixon, Rebecca remembers, “He wasn’t there when Leon was born and for the first four months, our child was called ‘Baby’ Parker. On his next visit home he named him. He wanted to name him so I waited.”
In Chuck Haddix and Frank Driggs book, Kansas City Jazz, Haddix's exhaustive research in the archives of several Kansas City institutions, unearthed fresh information about the events of this period of Charlie's life. It is regrettable that for over fifty years academics and biographers have not been as diligent in their research as Chuck Haddix, for if they had then many Parker myths and falsehoods would not have been perpetuated.
After the birth of their first son, Charlie worked with Buster Smith and played at Lucille's Paradise in mid-February 1938. Charlie had obviously been taken under Smith's wing as can be surmised by this quote from Smith himself. "He used to call me his dad, and I called him my boy. I couldn't get rid of him. He was always up under me. In my band we'd split solos. If I took two, he'd take two, if I took three, he'd take three, and so forth". Charlie said in an interview, "I used to quit every job to go with Buster", and not only does this statement indicate Charlie's respect for Smith, it indicates he was often employed often with bands with which he had no creative interest.
In April that year, Charlie occupied the same stage as Jo Jones, when Buster Smith's band supported Count Basie. This occasion may have given Charlie a great deal of pleasure, as it was Jo Jones, Basie's drummer, who apparently threw the cymbal, embarrassing the young Charlie just two years earlier. Jones must have been surprised at the metamorphosis.
In July 1938, Smith left Kansas City for New York in July, telling Charlie that he would send for him when the time was right. Kansas City was changing and the golden years of the laissez-faire political attitude of Pendergast era were over. Clubs were forced to close at certain times, laws were enforced and many musicians seeing the writing on the wall, left Kansas City. Charlie remained behind with Rebecca, but probably realised his future lay in Chicago or New York.
Around the time of Smith leaving, Rebecca miscarried. Only 5 months after giving birth to Leon, Charlie was still in the grip of addiction and it is unclear how he dealt with this trauma, but the previous fall, a good friend, Robert Simpson, died and Charlie was apparently devastated. This brush with mortality was probably a difficult time for him, and he almost certainly turned to drugs in much the same way he did later when his own daughter, Pree died. However, his career with beginning to take shape.
Smith found out that due to Union rules in New York, he could not work for three months, and although Charlie was left in charge of the band, most likely the lack of work in the post-Pendergast Kansas City, caused the band to dissolve. Work for musicians was drying up, so Charlie probably began freelancing again before being picked up by Jay McShann.
It would seem that Charlie's partnership with Smith had produced results as in November of that same year, an advertisement for the double bill at the Gold Crown Tap Room featuring McShann's band and Harland Leonard's Kansas City Rockets, included a line that read, 'Little Charlie Parker, saxophonist'. This was probably the first time Charlie appeared on a bill as the featured soloist, and an indication of the progress he had made in the 5 years since picking up the alto saxophone in earnest. However, shortly afterwards Charlie left McShann and joined Harlan Leonard's band earning, on his first engagement the princely sum of 75 cents. The following month he appeared on the radio for the first time with Leonard's band on the popular variety show, Vine Street Varieties. It appears that Leonard saw a big future for Charlie and for a Christmas dance at Dreamland Hall, he billed Charlie as the 'saxophonist supreme'.
Charlie even merited a small mention in the January 1939 edition of Downbeat magazine, but just as everything seemed to be going his way, Leonard fired him. "We could never count on him showing up", explained Leonard in a 1970 newspaper article.
1938 appears to have been a successful year for the young saxophonist, but as 1939 began, things have begun to turn sour. Most of his problems were certainly due to his growing addiction to heroin. In Giddins' book, Rebecca relates some harrowing incidents that occurred around this time, and Addie even states that Charlie had to leave. "…and he started beating her, you know. I told him that wasn't right and it would only cause a lot of trouble and the best thing to do was leave, and he went to Chicago." The rejection by Leonard, the abandonment by Smith, the lack of work, meaning lack of money for drugs, the shame of abusing his wife, and the repercussions of this as regards home life, must have crippled him. There is also a tale of stabbing a taxi driver who tried to take Charlie's saxophone in payment for the unpaid fair, and then there are the vague references to the Kansas City 'underworld' that may also have played it's part. Leonard Feather states in 'Inside BeBop, "…but his true character was warped by contact with vicious elements in the Kansas City under world, and his entire adult life and professional career have been colored by these contacts…" and Addie makes reference to some shady characters that waited for Charlie at airports when he flew home. It is probable that he was exposed to the Underworld, procuring drugs and possibly becoming in debt as Addie twice mentions 'The Italian' and this almost certainly refers to the a member of the underworld. Whatever is was that caused it, early in 1939 Charlie jumped a freight train and headed for New York to see Buster Smith.
Billy Eckstine, in a famous interview with English writer Max Jones, remembered Charlie in Chicago in 1939 at the 65 Club with King Kolax, "We were standing around one morning when a guy comes up that looks like her just got off a freight car; the raggedest guy you'd want to see at this moment. And he asks Goon (Gardner): 'Say, man, can I come up and blow your horn? […] 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, and playing like you never heard - wailing alto then. […] He blew so much until he upset everybody in the joint."
Why Charlie was headed for New York but ended up in Chicago is not clear, but in all probability, if he was 'hoboing', then any train heading North would have been suitable. Also recent evidence has emerged that Charlie may have had relations in Chicago, as his paternal uncle and step brother were both born there, so it is possible that he would have a place to stay in Chicago. After the 65 Club, Goon Garner took Charlie home, fed him, gave him clothes, arranged gigs, and because Charlie had no saxophone, loaned him a clarinet. It is unclear if Charlie actually played any gigs in Chicago at this time, but Gardner later claimed that Charlie disappeared with the clarinet. By way of coincidence, at the 1994 auction at Christie’s in London, one lot was comprised of three clarinet mouthpieces that Chan said Charlie used when they were together.
Charlie next appeared on Buster Smith's doorstep in New York. Smith was shocked by the state of the young hobo, "He sure did look awful when he got in. He'd worn his shoes so long that his legs were all swollen up. He stayed up there with me for a good while at my apartment." In fact, it looks like Charlie may have stayed with Smith for the rest of the summer at least, despite the objections of Smith's wife. What Charlie did for most of that year is unclear, but it is known he could not find work as a musician, so he took a job washing dishes at a restaurant called Jimmy's Chicken Shack, where Art Tatum would play on occasion. Much has been made of this musical connection, with critics suggesting that while Charlie was washing dishes he was absorbing Tatum's technique. Anyone who has washed dishes in a restaurant can probably figure out that this is almost certainly another adage in the folklore of Charlie Parker.
Biddy Fleet - Permission granted by James H. Fleet Copyright 2004
One of the benefits of this period of poverty was Charlie's addiction to heroin appears to have diminished and he became more focused on his music. When not washing dishes, Charlie would attend jam sessions around the city like those that were held at Monroe's Uptown. In one session with guitarist, William 'Biddy' Fleet in the back of Dan Wall's Chilli House in November 1939, he experiences a musical 'epiphany' that would change the way he played.
"I'd been getting bored with the stereotyped changes (harmonies) that were being used all the time. 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 famous, often misquoted and wrongly sourced Parker quote describes when he suddenly realised there was a different way of playing a melody. Often the line "I could fly" is suffixed to the quote quite wrongly, as Ken Burns did in the mammoth 'Jazz' TV series.
Much has been made of this 'spot of time' and like the fabled Ozark trip, it has been used to suggest Charlie had sudden revelations concerning his art and then made quantum leaps in ability and technique. It is unrealistic to suggest that before this, Charlie was not already a remarkable technician. Remembering that he had been billed a year earlier as the 'supreme saxophonist', suggests a notable ability. The epiphany would have meant nothing if the technique and skill had not been there in the first place, but it was the act of finding what he was looking for through 'jamming' that is probably the most significant aspect of this event.
Charlie's love of jamming, as Jay McShann mentions above must be recognised as the most significant element in his musical development. Charlie was self-taught, and he had been jamming for most of the previous 5 years, and continued to jam until the end of his life. It must be recognized that the development of Charlie's technique would have been driven, firstly by inadequacy and embarrassment, such as the presumed events with Jo Jones or the Kansas City Rockets, then by a desire to impress his elders, as he was still so young. Once this phase was over, then the jam session became a school for experiment, and finally a pleasure gained by being the master of his instrument. By the time he arrived in Chicago, he must have been sure of his skill, and judging by Eckstein's quote above, Charlie wanted to make an impact. It can be presumed that he wanted to make the same kind of impression when he first got to New York. It is doubtful, although implied by many critics, that Charlie was not aware of his abilities at this time. The trip north was made in the self-assurance that as an alto saxophone player he could find work, or at least a jam session, with or without a union card.
It should also be remembered, that in Charlie's case, 'jamming' and 'improvising' were hard to separate. Depending on the circumstance, whether in a club date, in the back of a restaurant, or in a studio, he constantly applied the melodic interpretation he discovered while jamming with Biddy Fleet, to any song he was asked to play. Quite often a new song was created, based on the chords of a famous standard, such as 'Cherokee' (Koko), or Embraceable You (Quasimodo/ Meandering) Honeysuckle Rose (Scrapple from the Apple) and I Got Rhythm (Thrivin' On A Riff). It is also important to remember that Charlie and Biddy Fleet were friends for many years and Charlie used to jam with Fleet in regular occasions. This makes Biddy Fleet a far more important character in the Parker story, than had previously been considered. The poster reprinted below, shows that Parker and Fleet not only jammed, but also were booked for engagements together and not just the random back room jam session.
Permission granted by James H. Fleet Copyright 2004
In the late summer of 1939, eager to work, Charlie joined Banjo Burney Robinson's for an engagement in Maryland. Chuck Haddix states in his book, that is was while he was with Robinson, he received the news of his father's death. There have been many suggested dates for this event, but only Haddix's date seems to make sense. Part of the confusion was both Charlie and Addie gave contradictory dates for the event, and Addie even said that Charlie was in Chicago at the time. Haddix states it was most likely September 1939 when Addie called him home for the funeral and Vail concurs.
There is a strange section of Addie's chapter in Reisner's book, where Addie describes Charlie's reaction to seeing his father dead. She said he was shocked by the state of his father, and asked her, "Mama, what made him do it?" This is a strange memory, especially as Charles Senior died of blood loss due to a stab wound, and what he 'did' to himself, is not clear.
The Deans of Swing - Courtesy University of Missouri – Kansas City - University Libraries
Once back in Kansas City, Parker looked for work and probably returned to freelancing. He joined the Deans of Swing, led by his old colleague from the Chords of Rhythm, Lawrence Keyes. In 1940, there was a battle of the bands featuring The Deans and the Jay McShann band, after which Charlie joined McShann. Charlie must have been hot property as he had left McShann earlier to move to Harlan Leonard's band but McShann held no grudge. McShann, in an article in Coda Magazine in 1981 stated,"Charlie joined the band right after the walkathon. We had a battle with Harlan's band one night (Haddix states Charlie re-joined McShann from the Deans of Swing not Harlan Leonard's band), and afterward Bird came over and said, "I want to play with you cats. I'm ready to start tomorrow." I said, "You can't do that, you've got to give Harlan (Keyes?) some kind of notice!" He said, "If I can work it out for tomorrow, is it alright with you?" I said, "Well, I've got to give this guy (Earl Jackson?) some kind of notice." He said, "Whenever you get rid of this guy, I'll be ready." So that's what I did. So now Bird was back with a big group". McShann stated he was happy to have Charlie back, especially as Charlie seemed to be more professional, stating, "…he was pretty straight then and an inspiration to our band. He was serious about music then, and I put him in charge of the band when I wasn't there. […] He'd keep a notebook and took down the time when the guys used to make rehearsals and when they were late, etc. He'd get really tight if they didn't take their music seriously."
Charlie with McShann's band - Courtesy University of Missouri – Kansas City - University Libraries
Charlie must have realised the importance of this opportunity and became a model band member, as the McShann quote above exemplifies. Having left Kansas City a year earlier and with no prospects other than the hope that Buster Smith might have work for him, the only high point of the year was the 'epiphany' he experienced with Buddy Fleet. It is likely that the past year disillusioned Charlie, as it had not turned out the way he had hoped when he left. So when the chance to play with the increasingly popular McShann arose, Charlie must have believed his fortunes were changing, and adopted a more professional attitude.
However, there was one area in his life needing rationalisation if he was to pursue his dream. With Kansas City changing and many musicians and bands leaving, Charlie knew he could not stay, and he could not take Rebecca with him on the road, as he told Addie. "She went up to St. Louis with him. ‘She don't know how to act or talk; she just wants me to sit in a room all day, and I have to go out with the boys’. You know how the girls pull on a man." Rebecca remembers this also, “He sent for me to come and see him there. So I got Mrs Parker to look after Leon for me and I went to St Louis. […] I thought it was a trip for us to get together, you know, like husband and wife. But he bought me to this room after the gig and asked me did I want something to drink. I said no and we took off our clothes and went to bed. Nothing happened. The next morning he gave me the keys to his mother’s house. ‘Here, take these to ma,’ he said. I knew he wasn’t coming home then and didn’t want to face his mother.”
Charlie apparently asked Rebecca to join him upstairs in the Olive Street house and asked her very tenderly to 'set him free', believing, he told her, that he could become a great musician if he were free to follow his chosen career. This tenderness was apparently witnessed again shortly before he died, as while visiting Kansas City, Rebecca recalls him asking her for forgiveness for any pain or suffering he may have ever caused her.
This is an important event for Charlie. He had been through a transitional period of addiction and wanderlust. Now apparently free from the 'monkey', he probably also realised he must be free of Kansas City and therefore could not honour his matrimonial obligations.
In divorcing Rebecca, Charlie was orchestrating his own future and this is an aspect of his character rarely commented on. Most accounts of his life generally paint him as a victim subject to the whims of chance and some even vaguely imply he was virtually an 'idiot savant' who could play brilliantly but was retarded in everything else. Obviously, this is not the case, and Charlie was fully aware of what he was doing and consciously altered his circumstances in an effort to pursue his career. This rather ruthless aspect of Charlie's character grates against the accepted analysis of Charlie's personality and exposes an ambitious, determined character that biographers rarely mention.
However, as with Charlie’s other marriages there is a doubt if Rebecca and Charlie ever divorced. Rebecca explains, “When I though I was divorced from Charlie (Addie Parker was supposed to have arranged a divorce.), I wasn’t. She just told me that. You see, I was young and I believed when Charlie left that since he needed his mother’s permission to get married, she could have the marriage ended too.” Later Rebecca asked and attorney to conduct a national search and locate the records of her divorce from Charlie, but none were found.
As the Thirties ended, Charlie appears to be back on track, although it is shocking to consider that he is now just over halfway through his life.....!
Kansas City Jazz - Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix. OUP 2005
Celebrating Bird - Gary Giddins. Da Capo. 1998
Jazz Anecdotes - Bill Crow. OUP 1990
Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker - Rob Reisner. Citadel 1965
Inside Bebop: Leonard Feather - JJ Robbins and Sons 1949
Birds Diary: Ken Vail. Sanctuary Publishing 1996
Hear Me Talkin' To Ya - Nat Hentoff and Nat Schapiro - Dover Publications 1966
Jazz Style in Kansas City and the South West: Ross Russell. Da Capo 1997
John Struchtemeyer: District Registrar, Student Records Office, Kansas City, MO School District for gathering the information on Charlie Parker's schooling in KCMo.
Nancy B. Piepenbring: Western Historical Manuscript Collection-KC. University of Missouri - Kansas City for her extremely generous help and information.
Chuck Haddix for letting me bother him.
Musicians Local No. 627 and the Mutual Musicians Foundation: The Cradle of Kansas City Jazz. A web exhibit developed by the Kenneth J. LaBudde Department of Special Collections, Miller Nichols Library, University of Missouri-Kansas City