Charlie Parker Junior was born on Sunday 29 August at 1:45am at 852 Freeman Avenue, Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kansas, to Addie and Charles Parker, Senior. The environment he was born into and grew up in would have had a significant influence on his development. However, understanding the first ten years of his life has been difficult largely due to the few scraps of information his family and friends have recorded, some of which are incorrect or inaccurate. Because of this, most critics tend to skip over this period and in doing so, they reinforce the myth of the enigmatic musician who appeared, as if 'out of nowhere', in the late 30's early 40's.
Known as 'Paris on the Plains', Kansas City was the most vibrant city in America at the time. With the laissez-faire political attitude of Tom Pendergast, 'Jazz Age' Kansas City was alive with music, dancing, drinking, and commerce. It was the beginning of Prohibition, and later in the Depression, Kansas was a place where unemployed musicians could ply their trade, where clubs stayed open all night and where extortion, gambling, prostitution were overlooked by the authorities. In the Roaring Twenties, the music in Kansas City amalgamated blues, big brass bands, and ragtime, crediting the City as the birthplace of Swing. This music would entertain America through to the end of Second World War, but would eventually be supplanted by the innovations of an exceptional hometown boy
Charlie was born in the same year as Okeh Records brought out the historic record of Mamie Smith singing "You Can't Keep a Good Man Down" and "That Thing Called Love". The success of these songs and latter 'Crazy Blues' are recognised as the moment the American phonograph industry realised there was money to be made from black American music, or 'race' records. It was also the same month that Marcus Garvey presented his "Back to Africa" program in NYC.
Charlie’s father was Charles Parker, an African-American born in December 1886 in Mississippi, although Tennessee or Alabama have also been cited. His lineage on his mother’s side can be traced back to Jane Goodloe or Goodlow of Alabama, who was born in October 1835. Although unable to read and write, she lived a long life and was still alive when her great grand child, Charles Junior was born in 1920. Jane gave birth to five children of whom only Ella, David, and Florence have been identified. Jane appears to have been widowed early in her life as in 1870 she is keeping house for the three children but her husband and the other two children are not mentioned. Her daughter Ella was born in January 1865 and around 1882, she married the Reverend Peter C. Parker, and in a 27-year marriage, gave birth to six children. Of the children, only four appear to have reached maturity Charles, Lottie, John, and Bessie, although Lottie appears to have died in her early twenties.
Nothing is known of David’s history, but Florence married John Tallie (Tally), and gave birth to one son, also called John, who became a tailor.
In 1900, Jane Goodloe was living with her now widowed daughter Florence and grandson John in Wyandotte County, Kansas not far from the location, where twenty years later, Charles Parker Junior would be born. At the same time, Ella was still living in Alabama with her husband Peter and her four children. Around 1909, the Reverend Peter Parker died and a year later, the Goodloe women are together again. Jane, now over 70 years old, was lodging with her daughters, Ella and Florence in Jackson County, Missouri, where correspondingly, twenty years later, Charlie would grow up. Three generations were living under one roof at this time, with Jane, Ella and her three surviving children, Charles, John, and Bessie lodging with Florence and her son John. It would seem the Goodloe women habitually outlived their partners, because at this time all three mothers are widows. This pattern continued to Charlie’s mother Addie, and to Charlie himself, who was survived by all four of his wives.
Charles Parker Senior was the eldest of Ella’s children and in 1910 was 24 years old and working as a hotel waiter. Little is known of his early years although Charlie, said in an interview, “In his active years, he was a waiter on this train, Santa Fe, Kansas City, Chicago, […] He sure was a well tutored guy. He spoke two or three languages. Interviewer: Did he play any instruments? Charlie: Nah. He was a dancer in his real young years. On the circus, in the circus on the TOBA line.” The T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners Booking Association, also referred to as, 'Tough on Black Artists/Asses'.), and was a black only vaudeville circuit of theatres that paid less and had worse conditions than the white equivalent. It’s popularity faded during the Depression.
This is the only reference to Charles Senior’s theatrical background and may or may not be true. Listening to the interview, Charlie appears hesitant to talk about his father, yet also adds his father was with the Ringling Circus. Gary Giddins confirms this hesitancy, saying that Charlie spoke "briefly but with an unmistakable tone of defensiveness about his father”(ii). Similarly, Orrin Keepnews noted that Charlie was in general, ‘closed-mouthed about his childhood’.
Nevertheless, there is little to confirm that Charles was in vaudeville. His confirmed career history: a hotel waiter, a waiter or chef in the railroads, an apartment janitor, and a car washer may not be consistent with that of a vaudeville performer, but there is enough to suggest he was a musical person, and being the son of a clergyman, he was probably taught to play and read music. It must be believed that some of this musical knowledge was passed on the Charlie.
In 1914 Charles is in Chicago and via liaison with “an Italian woman”, fathers a son called John A. Parker who became affectionately know as ‘Ikey’ (iv). Nothing is known of the mother and she disappeared from their lives leaving John with his father. It was shortly after this that Charles met Addie Boxley, and in 1916, they were married. The location of the ceremony is unknown, but it was probably Chicago, as this is where they were before moving to Kansas, and was where John was born a few years earlier.
Later, Charles left the family when Charlie was about 13 years old, although remained in Kansas City, as Lester Young mentions bumping into him in a club in the city in the 30's. Charles Parker died in 1940 stabbed in a fight with a woman who, according to Addie, died herself a year later from alcoholism. The year of his death has been disputed as both Charlie and Addie suggest 1937 (iii)) when Charlie was 17. Haddix and Vail correctly identify the date as Charlie returned to Kansas City for his father's funeral whilst he was touring with Banjo Burney Robinson in 1940. Doris Sydnor, Parker's third wife, says of Charles Senior, "As far as I can gather, he was a small (time?) gambler and pimp". Records of his death have yet to be discovered. Addie said of Charles Senior, “He could dance; he was a good scholar; he could play the piano; but he was a drunkard”.
Charles first son, John A. Parker was born 13th June 1914 in Chicago, Illinois. Charles would have been 28 years old at his birth and perhaps named his new son after his brother. It was previously believed that when Parker Senior left Addie, he took John with him. However, this is contradicted by the census forms for both 1920 and 1930. Both records show John remained in Kansas with his grandmother, Ella Parker at 844 Washington Boulevard. This suggests that, contrary to Addie’s statements about treating the boys equally so John did not know he was Charlie’s half-brother, John had been removed from the family unit before Charlie was born. The fact that Addie made this statement suggests she may have influenced John’s circumstances. However, John's relationship with his half-brother was strong. He would visit Bird every weekend and would visit clubs like Lucille's Paradise, Mohawk, etc. As an adult, John worked for the Kansas City Post Office.
Charlie's mother Addie said, "I was just in two towns in all my life, the two Kansas Cities; I never cared to go any place either". According to the 1900 census records, she was actually born in Texas, as were her parents. Albert (Alford) and Maria (Mary) Boxley lived in Hempstead Texas, and are found on the 1900 census. They had 5 children, Eliza, Jane, Gertrude, Addie and Henry. They lived in Texas until the turn of the century then moved to McAlester, Oklahoma, where their decendents still survive today. Strangely, the census form lists Addie as 'Eddie' and as 'son', but her living decendents have no knowledge of an 'Eddie'. Also, the enumerator listed the family name as 'Baxley' which explains why researchers have had difficulty in finding the Boxley's in the census records. It should therefore be assumed that this was one occasion where the enumerator was not collecting correct details.
It has been stated that Addie was of Choctaw decent, but at the present time, there is little to confirm this. Both her parents are referred to as 'Black', in the 1900 census. There is one occasion, in 1910, where Eliza, Henry and Jane are referred to as 'mulatto', but the entries for the Boxley's throughout their census appearances remain the same.
Addie Parker was born in 1891. In available literature, there are several versions of her maiden name: Bailey, Bayley, Boxley, Boxely, etc (vi). There is also one reference to an Addie Churchill. In other official documents she adds an 'R' or a 'B' or 'A.R.' as her middle initials. However, the census records prove that her name is definitely Boxley and all other variations are false. Living relatives confirm this. Why there have been so many variations is unclear at this time.
Addie next appears on the 1910 census in Pittsburg, Oklahoma, an 18-year-old, working as a servant for the Morris family. This appearance has been confirmed by living relatives, but she is missing from the 1920 census records?
Addie said she was a cleaner for Western Union at night and did house cleaning during the day, took in boarders and said she was also "taking care of babies", although the 1930 census says she was not working. She trained as a practical nurse in her early 50's, and worked at the Kansas City Hospital until her retirement. She twice married Augustus Daniels, a carpenter, once in the 1940's and later in 1963, but was separated both times. In Gary Gidden's book, he describes a woman of considerable bearing, "…who many thought beautiful and all found steely and dignified". Her inclination toward respectability is apparent in her chapter in Rob Reisner's book (vii), and she mentions twice that Charles wanted to be a doctor, a profession she entered herself.
It was around 1919 when Addie, Charles, and John Parker moved to Wyandotte County, Kansas City. In John's interview he says he "...came to Kansas City from Chicago with Addie", suggesting that, contrary to Addie's statement above, she may also have lived in Illinois and perhaps had family there. It is unclear at which of three locations they stayed when they first arrived, but it is likely they lived with Ella Parker, his grandmother, at 844 Washington Boulevard and also at a house on 9th and Splitlog. They also lived at 852 Freeman Avenue where Charles Parker Junior was born. The house number of the Splitlog address is unknown, and the other two houses have long since been demolished. Today, 852 Freeman is a vacant lot, and a more recently constructed dwelling stands on the site of Ella Parker’s house on Washington Boulevard.
The Parker’s were not wealthy and Freeman Ave was an unpaved street in the predominantly black suburb of North West of Kansas City, Kansas. The census records (i) for 1920 state that the Parker's were not present at 852 Freeman (as it states on Charlie's birth certificate above), in 1st January 1920, meaning they must have moved in later in the year. However, this was at the beginning of the Depression and work was scare and money scarcer. Families had to move to find work or be near relatives for support, and this is reflected by the Parker’s movements in Charlie’s early years. At least seven homes have been identified in Kansas and Missouri at which the Parker's lived at one time or other.
Details about Charlie's first years are not recorded, but his mother said that as she was working she entered him in a Catholic day school. There are currently no records to confirm this, but Addie stated that attending the Catholic School had influenced Charlie and that he would correct her on religious matters. The fact that she was a Baptist and put Charlie in a Catholic school would suggest that it was out of necessity rather than choice. Other aspects of this event suggest that as Parker attended the Catholic day school for just a few years before beginning kindergarten at Douglass, his exposure to the religion would have been minimal. It would also have been dubious that he sung in the choir there as has been stated elsewhere.
However, as Charles Senior was away most of the time, Addie would have to use some form of childcare in order to earn money. It follows that Parker Senior was probably not a reliable source of support, neither financially nor emotionally. However, the schools in the Freeman area were segregated at the time and it may have been hard to find a school that would have accepted a young black child. The school census records make no mention of Charles Senior apparently verifying his absence from the family home. A note on the 1924 school census record refers to Charlie, saying 'school expected to attend – Douglass’, and on September 14 1925, Charlie entered kindergarten having just turned five years old. His mother signed the attendance records for the following two years for Charlie, yet for the following years, no signature appears, confirming the Parker's had moved from Kansas to Missouri.
Charlie was five years old when he entered Douglass, and school records show his birth date as 10 August 1920, rather than 29 August. Probably a simple clerical error that went uncorrected because parents rarely saw school documents. However, another apparent clerical error appears on the two school census forms for 1924 and 1926. These census forms were given to older students at the school, who visited homes in the local area and gathered information about children and families. These were obviously liable to error, but on both forms for 852 Freeman Avenue, where Charlie lived at the time, was an entry for a 'Frank Parker', listed as Charlie’s brother. This person has no records anywhere else other than on these forms, and scholars have presumed that this was actually John. However, the errors include details such as the child’s name, age, and state of birth, placing him in a different grade than John. Why these errors were not corrected in 1926 remains a mystery. If this was John, then the official census forms for 1920 and 1930 are incorrect in stating that John was living with Ella Parker at 844 Washington. However, as guardian, Ella was obliged to sign the enrolment form for John’s admission into school and these signatures were recorded in official school documents. The identity of Frank Parker remains a mystery.
The Parker’s moved from Kansas to Missouri in the summer of 1927, but a small oddity concerning Charlie’s school records suggest they were trying to leave Kansas before this time. Addie signed the enrolment form for Charlie two years running, which is unusual as parents normally signed only once at the beginning of the school career. This suggests Addie may have withdrawn Charlie at the end of 1926 in preparation for a move that did not materialise, and had to re-enrol him the following September.
In previous versions of Charlie’s childhood, the date at which the Parker's moved across the state line has been vague. A more recent version suggests it was not until 1931 that the move occurred. Charlie's first wife, Rebecca Ruffin (not Ruffing, as is stated elsewhere), believed she saw a diploma from Charles Sumner Elementary School in Kansas, and therefore assumed Charlie must have moved to Missouri around 1931. However, the Sumner school in Kansas had always been a high school. The confusion exists because there are two Sumner schools: one in Kansas and one in Missouri. Charlie could not have attended the Sumner in Kansas, as he would have been too young. However, immediately next to the Sumner school in Kansas was Douglass School, the school Charlie did attend and which was annexed by Sumner at some point, and this may have been the cause of the confusion. Charlie actually spent 6 years at Penn School in Missouri after leaving Kansas, then spent one year at Charles Sumner in Missouri obtaining his diploma there and this is probably the one Rebecca saw. Therefore, Charlie’s move to Missouri, corroborated by the school records for Douglass and Penn School, state that it was during the summer of 1927 that Charlie’s family moved across the state line.
Charlie enrolled in Penn School, 4239 Penn Street Missouri in the autumn of 1927 and school records say the Parker's were living at 3527 Wyandotte. Penn School was in the affluent, white Westport district in a former slave settlement called Steptoe, a small but successful black community. Penn was the first public school for African Americans west of the Mississippi and was a highly respected school famous for teaching many black children in a two-room schoolhouse. Jeremiah Cameron remembers the school “…without a lunch room and a school-owned playground, but with an old fashioned cup for drinking water and an old-fashioned bell”. He also remembers Charlie at school and who sat behind him; “To know Charlie Parker, who was no great light as a student […] was to know someone who was soft-spoken and gentle. Though like me, he was not a Westporter, living in janitors quarters, like me, down near 36th and Broadway, he had all that kindness and sense of inclusion that marked the bold Westport area, a little black village, surrounded by an uncaring and separate white community.” The school closed in 1955 and burnt down in 1967. Where the school once stood is now a park and there is a plaque there to commemorate the building and its history.
Recent investigations have revealed that the Parker's lived at two other addresses at the end of the 1930's. The Kansas City Directory for 1927 lists the family as living in the basement of 114 W 36th, stating that Charles Senior was a 'janitor'. The 1929 City Directory places the family at the rear of 116 W 36th and Charles is listed as a 'Car Washer' at Powell Auto Service. The building at 114 W 36th still stands. The 116 W 36th address doesn't appear to exist and is perhaps referring to the West side of the building. However, in the 1930 City Directory, the Parker's are still living at this address and Charles is again listed as a 'janitor'. Strangely, this information conflicts with previous research that places the Parker's at W34th Street?
A main source of information regarding Charlie's home life at the time is his mother's chapter in Rob Reisner's book. Unfortunately, the subject of his death, even after several years, seemed to have caused her distress and consequently the chapter is erratic and inconsistent. Many critics hesitate to refer to or confirm anything she says. More recently, Gary Giddins interviewed Rebecca Ruffin and she revealed other aspects of Charlie's early years. By comparing these separate accounts, it is possible to piece together an impression for Parker's early years, even if much may be speculative.
Addie begins her chapter, "Charles was a fat baby and a fat child. At eleven months he walked, and he began to speak at two…Bird was the cutest and prettiest child I ever saw". She says he was also very affectionate. The few pictures we have of this time reveal a handsome child. One picture of a beaming boy, about five or six years old, sitting on what looks like a Spanish Mustang horse (viii). Another picture shows a well-dressed boy, with a cane and what look like tap shoes, which might strengthen the belief that his father was in vaudeville.
Addie’s view is rather overstated but there is little doubt that as an only child, Charlie was the centre of Addie's life. She dressed the Charlie in bespoke suits and prevented him from taking jobs like delivering papers. She said, "Whenever he needed anything all he had to do was call, and it was there. That's what I worked for and what I lived for, that boy". Addie apparently acquired instruments for him on demand, which suggests cash availability to her. She also said, "He was not spoiled through (though?), because I think a spoiled child never leaves his parents". Addie said he was a model student at school, "...always got fine grades", didn't like sports, but loved reading, "I used to find loads of books in the cellar". She also said, "As a child he had gang of friends and just loved movies and ice cream".
On several occasions, she gives insights to the sort of relationship she had with her son."Charles, if you get into trouble you've got to tell mother". In addition, "Charles, I said, don't take it. Come home to mother"; "Mother wants you to treat Doris right"; "You know mother loves you, but you've got to obey mother or else you've got to leave here". No matter how these statements are interpreted, the prospect was the young Charlie was heavily 'mothered'. She said that later she would give him "…$20 to $25 to help dress himself". In addition, "I always had $150 to $200 around the house for his emergencies. He always paid whatever it was back with interest." The quote, "his emergencies" has implications that Addie does not elaborate on.
Another recollection of Charlie's early years begins, "Charlie Parker was a spoiled brat. In Kansas City, when he was growing up in the 1930's, he was called a 'mommy's boy" by musicians who quickly tired of his thinking only of Parker. [...] But Charlie, for all his surliness and bad habits, could charm the leaves from the trees. When he wanted something, he got it. His mother, Mrs. Addie Bailey Parker, widowed when her son was seventeen, went without necessities to provide for him. [...], cheerfully surviving long, black-breaking (back-breaking?) days and nights of hard physical labor to dress Charlie well, supply him with cigarette money (and, unknowingly, narcotics funds) and all the other things youngsters and their late teens require. Charlie was never wrong." Written by Dave Dexter Jnr in his book, The Jazz Story, this offers another, less flattering view of Charlie as a youth. Dexter goes on to say, "I did not meet Parker until he started working with Jay McShann and the Harlan Leonard band in Kansas City in 1937-38, [...] Parker was ever the personality kid, and he would pick your billfold from your rear pocket while showing you how to finger a high E on the side keys of his alto. If you caught him, he would laugh it off and hand the billfold back." It is obvious that Dexter held no love for Charlie, and states that Charlie used to call him 'Dexterious'. However, Dexter does finish his chapter on Charlie by saying, "There will never be another like him".
Ultimately, the first ten years of Charlie Parker's life could be seen as relatively normal. His mother and father were together as husband and wife, and although Parker Senior was perhaps away on the railway for some of the time, it appears he provided for the family albeit sporadically. Addie managed to keep Charlie in school although the 1930 census strangely states that Charlie could not read or write and had not been in school the previous term?
There did not appear to be any major upheavals or trials for the young Charlie, other than moving house several times and moving across the state line. This might have been a difficult period, as being a 'mothered' only child, making new friends may have been hard.
There is no firm indication that Parker showed any outstanding capability or inclination towards music in the first ten years of his life. The next ten years were a very different matter!
(i) Census records are notorious for their inaccuracy. Wherever possible I have used them as a source if only to contradict standard Parker folklore Also, not being included in census' are no grounds for mystery or subterfuge. All it suggests is that the person in question was not in the house for that particular evening, and that, possibly, for a variety of very good reasons, they were absent. It has to be remembered that the purpose of a census was not to spy on people, only to gather generic information, mostly for economic reasons.
(ii) Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker - Gary Giddins - Da Capo Press 1987
(iii) Bird's Diary - Ken Vail - Castle - 1996
(iv) It takes a stretch of the imagination, but perhaps a baby Charlie would pronounce Frankie as 'Ikey', and this may have been adopted by the family in general?
(v) Of random interest (and probably only to English Rugby fans!), the Choctaw tribe owned African slaves and one of these slaves was Wallace Willis who, in 1840 wrote the song "Swing Low Sweet Chariot"!!
(vi) The Ruffin family states her name was 'Boxley' or 'Boxely', but the birth certificate for Charlie states 'Bailey'. However, on Charlie's passport application, he gives the names 'Boyley' or 'Bayley'.
(vii) Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker - Robert George Reisner - Citadel 1962
(viii) The Spanish Mustang was a horse favoured by the Choctaw Native Americans, and as Addie's ethnic background includes a Choctaw lineage, one wonders if this picture suggests she may still have had links with this side of her bloodline. Although, as has been pointed out, this could also just be a horse provided by a children's ride operator for a photo shoot?
Pat Adams: Federal Programs - Technical Assistant - KCKs Public Schools - for invaluable help in gathering information and the wonderful job she is doing a historian for the KCKs public school system. Also for allowing use of the Charles Sumner postcard.
John Struchtemeyer: District Registrar, Student Records Office, Kansas City, MO School District for gathering the information on Charlie Parker's schooling in KCMo.