Chan Parker is the only wife of Charlie's to 'go public'. Her autobiography, My Life in E Flat is the story of a life in jazz and a large section is devoted to her memories of life with Bird. Her contribution to the memory of Charlie Parker is invaluable because it is the only detailed view of Bird from the female perspective, which makes Chan's view an alternative insight.
Once described as "The Queen of 52nd Street", Beverly Delores Berg (Chan Richardson - Chan Parker), could, and probably did have the pick of jazz musicians that peopled the famous street in the late 40's and early 50's.
She was hip, intelligent, beautiful, and part of the 'in crowd' on 'The Street'. She first met Bird, (she was they only one of his wives to use this moniker), when she was 18, and although drawn to his magnetism, was not initially physically attracted to him. "He soon became my confidant and best friend". It was not until a few years later, they became lovers, but even then, they did not live together until after she had conceived a child by one musician, married and divorced another. During this time Bird had married and divorced Doris Green (Snyder), although Chan suggests that Doris perhaps wasn't legally married to Parker either? "Then Doris showed up with her bigamous Mexican marriage certificate, which gave her the right to claim Bird's body…"
She lived with several musicians, who fathered six* children with her, of which, two died during her lifetime. Of her children's fathers, only one survived her. Her life was never easy with the last two husbands, Bird and Phil Woods, (another alto saxophonist), and I imagine living with two creative, addictive, compulsive musicians must have been much more difficult than she describes in her autobiography, 'My Life in E-flat'.
Chan's book is the only intimate view we have on the human side of Bird. Even though there is a tone of bitterness in her memories of him, there is no doubting her love for him. She said, even as an old woman self-exiled in France, that she still felt Bird's presence, and talked aloud to him.
There is a wonderful story she tells in the Jan Horne video 'The Bird', when discussing her daughter Kim. The story goes that Kim would get sick each morning when it came time for school and Chan thought that it might have been because her mother was a white woman living with a black man and the strain that placed on her. When she asked Kim about the sickness and whether it was because she came from a mixed family. Kim replied, "No. The first time that she got over it was when Bird took her by the hand and walked her to school, because I (Chan) never used to do that. So actually, he was a better father than I was a mother, and she adored him. I suppose a child doesn't see colour." One of Charlie's most innovative and creative numbers was 'Kim', which expressed all the value and brightness of a young child he obviously loved even though he was not her natural father.
In 1988 Chan was asked by Clint Eastwood to be a technical adviser on his biopic, 'Bird', and although kind enough to keep her feelings about the film to private, I'm sure she must have felt that it concentrated too much on the dark side of Parker's life and not really expressive of his true character. Don Rose does say that when he asked her what she thought of the movie, "she snorted, "He didn't hold his horn right!". I think she was rather flattered by Diane Venora's depiction (she played Chan in the movie). Venora received the 1988 New York Film Critics Award for Best Supporting Actress.
Chan died in France in Sept 1999. She will probably only be remembered as Charlie Parker's last wife and mother of his children, even though she was a dancer, writer (she wrote her autobiography in French), song writer, and an excellent pianist who studied right up to her death. However, Chan was never legally married to Parker, which was used against her in attempting to settle Bird's affairs. The details of the estate settlement were never revealed, but Chan did manage to hold onto two of his saxophones. These instruments later became the two most expensive jazz instruments ever sold at auction. Chan sold the acrylic Grafton at Sotheby's in 1994 for £93,500 ($144,500)(also look here), and more recently her daughter Kim, sold his King Super 20 built for Parker with his name engraved, etc for $261,750. (See Guernsey's page). Strange she should sell her stepfather's sax, especially after Chan had kept it safe for so long?
(Since this was written, if was confirmed that the sale of the King had fallen through, due to disagreements within the family! Nothing new there then...!)
Even with someone who really loved him, the 'facts' about his life get confused. Chan, in Jon Horner's documentary "Bird Lives", says that when Bird was at home he listened to nothing but classical music, but in her book, she says, " Even the music he listened to was square. He bought records of Kay Kayer's "Slow Boat to China" which he played often, and Mario Lanza singing "Be My Love", which he would imitate, singing in an exaggerated, fractured tenor. The only record he bought which was even close to being hot was Peggy Lee's "Lover", which he would play over and over until my mother would freak out." Not that it matters what Bird listened to, at least from these conflicting statements, we can gather that he didn't listen to jazz when being the family man. Perhaps this tells us something about where jazz belonged in his life, or vice versa?
In an interview in Coda Magazine in 1981, she describes life with Charlie, "But Bird was very private; we never had visitors at home. My friends sometimes, but not 'the cats'. [...] Nobody knows Bird as a father and as a family man. He was very childlike himself. He loved toys and magic games and bringing presents to the kids, bringing me ice cream, things like that. He liked television - westerns.[...] His attitude towards Kim was very tender. One day we were in a taxicab, and there were a lot of people, it was really crowded. I was sitting on Bird's lap, and Kim was sitting on my lap, so Kim said, "Look Daddy, we're a sandwich, have a bite!" And Bird said, "No thank you darling, Bird doesn't eat sweets." [...] Bird had old-fashioned ideas, but he wasn't a religious person at all, not in the sense of believing in a supreme being or going to church. And he had an incredible sense of humour, very dry. He would leave me little notes, like "Was by your house. You weren't.” With me he was always extremely considerate, and always overflowing with imagination. He often spelled his name the same way he heard me pronounce it: "Bhurd", or he would write and entire page in reverse, so that you had to hold it up to a mirror to read what he had written. He often expressed himself in an old-fashioned kind of English, on purpose. He never read, never. The only book I ever saw him read was a book on yoga. He had knowledge of very obscure things. He had a very retentive memory, but I don't know where he picked up some of it. [...] He had little bits of obscure knowledge which would always amaze me.
"…I wondered who was to blame for the death of Bird. Certainly Bird himself, and me. But I accused all the unfeeling doctors and all the cab drivers who wouldn't pick him up because he was black. I accused the club owners, the record executives and the agents, bookers and managers who had exploited him. I accused the critics who didn't understand his music and the public that rejected it. This was a genocide of the spirit." - Chan Parker
NB. It was one of the surprises of the Guernsey's auction that there was a Galley proof of Ross Russell's book, marked up by Chan. This indicated that Chan not only edited the book, but approved of it? Also, she had in her possession a first edition inscribed "for Chan with love and many, many thanks Ross". It is also mentioned in Gidden's book Celebrating Bird, that she also supplied an introduction to the French edition of Russell's book! In 1980, in an interview with Laurent Goddet, Chan says, "Actually, Ross Russell’s book I don’t object to. There are errors in it, but the content is more or less true and it’s well-written, it’s literate. The objection I have to Reisner’s book is that it’s not written; it’s people telling anecdotes, all the little scandals.” To suggest that Russell’s book is not scandalous is very peculiar, but, there is a suggestion that perhaps Chan made some money from Russell’s book, so it is understandable she should promote it wherever she could, remembering that she made no money from Charlie’s estate.
*One male child by Parker was aborted.
My Life in E-Flat - Chan Parker University of South Carolina Press. 1993
Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker - Gary Giddins Da Capo Press 1987
Bird Lives: Year 43 - Don Rose - Internet