The Kim Parker Interview - First appeared in KC Jazz Ambassadors in 2015
Conducted August 27th, 2015 by Chuck Haddix, author of Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, Yoko Takemura and Teddy Dibble at the home of Verne Christensen. Special thanks to Marty Peters. Photos courtesy of Kim Parker.
Originally published on Jazz Tokyo, (http://jazztokyo.org/) # 216, People and Music in Kansas City
(http://jazztokyo.org/category/column/kansas/) No. 48 Kim Parker Interview by Yoko Takemura, March 2016
(http://jazztokyo.org/interviews/48-キム). Reference: Chan Parker, My Life in E-Flat, University of South Carolina Press, 1993 and Chuck Haddix, Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, University of Illinois Press, 2013.
By Yoko Takemura
Special guest Kim Parker attended the celebration that took place on August 29, 2015, in Kansas City to commemorate the 95th anniversary of the birth of saxophone legend Charlie “Bird” Parker (1920-1955).
Kim, born in New York on August 22, 1946, is the daughter of briefly a model and dancer Chan Richardson (1925-1999). Kim became Bird’s step-daughter in 1950 and lived with her mother and step-father until Bird died in March of 1955. She was half-sister to Pree and Baird, the two children born to Chan and Charlie Parker.
When Kim was 11 years old, Chan married saxophonist Phil Woods (1931-2015), and the family moved to France. Although Kim attended high school for a period in Switzerland, she returned to the United States and studied acting, both in high school and at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. During this time, she moon-lighted as a jazz singer. Kim married in 1967 and then disappeared from the musical scene for almost 10 years. However, after her son Alexander was born in 1976, she resumed singing professionally. Kim Parker now lives in Stroudsberg, Pennsylvania, and she continues to sing occasionally in nightclubs and other venues.
Question: Please tell us about your family.
Kim: Oh that’s sort of a huge question. Where would I start with that? I’d have to go back to my grandmother and grandfather.
My grandmother, Mildred Violet Lankton, was born in 1898. She was an Iowa farm girl, the fifth daughter born, followed by five boys. She came from a family of 10 children. When she was 18, she went to Chicago and got a gig. That started her show business venture as a dancer. She got a gig at the Ziegfeld Follies on the New Amsterdam roof on the west side in New York City. That was in 1923 maybe.
My grandfather, Benjamin David Feinberg, was born in 1880. He came to the United States in 1898 by a ship from Lithuania in Tsarist Russia. He was a producer of shows. He had people like Will Rogers and May West and Fatty Arbuckle and famous people on the shows. He had restaurants and shows in New York.
Q: So your grandfather was Jewish. Were there any issues with an interfaith marriage? Did they face challenges?
Kim: I think everybody came around. And my grandmother wasn’t religious. My grandfather died in 1931. My grandmother was 34 years old. She never remarried and lived to be almost 100 years old. She was surrounded by many people in New York City. She lived in a six-story walkup. She lived on the 4th floor – 64 steps, because I counted them every time I went up. She passed away on October 18, 1995. She worked in coatrooms at the restaurant.
My mother was born in 1925. Her original name was Beverly Delores Berg. Delores means sad. I have her diary from when she was 16, that is 1942, and it was so revealing. All she did was say, “Oh, I love Johnny! He’s so handsome, he’s so wonderful, but he only has eyes for Clair. I don’t know what he sees in Clair.” And then the next day, “Oh, I love Freddy so much.” And it was so ridiculous. The whole year was like this in her diary, one guy after another! And then she did summer stock that year and that’s in the diary. So she was an actress but she was never a professional actress. They discouraged her from acting because she wasn’t very good. [Laugh] And so she lost the job and she said, “Well, I guess I’m just not a very good actress.” My mother passed away on September 9, 1999.
Q: You literally grew up on 52nd street. What was your life like on 52nd street?
Kim: 52nd street was my domain. I just ran around, up and down the block, and everyone knew me so all eyes were on me. I was completely safe. I hung out with the doorman and the strippers and musicians, and there my mother discovered jazz. When grandma worked coat checking at the Cotton Club, Cab Calloway and people like that, all these musicians would come over. When my grandma had a house in Riverdale, NY, after work at the Cotton Club musicians would come to her place and play through the rest of the night. My grandma had her own after-hours club.
And then my mother encouraged my grandma to make the move to 52nd Street, which is when and where she first heard Bird. Well, she was used to Pres, and people of that school, so Bird’s tone was off-putting to her at first. When she realized what he was doing… that was it! My mother discovered bebop on 52nd Street – that was all she cared about. And everybody wanted her because she was very pretty and hip. She was probably the hippest jazz wife the world has ever known. That’s the truth. She was so hip, everybody wanted her.
My mother fell in love with Bird. I have one of her diaries, which is from just after he died. It’s heartbreaking how much she loved him, because he was “ the true love” of her life. She wasn’t listening to Bird’s music so much. But she liked his tone.
Chan Parker’s Diary, 1955 [Bird met Chan in 1943. They first dated first in 1945. Bird was 25 years old and it was Chan’s 21st birthday. Chan was known as “The Queen of 52nd Street.”]
Q: Do you remember when Bird and your mother first got together?
Kim: No, I was too young. We went to live with him when I was about 4½. I remember we lived on 11th Street before the final place we lived in New York. I don’t remember the 11th Street place at all. I remember very well our next apartment at 151st Avenue B, which is now a landmark, it has historical value.
[Chan and Kim lived Bird’s apartment on the 442E, 11th Street on May 29, 1950. Bird, Chan and Kim moved to an apartment of 151 Avenue B before Pree’s birth, in 1951.]
I remember my fifth birthday there. Bird bought the Cadillac car because he could not get taxis to pick him up late at night, because of his color. I remember riding up town with him and my mom. He was driving and I was sitting on his lap, and he’d let me pretend to steer the car, you know.
After the gig – he worked at Birdland a lot – we would go on 9th Avenue and stop at a delicatessen. He would buy a turkey club sandwich that was big and tall. I remember that. That was always a highlight, getting that sandwich.
It was really wonderful to walk with Bird! He was really dignified. We often went to a coffee house in West 4th and Washington Square. A pigeon shit on his head. Bird said “ Hi! You, Bird?!” [Laugh]
We were walking up 6th Avenue once. I love this story. We were walking up 6th Avenue and Bird saw Gabby Hayes, who was Roy Rogers’ side kick. Roy Rogers was a famous TV cowboy and Gabby Hayes was his pal. Bird loved Cowboys and Indians. Those were his shows. So Bird saw Gabby Hayes coming down the street toward him and he said, “Gabby Hayes! Gabby Hayes!” And Gabby Hayes looked at him and said, “Hi, Bird!” And Bird was so knocked out that Gabby Hayes knew him! He was so thrilled! And he got his autograph. It was so, so cute.
Chan, Kim and their dogs (Dum Dum, Pooli and Tuki), 1953, in their apartment at 151 Avenue B in New York.
We would go to a place that sold magic tricks. He had one that was a mummy in a coffin and, if you did something just right, the mummy would rise up out of the coffin! And he got me a can of peanut brittle and when you opened it snakes flew out! And he loved buzzers. You know, you hold a buzzer in your hand and you go to shake someone’s hand and it goes, “bzzzzzzz.” He delighted in very childlike things.
My childhood was so contradictory. When I went to school, I got up in the morning, and I fixed my own breakfast, when I was 6-years-old, packed my own lunch, and walked myself to school. Now, I didn’t understand what all these kids were – why am I here with all these kids? They were kids! What was I doing in their company? I didn’t understand it.
Every day, at the beginning of school, I would throw up at 10:30. The janitor just started coming and waiting until 10:30 for me to throw up every day. They sent a note home and said you have to take this child to a doctor, because there’s something wrong with her. So we went the doctor. Bird took me. And the doctor asked me a few questions. And he said to Bird, “This child is scared! You have to take her back to school.” Bird walked me back to school, and there I was with my Daddy’s hand. I had no inkling that this would be weird, this big black man and me. I had no idea that this would be far freakier than me vomiting every day, to show up with this guy. But I stopped vomiting. I was cool, because my daddy was there.
Kim Parker with Dum Dum, Pooli and Tuki, 1953, in their apartment at 151 Avenue B in New York.
He really loved Sunday dinners! That was a big thing with the whole family. My grandmother and my uncle and two of my grandmother’s friends would come over, and Bird would be so happy. I have a picture of all of us. Pree was sitting on Bird’s lap. I could get you that photo, if you like. Baird was in back in a high chair, and my mom, Auntie Rae, and Aunt Janet, and my Uncle. Grandmother took the picture so she wasn’t in the picture.
Bird loved that because that was middle class, and this was what white middle class did. And he would just beam he was just in his element. I think this contributed to Bird’s death. When he would eat, he would take the salt and pour it all over his food, until there was a white coating of salt over everything.
We didn’t have Sunday dinner every week, but it was really fun. It sounds to me like Sunday dinners contributed to Bird’s death.
Sunday dinner in 1953. Right to left: Pree on Charlie Parker’s lap, Aunt Rae, Chan, Baird, Kim, Uncle Jimmy, Aunt Janet
Q: You mentioned how much Bird cherished the Sunday family dinners. Did he want to keep the family life separate? Or were there a lot of musicians around?
Kim: Good point! We never had a musician in the house. Never. It was pretty much across the board; no musicians came to the house. Pree was out in front in this little area in her carriage. Joe Albany came by and Bird flew out the door and told him to get away from here. He said, “I don’t want that in here; that’s dirty.” It was pretty much across the board – everybody – no musicians ever came to the house. He didn’t bring heroin home. My mother wrote about it. [Smile]
I remember when he took the iodine – when he drank iodine. I remember once he got out of hand and I think my mother called the cops. And the cops came and Bird met them at the door and said, “Oh, I’m so glad you came. We had an intruder. We had an intruder here.” And he completely diffused the entire scenario.
Q: His professional career, like his recording sessions or gigs, he didn’t bring those home at all? Were you aware of where he was playing and what was going on in his professional career?
Kim: No, I didn’t understand. My mother would say, “Daddy’s in Chicago,” or something like that. I remember when he went to Sweden. He was bringing me home some giant stuffed animals, a rabbit, or something, from the road. From Sweden he brought me back little wooden horses. I still have them. We each had an ocarina, you know, a little pipe. I still have that. I have his opera glasses! Bird had opera glasses, if you can imagine! Pearl, mother for pearl, rather, opera glasses from Paris.
Q: Did you go to the nightclub when he was playing?
Kim: I went to Birdland quite a bit. And we would sit off stage left, sort of back a little bit. We had a corner bar on Avenue B and Bird would go in there. He’d sit there and they’d call him Charlie. They didn’t know who he was – he was just this guy. At that time it was a very multicultural neighborhood. There were Poles and Czechs, and it was just New York. Bird would hang out with the guys at the corner bar. They were just regular people, not musicians. And my mother would send me down to the bar to bring daddy home. I would go to the bar and I’d walk in and I’d say sweetly, “Daddy, we have to go home now.” He would say, “Okay, Puddin’.” He also called me Princess Pee Pee because I wet the bed.
Q: Seems to me that you touched on something a little while ago about how he yearned for normalcy. He was a real square at home.
Kim: He was a square, yes! Bird wore a suit of short pants well. He put on short pants like Bermuda pants and was going around. Yet Bird would do things like cut the legs off his suit pants to create a Bermuda suit. No one in NYC had ever seen anything like it. He often went from New York to Trenton in the State of New Jersey. We sometimes went to welcome him with a car to take him home to New Hope, PA. He often caught a newspaper in an armpit and appeared. Would it be strange! He was performing the “ordinary businessman” who puts on a suit, picks up a newspaper in an arm and gets off a train and was playing.
Q:What do you remember about Baird and Pree?
Kim: I don’t really remember Pree coming home from the hospital. I do remember Baird because, for some reason – I probably needed attention – Baird was six years younger than me. So at 6 years old they were going to bring Baird home from the hospital, and I got in Pree’s playpen with a baby bottle filled with orange juice, and I sat in the playpen and waited for them to come home and see their BIG baby, their ORIGINAL baby!
I loved them, of course. Pree was so sweet. She couldn’t really talk but very ethereal, almost to the point of being mystical. She was a very special person. She had a persona that was just magical. And she did it because she didn’t talk. You know, she’d say “bah” or stuff like that. She just emanated this aura. Baird was just like a little steamroller. After Bird died, my mother spoiled him and let people call him “Little Bird.”
Kim-Chan-and-Pree - Chan holding Pree and Kim holding her dog, circa 1951
Q: What was Bird’s relationship like with Baird & Pree?
Kim: My mother was very upset because Pree was sickly. They didn’t know what cystic fibrosis was then – they hadn’t given it a name. At that time, cystic fibrosis had not bee isolated as a disease, so it had no name. She died at 2½ of pneumonia. My mother would be upset at Bird because he would pay attention to Baird and me, and he would not pay attention to Pree. I think he was afraid of her vulnerability because she was sickly.
My mother said to him, “Baird has a middle name. You wrote a song for Baird. You wrote a song for Kim. Why didn’t you write a song for Pree? Pree doesn’t have a middle name.” You know, he died almost a year to the day after Pree died.
Bird, Chan and their son Baird, in Washington Square, New York, after the death of their daughter Pree [Pree: July 17, 1951 – March, 1954. Baird: August 10, 1952 – March 23, 2014.)
Q: You had a really cohesive family unit, where you would have Sunday dinners. It seems to me that phase of the relationship is when Bird and Chan were very tight. When did you first notice they were drifting apart?
Kim: I was often shipped uptown to my grandmother’s, so I knew something was afoot. I remember my mother coming home from the hospital after Pree died. Pree died five times. Her heart stopped in the taxi, and in the hospital, and then she finally succumbed. Bird was in California. My mother probably called my grandmother to come and stay with me and Baird while she took Pree to the hospital. But I remember my mother, just remember her sobbing, sobbing.
Q: You mentioned when Bird drank the iodine and tried to do himself in after that night at Birdland. It seems like that was a turning point in the relationship. What do you remember about that evening?
Kim: I think it was an accumulation of things. My mother just felt powerless to change him, to help him because he was self-destructive. My mother always felt that if he’d just stayed with heroin he might have lived. But when he switched to booze, he just hurt his body too badly. I think that and the salt in his diet. His appetites were voracious, for sex and food and drink and drugs. He just wanted it all, and you can’t have it all.
Pree’s death – that was it. That was the downward spiral. There was probably a little feeling inside him that he did this to Pree. His drugs and alcohol and all that stuff, that his excesses had somehow poisoned her. Baird also had a celiac condition when he was born. So he had two defective children.
We moved to a New Hope in Pennsylvania in 1954 from New York. Bird sometimes came there. Then we moved us to Lumberville. We were there a short while when we got the call that he was dead. Then we got a call that it was a rumor and he wasn’t dead.
That was March, 1955. My mother was working, checking coats in Trenton, and my grandmother was with Baird and me. My grandmother took the call and she didn’t want to tell my mother over the phone because she was afraid my mother would have an accident coming home, which was a wise decision So I went to bed. I didn’t know what death was. I had no idea. We went to New York. I didn’t go to the funeral; I didn’t go to Pree’s funeral either. They didn’t want to expose me to that.
And my mother was just pushed aside. She was so bereft. People just took the funeral, they took over this body, and she had no legal papers of marriage because he was already a bigamist. So they didn’t marry, but she had two children that were his. She just was pushed aside.
Q: There are a lot of experts on Bird. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about Bird.?
Kim: Bird was a complete chameleon! He could be what you wanted him to be. He could look at you and lie and he was so convincing. He was larger than life, so he could get away with things. He did things his way. He was a strange, strange man. [Laughs] He didn’t seek to prolong his life. He was like a super nova, he just pshooooo through the sky, and then was gone. That fast in the time continuum, just a flash, just a smidge in time.
The mythology of him secured his fame, all the larger than life aspects of him. But at heart he was a family man, and he loved his kids and he loved my mother, and so that was the side that no one got to see, because he kept everyone away.
Q: It’s fascinating to me that your recollections and your experiences are from the family unit looking outward.
Kim: Well, My grandmother, she was something else. She was not prejudiced. She was in show business, so she knew show business life. And she was very supportive of their relationship, and Bird was crazy about her.
Somebody once was interviewing her and said, “Tell me about you and Bird and how you got along.” And she said, “Well, he didn’t like my meatloaf…” [Laughter builds all around]
Yes, I’m really the only one now. Everybody else is gone. It’s just wonderful that my memory is very long.
Q. What do you imagine about Bird when he was a young boy?
Kim: Well, my favorite thing from Chuck Haddix’s book is that when Addie went to work, she worked midnight until in the morning. It’s like me walking around New York City at the age of five. He would be on the streets and then he’d pretend to be asleep when his mother got home. I still think that’s the funniest thing because that’s so Bird! He was impish. He had like a little devil in his eyes. And I could see him as a teen-ager planning his evening and running around and running to get home in time. That just makes me so happy to think of him that way.
Last year, I went to 3527 Wyandotte [in Kansas City, Missouri]. It was so beautiful to stand there, where Bird lived. It was just a beautiful and wonderful experience. So that’s what Kansas City has given to me, just so much love everywhere I go.
Q: How do you continue to tell about Charlie Parker to the next generation as his daughter and as a jazz singer?
Kim: You know it’s hard to tell anybody anything if they’re not interested. And I say, think of it this way: you listen to jazz and you understand that it’s all improvised. When you hear a Charlie Parker solo on a real up tempo tune, it’s going from his heart to his head through his fingers to his mouth, and that is happening instantaneously. Somebody tried to measure how fast the process took to play one note. It can barely even be measured. Just realize that there’s a chord structure but then everything else is improvised on that structure. It’s not that it doesn’t have a structure. The structure is there but it’s amplified and enlarged by improvisation. Think of it that way and maybe you’ll understand how phenomenal it is. I think that’s the only way to approach people.
You know, I stay to myself pretty much. I live alone. I love it. I eat when I’m hungry. I sleep when I’m tired. I control the remote control for the TV. I don’t have to consult with another party. So I really like it. It sustains me. I need privacy. I’m a very social person, but I’d rather go out in the garden and pull up weeds than waste my time. [Laugh]
It was a very pleasant morning and a summer shower had just ended. Kim Parker, wearing a light blue casual long dress, warmly welcomed us as we arrived at the home of her good friend Verne Christensen in Olathe, Kansas. We had coffee and chatted for a long time in the bright dining room.
Before we knew it, the two hour interview was over. Kim is vivacious and articulate, and she seemed to enjoy telling us stories and anecdotes from her past, in spite of the intimate nature of our questions. However, when the conversation eventually turned to her younger half-sister Pree, the first child of Chan and Charlie Parker, a great sadness came over her as she felt again, even after so many years, the loss of the little sister who had been her close companion. And she vividly remembered how deeply her mother had grieved for Pree. Her tears flowed freely and they were joined by sympathetic tears in the eyes of all of us who had joined the interview. Kim said that she was not sad. It was just that she got emotional whenever the memories came flooding back and her tears came in streams.
Later, long after the tears of grief had run their course and the interview was concluded, we all laughed as we realized how cleansing this group therapy had been for all of us. We all felt uplifted.
Kim is a very delicate and tenderhearted person. She has great memories and imagination. Kim struggled as she tried to answer questions as accurately as possible. In some cases details had faded in her memory, and she was fuzzy about exact ages and time periods. Even though her time together with Bird was less than five years, from about age four until about age eight, her clear memory of that happy time made it seem much longer to her.
Two sources have helped Kim to remember things about her childhood: the work “My Life in E-Flat,” a memoir written about the life of Chan Richardson Parker, and the huge diary that Chan had kept in beautiful handwriting on pages of Filofax size. Kim showed me some of the thick volumes and allowed me to open one of them. I had a sense of reverence and timelessness as I carefully turned some of the pages. Kim showed me some pictures that had been taken when she was a little girl. Her winsome face displayed wisdom far beyond her youth, and her attractive features remain to this day.
Although some aspects of the life of Charlie Parker might be described as departing from societal norms, Kim credits him with being a good family man. He was very gentle and a “sweet and good father” who loved his wife and children and cherished his family. Kim seemed really happy talking about her sweet father and that period in her life. Bird had demonstrated his love for his children by writing and recording the tunes “Kim” and “Laird Baird” in their honor. “So many people do not know the truth about Bird,” Kim said, “and I would love to correct the misconceptions. I really loved him. This is why I accepted your interview.”
Kim never trained formally in music, but she has always sung. When she lived with Bird, she listened to the records of Sinatra, Mel Tormé, Nat King Cole and many others. Looking back now she realizes how much they influenced her, especially her phrasing. She was inspired by Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, all of whom she knew well as family friends. She was only 10 or 11 when she learned all the parts of their Grammy award-winning song, “Sing a Song of Basie.” In spite of the early contact Kim had with the music world, she didn’t dig in to concentrate on singing until two years after her son, Alec, was born. She was 32 years old at the time and had become empowered by the experience of being pregnant and bearing a child naturally. She and her husband had just returned from two years of living in a ramshackle summer house in Maine that was entirely without the modern conveniences of electricity and running water. They had to pump water out of a well and their only heat was a cookstove in the kitchen, prompting them to put their bed in the kitchen during the first winter. They had farm animals and grew their own food.
In such a rustic setting, she felt it was the right time for her to begin singing. She had a piano and taught herself to read chord symbols in one week so she could transpose songs down a fourth, a circumstance necessitated by the vocal range that she had been blessed with.
When Alec was born, Chan had come from France to the United States for a brief period, and Kim had joined her mother’s singing group, “Quintessence.” She loved singing the close harmonies and often sang the tenor part. With Quintessence as her training ground, she vaulted into the limelight in 1979 at the 2nd annual Celebration of the Arts (COTA) Festival in Delaware Water Gap, Pennsylvania. Impressed with her performance, a producer insisted that she take part in the recording of his new jazz album, “New Souls,” with Phil Woods and Larry Gelb. This group eventually did a second album, “The Language of Blue.” After Kim’s marriage broke up, Chan started booking her for performances in Europe.
Her recording history includes albums produced under an Italian label in Milan and albums produced in Sweden. Kim has performed with Kenny Drew, Mad Vinding, Ed Thigpen, Tommy Flanagan, Mal Waldron and other great jazz musicians. She swings with a wonderful rhythmic sense. Asked what time has done to her singing, Kim replied, “I am a much better singer today than I was when I was younger. My range has narrowed with age, but my repertoire and soul are so much deeper!” She went on, “Music to me now is a form of shared love. I must reach and touch your heart. It is essential to me now. The world needs this music more than ever.”
Kim Parker has not slowed down, and she is actively selecting tunes for her next performance in April of 2016.