"…there are rather unsensational explanations for most of the elements of 'mystery' associated with Parker's death, but the really important point may be that most people have automatically elected to accept at face value the assumption - and this is true with anecdotes about his life as well as his death - that the weirder stories were the truer ones." Orrin Keepnews 1956
As with the rest of his life, Charlie's death is surrounded in mystery and intrigue. As the final act, critics have attached extra significance to minor details, cast doubt on facts and implied meaning where there was none to be found. Charlie died because his body had been wasted by years of overindulgence and excess, namely narcotic and alcohol abuse, but complicated by mental health problems and other debilitating physical afflictions such as peptic ulcers, heart problems, and high blood pressure. The death certificate states that he died of lobar pneumonia. His body could not take anymore. However, the various interpretations of his death still leave a sense of mystery that satisfies the conspiracy theorists, and the gutter press journalism, who care not for fact but only for a good story.
There were several extenuating circumstances leading up to the death of Charles Parker Junior. One major incident considered by many to have begun downward spiral was the death of his daughter Pree, almost exactly a year previously. Charlie was in poor health anyway, but this event probably increased his alcohol consumption, which would have aggravated his ulcers. Chan says he was in pain everyday for the much of his last years due to the ulcers. Heroin withdrawal would have also affected his health and it must be expected that his nerves were also laid bare. Schizophrenia perhaps contributed to two suicide attempts, and several self-internments and Bellevue Psychiatric Hospital, with potential electric shock treatment, such as Bud Powell endured, looming ahead.There are also several statements from various people that Charlie predicted his own death. According the both Chan and Doris he was preoccupied with death. He told Nica de Koenigswarter that he was "just a husk". He sent Doris a poem where he said, "death is an imminent thing". In response to Joe Segal's request that he put on a overcoat on a cold February night in Chicago, he said, "I don't want to see another winter - pneumonia's next for me!" Chan said, "Bird had a preoccupation with death, perhaps stemming from his father's murder. Death was a lover whom Bird wooed constantly. It was ever present in Pree. In a macabre way, he even tried to connect it to me when he told me I had the 'stench of death' about me. […] Through all Bird's violence, his courtship of death turned inward upon himself. I could do nothing, except hold on, drag my feet, and pull him back towards life."
Charlie had been booked to play at Storyville in Boston on the 12th of March, and on March 9th stops by to visit local jazz patron, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter at the Stanhope Hotel. The Baroness was a great patron to jazz and, ironically, Thelonius Monk spent his last years being looked after by her in her house in New Jersey.
In the Baroness's hotel suite, Charlie began to vomit blood and she called her private doctor to examine him, and one of the questions he asked was 'do you drink?' Charlie replied, "Sometimes […] I have a sherry before dinner". Needless to say the doctor recommended that Charlie should be hospitalised. Declining the hospital, Charlie agreed, at the Baroness's request to stay in her apartment where the doctor could monitor his health. He apparently ate a few tinned peaches and very little else over the next two days as he couldn't keep anything down. He drank copious amounts of water and although ill, had his wits about him, as the above quote demonstrates.
The doctor didn't know Charlie or his music but expressed an interest in hearing a sample. The Baroness and Charlie discussed which of his records they should introduce to the doctor and they settled for 'April in Paris' from the 'Strings' album. The doctor was impressed and this made Charlie happy. Charlie apparently discussed plans for the future, forming a new big band "that would knock them dead".
At 8:45pm, on the 12th of March, while watching the Dorsey Brother show on TV, Charlie started laughing, then started to cough, and then slumped back on the couch and was dead within minutes. The Baroness remembered there being an enormous crash of thunder at he moment of death, very much like that reported at the deaths of Beethoven and Mozart!
The Baroness tried to find Chan to let her know about Charlie's death, but Charlie had apparently refused to tell the Baroness Chan's location stating he didn't want anyone to know his whereabouts until he was better. In turn, the Baroness didn't want Chan to find out about Charlie's death from the newspaper or radio, but preferred she find out from a friendly source. In the end, it took over a day, (some say two days) to locate her, during which time, Charlie's body lay in the morgue, apparently, with a nametag of 'John Parker', age fifty-three. The Baroness denies that he was labelled incorrectly. The Baroness was distraught at Charlie's death, later she became an addict herself, and eventually suffered the indignity of being arrested for possession.
In Max Gordon's autobiography, Live at the Village Vanguard, The Baroness gives another version of the story, "...I don't mind you asking questions, only don't ask me about Bird. Besides, you know all about it. It was all over the papers. Of course the papers didn't tell everything - how desperately ill poor Bird was, for instance. He was sitting and listening to a Tommy Dorsey record, 'Just Friends (Bird was crazy about Tommy Dorsey). Suddenly he started spitting blood, jumped up, screamed, and fell at my feet. I called the house doctor. But the doctor of the fashionable Stanhope Hotel wouldn't come. He wouldn't attend a black man dying in a white woman's apartment."
Once Chan was notified, her uncle Lloyd identified the body at Bellevue and it was taken to either Walter Cooke Memorial Home (Vail) or Campbell Funeral Home (Chan), the same place the Pree had lain a year earlier. Chan was planning to inter Charlie in the same cemetery as their daughter Pree, however, Doris arrived and, as Charlie's last 'legal' wife, took over preparations for Charlie's funeral. She moved the body to the Unity Funeral Home, and began alternative preparations.
Charlie had stated to several people that he did not want to be buried in Kansas City, and that he did not want any fuss, just a quiet funeral with close family and friends. Doris, however, had other ideas and arranged a 'lying-in-state', a large public service at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on 138th Street, presided over by the absurdly named the Most Reverend Licorish (Licorise, Licorice), who displayed a lack of sensitivity by referring to the deceased as "Charlie-Bird". The music chosen to play in the service was 'The Lost Chord', and it was commented on at the time that Charlie never lost a chord at any point in his life! Several jazz luminaries carried the coffin from the church, almost dropping it once. Chan, rather cryptically said, "...all the people who had taken advantage of him financially, and business-wise during his life, were the pallbearers. It was really a travesty, to use one of Birds favourite words." Then, with the help of Dizzy Gillespie and Norman Granz, the body was shipped back to Kansas for burial in the family plot.
In Doris's defence, she later said, "Charlie loved his mother very much. In life, he bought her a great deal of unhappiness. I'm sure Charlie would be the last person in the world, knowing how much his mother wanted it, to have said no. Perhaps Charlie did say at times that he didn't like K.C. But he said many things about people involved in his personal life that were not true. But Charlie did love his mother, and it was his mother's wish that he be buried in K.C. The services in K.C. were beautiful - they played 'Repetition', and it was a really beautiful service. There were old men and young there. People who knew Charlie all his life and people who grew up with him. It makes me angry - every article I read speaking of Charlie not wanting to go to K.C. - well, it makes me furious.
Ask Dizzy about when I came to New York. I was willing to promise Chan anything to have his funeral in peace with no scandal, but Chan wouldn't have it that way. Perhaps you don't know, but I made arrangements for Chan to be there. She sat in front, not I; so I feel that she brought all the unhappiness on herself."
Chan's version is: "Then Doris showed up with her bigamous Mexican marriage certificate, which gave her the right to claim Bird's body and have it taken to a funeral parlour in Harlem, where billboards announced the upcoming funerals. (Why do they call them parlours?) She promised that if I didn't cause trouble and allowed Bird to be buried in Kansas City against his wishes, she would have him dug up after his mother Addie's death and be placed in the two-grave plot with Pree. […] As mother of Bird's children, I was to play the role of the official widow, while Doris, who held the legal power, took a back seat. […] All Harlem turned out: pimps, pushers, whores in their finery mingled with fans, and the businessmen who had a vested interest in Bird when he was alive and looked forward to bigger profits now that he was dead."
Dizzy said: "They were going to bury him out here, up here in New York some place. So I was thinking, I said, well, I mean, I don't think that's right, you know. Because his mother's been out there all this time, you know, and like, she should have the pleasure of going out to the grave site and putting flowers on the grave..."
However, Rebecca Ruffin saw the course of events as running rather differently. In an interview with Rebecca, Anita J. Dixon wrote, “His common-law marriage to Chan Woods was challenged by Doris Sydnor, his (Charlie’s) third ‘wife’. With neither able to produce the evidence necessary to lay claim to his remains, Addie Parker presented the show-stopper. She requested a copy of Charlie and Rebecca’s marriage license and then called Rebecca’s brother Winfrey Ruffin and sent him to New York with the mission to retrieve her son so she could bury him in Kansas City. It was done without my knowledge,’ Rebecca says. ‘Charlie had a funeral and everything in New York. Doris and Chan were just fighting but Mrs Parker had control over everything.’[…] ‘Mrs Parker would have done anything to have Charlie back,’ says Rebecca. ‘I had nothing to do with his body being brought back here. She did it all. I think she always knew how she was going to keep him with her and she did it.’”
Three days after Charlie's death, the press published their version of the story. With a black jazz musician dying in the home of a wealthy, married, Rothschild heiress, the press were more interested in the intrigue, than the facts. The smoke screen they blew up with insinuation and sexual intrigue, helped deflect any hope of recording the truth. To the press, Charlie was just a black saxophone player and aligned in some way with jazz and 'bop' music, and perhaps it is from this that the enigma of Charlie Parker took hold.
The cause of death has always been disputed, even though the autopsy clearly states he died of pneumonia. There have been claims that Charlie died from heart attack, or the bleeding ulcers, or advanced cirrhosis of the liver, and that he overdosed on heroin. There are two, rather ridiculous stories that suggest Charlie died because of a punch in the stomach, and another story the he was shot by Art Blakey, and that the Baroness helped bribe the doctors and there was a cover up. Even today, some eminent Parker scholars still believe there is some cause to believe he was murdered.
Frederick J. Spencer's book, Jazz and Death examines in detail, all the information available about Charlie's death and he concludes that it was as the autopsy had stated; lobar pneumonia. This is not a piece of earth shattering information because Doris, shortly after the death, was quoted, "The district attorney told me they did a very thorough autopsy on Charlie and he died from lobar pneumonia and nothing else was mentioned."
Personally, I like Orrin Keepnews' view, "…there is no doubt it can be said, without excessive sentimentality, that Charlie Parker, like more than a few others before him, died of being a naked, inevitably unadjustable genius".
Shortly after the death, the words 'Bird Lives' began to appear on the walls of New York, and later Ted Joans and his artistic friends claimed this responsibility for this graffiti.
There were a several benefit concerts and memorial albums, each raising monies that apparently didn't find their way to any of Charlie's children, wives or mother. Addie claimed that she received $500 dollars.
In the late 1950's Doris placed adverts in New York newspapers threatening legal action against anyone who used any of Charlie's songs without prior authority.
Anita J. Dixon interviewing Robert Z. Dobrish, the lawyer for the Parker estate, described the estates condition. “From 1955 to 1967, the estate of Charlie Parker was in serious litigation. There was fighting over who was the rightful wife and all claimed to be the surviving spouse. […] At the time there was a tremendous amount of raiding the estate…papers were forged. Ultimately, in 1966, the disputes were resolved without conclusion; the estate broken up in percentages and Leon Parker was appointed administrator.” Apparently, Leon gained two-thirds of the estate administered by Doris. Chan's children, it must be assumed, received part of what was left.
Sadly, the wrangling drove a wedge between Rebecca and her son. Dixon’s article states, “He (Leon) listens to them (Doris and Chan). Not to me,” she says. “Sometimes it hurts to think that he would take the word of those groupies over his mother.” (Leon Parker refused to be quoted for this article).” This statement was made in 1996 and since then both Rebecca and Leon have died. One can only hope that they made their peace before the end. Leon’s role in the estate has probably passed on to his wife or sons.
A primary issue was, of the four marriages Charlie had been involved in, none appeared to have ended in divorce. Charlie had never married Chan, and although today a common law wife receives the same legal entitlements as an official marriage, in the 1950's it did not carry much importance. Doris however, had a 'legal' marriage certificate and therefore she assumed control of the estate.
However, Charlie's second marriage to Geraldine Scott, may not have ended in divorce, therefore it is possible the Charlie's marriage to Doris was bigamous, especially as it later came to light that Charlie and Doris had been married in Mexico, and so the legitimacy of that document was questionable.
Anita J. Dixon, in an interview with Rebecca, also cast doubt on whether Rebecca’s marriage actually ended in divorce or not. “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.”
Even today, the arguments continue and clarity cannot be found anywhere. The sale of the King saxophone that bought all the headlines in the spring of 2005, eventually never went through because the estate claimants could not agree, and currently the saxophone is on show at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas, where it should stay. Where it will ultimately end up is anyone's guess.
The location of Charlie's grave is in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Summit, Missouri. This is not actually in Kansas City, so at least one of Charlie's requests to not be buried in Kansas was honoured, however he has had three different gravestones. As if attempting to perpetuate the myths, the first one incorrectly stated the dates of his life. It has been suggested that the incorrect dates refer to the memorial service held at the Watkins Brother Funeral Home on the 23rd of March. This stone was stolen and auctioned via a mailbox address, but it is unclear when this happened.
At least the second stone one got the dates correct! Put there by Max Roach and The Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation. The bronze plates of Charlie and his mother were stolen in 1992. It is unclear what happened to these plates after they were stolen.
The third and current gravestone was erected by the Kansas City Jazz Commission in 1994 (who are no longer in business). Unfortunately, this gravestone displays a picture of a tenor saxophone.
Recently, there have been discussions about moving Charlie's remains to a memorial in the 18th and Vine District, but there were many objections and the plan has been temporarily shelved.
George Wein has the last word. "...I booked Charlie Parker for his third Storyville appearance; it was to be a weekend affair, beginning on March 9, 1954 (1955?). Both of Bird's prior engagements at Storyville had produced remarkable performances and no serious problems, in spite of the fact that Charlie Parker was a-less-than-reliable artist. […] So when the first night of Bird's Storyville gig arrived, but with no Bird, I was annoyed. […] I was pacing around the club, deciding whether or not to send the crowd home, when somebody came over and told me that Bird was on the phone. I rushed over and put the receiver to my ear. What I heard was a recorded message… "…red-winged bobtail spotted this morning on the Ipswich marshes…" One of my employees had dialled the Audubon Society as a practical joke.
Bird never did show up that night. The next day, I picked up a newspaper and discovered that Charlie Parker had died in the Baroness Nica De Konigswarter's Stanhope Hotel apartment. He was thirty-four years old.
I never had the opportunity to present him at Newport and to salute him as the genius that he was. In any case, Bird's excuse for missing his last gig was irrefutable." Myself Among Others - George Wein. Da Capo 2003