Jo Jones - "I know how frustrating it is for me, as long as I've been playing, when I'm not able to play. I want to play twenty-six hours a day, even though I know I need sleep. I don't want to go near music when I can't play it. I sit there and the palms of my hands are perspiring. It's a real feeling of frustration. And when the young kids don't get a chance to play, that's one of the things that happens. And so, one of the things that got kids into dope was to get something to bolster their courage."
"…you know there's quite a number of things wrong with me. I go to this heart specialist, you know, give him a hundred dollars for the relief of my heart. He treats me, don't do no good; my heart is still messed up. I go to this ulcer man, give him seventy-five dollars to cool my ulcers out; it don't do no good. There's a little cat in a dark alley around the corner. I give him five dollars for a bag of shit; my ulcer's gone, my heart trouble gone, everything gone, all my ailments gone." Charlie Parker speaking to Walter Bishop.
If an activity could be considered an addiction, then there is little doubt that Charlie Parker's main addiction was playing saxophone. More than anything, Charlie's first and last love was playing the instrument he picked up in earnest at 13 years old. It may be because this addiction was so intense, that his other addictions became so extreme. As the JO Jones quote above implies, it was the 'down time' that would have caused Charlie the most problems. There would seem to be a precarious balance between these two states for Charlie and this may have caused both turmoil and brilliance in his life and perhaps this helps to explain why Charlie Parker remains such an enigma.
This balance between the sublime and the desperate, between genius and the suicidal is critical in understanding the brilliant and the desolate aspects of Charlie's life. It was an uneasy equilibrium, where satisfaction was juxtaposed with frustration. The genius could not live with the everyday. Commentators are fascinated by both sides of Charlie's character and many books have been written about the genius of his music and his personal eccentricities, but critics rarely comment upon the musical obsession that nurtured both sides of his character. However, there are numerous statements that plainly reveal Charlie's obsession with the saxophone and music.
Jay McShann: "There's one thing he wanted to do, he didn't worry about anything else, as long as he could play that horn. He loved that horn. There's no question about it."
Gene Ramey. "The Jay McShann band, in which Bird and I worked together for so long, was the only band I've ever known that seemed to spend all its spare time jamming or rehearsing. We used to jam on trains and buses; and as soon as we got into a town, we'd try to find somebody's house where we could hold a session. All this was inspired by Bird, because the new ideas he was bringing to the band made everybody anxious to play"
Buster Smith: "He always had that horn. 'This is my baby. This is my baby, and I'm gonna stay with this baby.' And he'd sleep with the horn on the pillow. Every night"
Buddy Jones: "I was told that the reason Charlie got so far so fast on his horn was that he practised almost twenty-fours hours a day. It has been said that no one ever passed his house and did not hear the sound of him playing. Charlie never slept. I once shared a room with him and never saw him in bed. He just would become unconscious after a while for a short bit."
Buddy Colette: "He told me that when he was playing in the Jay McShann band, he could never get enough playing in, even though he had his solos, he'd walk outside the club in the snow in Kansas City wearing whatever he happened to have on and practice to the sound of the band still playing inside the club.[…]It's difficult to move your fingers when the temperature is below freezing, but that's what he did, walk outside when Fats Navarro or someone was playing and noodle on the choruses".
In Collette's memory of Charlie, he describes the 'turmoil' of Bird not having a place to play. Collette also mentions that when Charlie was on the West Coast, he couldn't practice where he was staying so he went out into a local park and practised. "…so he blew in South Park at 52nd and San Pedro. He'd be up all night, then take a nap, get up and go out to the park and blow his alto. The people playing football and baseball in the park had no idea who he was or what he was playing." Similarly, in his youth, Charlie would spend nights in either Paseo or Swope Park in Kansas City playing in the open. "Effergee Ware, a guitarist, coached a whole group of us, teaching us cycles, chords, and progressions. We would sit in the park, practising all night", remembered Gene Ramey. Buddy Collette also suggested that the moniker, 'yardbird' stemmed from this time, as Charlie would wake up early, (or most probably had been out all night), and go to the park to practice: a dawn chorus.
There are many references in available literature stating how Charlie would sit in with any band or group of musicians, wherever and whenever there was an opportunity. There are many recordings of him playing in hotel rooms and at private parties, and there are many stories of being booked in one club and walking down the street and playing again in another one. He would play every chance he got, day or night, however, as JO Jones' quote above suggests, it was when he was not playing that caused the musician the most frustration. As Jones suggests, this inclined the young musician to seek a way of relieving the ache of yearning to play. The obvious obsession Charlie had for playing would have created a tremendous pressure on him when not playing and therefore should be seen as the major cause of his experimentation with drugs and ultimate addiction.
Of course this is, in part, a simplified notion of what caused Charlie to use drugs. There are numerous causes of drug addiction; social, psychological, physical reasons, and any or all of these almost certainly also influenced him. But there are certain events in any life that can, in retrospect, be seen as turning points. Commentators have suggested that the car accident at Halloween in 1936 may have been such a turning point. Left in bed using prescribed morphine to kill the pain, (he also had a pillow full of marijuana!) would not only been in great discomfort, but he would also have been unable to play the saxophone. In Carl Woideck's book, Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, the author transcribes a telephone call to Rebecca where she talks about this period of his life. "But he saw the doctor in the third month [of recuperation], in Kansas, and he told him - well, this was after, he didn't but I learned it afterwards - he had to take the heroin to ease the pain of his spine and his ribs. That's what he had to take. So, he didn't use it until July, 1937…He [the doctor] said, [..], Charlie has to take the heroin to kill the pain from his ribs and his spine". The doctor obviously hasn't had much experience of addiction as he also advised her to feed Charlie lots of greasy food? Whether or not this is a turning point for Charlie is unclear, but the accident is almost certainly significant and probably taught Charlie how to use drugs intravenously
His father's alcoholism may also be a contributory factor in Charlie's own alcoholism? Among other things, Charlie used alcohol to help him deal with the heroin withdrawal symptoms and several times during his life, either by choice or by circumstance, Charlie stopped taking heroin and substituted alcohol or any other number of narcotics in an attempt to remove the 'monkey' from his back.
Heroin has always been thought of as the main reason Charlie Parker died at such an early age. Heroin addiction amongst jazz musicians did become a problem in the period of Charlie's life and there is a suggestion that he set an example that others followed in an attempt to scale the musical heights he reached. In Gidden's video, Roy Porter says, "During that time, heroin was the thing. And if Bird got high, all musicians and fans figured that was the thing to do." However, the use of narcotics before Charlie became addicted was widespread, and one can imagine that in Pendergast's Kansas City anything was available from a wide variety of sources. As Doris said, "Let's not let anyone kid about that. He didn't invent addiction - everything he did has been done many times before, even the destruction."
At his death, Charlie looked far older than his meagre 34 years and it is famously recorded that the doctor attending the corpse, estimated the body to be that of a 53 year-old man, sometimes older, depending on whom you read. Heroine poisoned his body, but so did the alcohol and various other narcotics that keep him where he wanted to be mentally and physically. But Charlie also chain-smoked Camel cigarettes and used copious amounts of marijuana when younger. (Current medical research suggests that use of marijuana at a young age can cause schizophrenia later in life, and medical records from Belleview Hospital in New York confirm he displayed 'latent' or 'undifferentiated schizophrenia'). His weight fluctuated suggesting poor dietary habits and medical records indicate that he was also treated for syphilis at least once during the last ten years of his life. He had a peptic ulcer, which bled on occasion, and later suffered from pneumonia more than once. It is obvious that all these elements contributed to Charlie's early death, but most critics focus mainly on the heroin and alcohol.
It isn't clear when Charlie start using drugs, or when he started using intravenously, and perhaps it really isn't important in the overall view of his life, however, it doesn't help when critics and commentators alter statements such as these variations of a famous Parker quote;
"I began dissipating as early as 1932, when a friend of the family introduced me to heroin. I woke up one morning very soon after that, feeling terribly sick and not knowing why. The panic was on."
And this version:
"I began dissipating as early as 1932, when I was only twelve years old; three years later a friend of the family introduced me to heroin. I woke up one morning very soon after that, feeling terribly sick and not knowing why. The panic was on".
Although Charlie may have occasionally been guilty of hyperbole, this is probably one occasion where he the misreporting of dates lay firmly at the hands of critics with a vested interest in making the memory of Charlie as interesting, and therefore as profitable, as possible. However, in another interview with Downbeat magazine in 1949, it says, "He told us that while he was still a young boy in Kansas City he was offered some (dope) in a men's room by a stranger when he hardly knew what is was."
In another interview, Charlie recounted his first hard drug experience to bassist William 'Buddy' Jones, who met Parker in Kansas City around 1942: "Getting high for the first time at fifteen, Bird told me what he felt. He pulled out $1.30, which was all he had and was worth more in those days and he said, 'Do you mean there's something like this in this world? How much of it will this buy?'" Tutty Clarkin said, "When I first knew Charlie, he was getting high on nutmeg…From nutmeg Bird went to Benzedrine inhalers. He's break them open and soak the in wine. Then he smoked tea and finally got hooked on heroin"
The dancer, Baby Lawrence claimed to be the person who first turned Charlie on to junk. From George Wein's book, Myself Among Others, "Someone noted how Charlie Parker's habit has led an entire generation of musicians to heroin. At that moment, Baby Lawrence proudly chimed in: "And I was the one who turned on Charlie Parker!" He explained that he had introduced Bird to junk in Kansas City, years before […] There's no way of knowing whether this story is true. Baby Lawrence believed it to be, wearing then dubious distinction like a badge of honour."
It is obvious that the real truth of exactly when Charlie began using drugs may never be known. There have been attempts to pin point the age when Charlie's drug use began, but some are not entirely convincing. His first wife, Rebecca states that he could not have been using intravenous drugs at high school because regular blood tests were carried out for venereal disease and pregnancy. If Parker were using intravenous narcotics at this time, they would have been discovered. Rebecca isn't clear about the age a student could be before qualifying for theses tests, but it is probably unlikely that any school authority would sanction tests for venereal diseases or pregnancy on students under the age of 15, the age Charlie was when he left school. Rebecca was also two years senior to Charlie, so she would have been seventeen when she graduated, probably a more acceptable age for the blood tests. Also, by the time Charlie was the same age as Rebecca when she graduated, he would have been out of school for two years, and beyond the jurisdiction of the school authorities. Therefore, using these high school tests as a basis to argue that Charlie wasn't using heroine at school less than convincing. Also, rather pedantically, if Charlie were already using intravenous drugs, then the track marks in the arm of a student would probably be visible and a would hardly go unnoticed.
Also, in Gidden's book, Rebecca apparently states the date when Charlie first started using intravenously. She describes the scene of a 17-year-old Charlie injecting himself, and the shock she felt seeing him do this for the first time. However, the scene she relates does not describe a novice drug-taker. The scene she depicts is of someone who knows what they are doing, who can carry out the ritual quickly and without mess. Why he wanted her to see him perform this rite is not clear, but this scene only reveals that Charlie was using intravenously by this time, yet it does not indicate a start date. What this scene does clearly suggest is that Rebecca had little knowledge of Charlie's activities, and this also refers to her lack of knowledge of Charlie's musical development. Charlie was away a lot and the habit that he appears to be presenting to her for the first time is an act he had obviously been practising previously.
It would probably be safe to say that Charlie's first experience of drugs would have been with marijuana, which was still legal at the time. However, it carried a stigma, and was considered highly objectionable in most circles. In 1935, the St. Louis Star-Times ran a near hysterical campaign for the criminalisation of marijuana and so successful were they that the act was passed in 10 days and marijuana was outlawed in Missouri. This probably would have had little effect in Pendergast's Kansas City, perhaps just adding some cache to the drug. But the writing was on the wall, and nationwide criminalisation of the drug occurred two years later in 1937, but Missouri was one of the first states to take a step against narcotics in this way. However, the years prior to the law meant that Charlie had access to legal marijuana and this is confirmed by Addie; "A girl in town here start Charles on reefer stuff. […] I found some in his pockets. "What in the world is this stinking stuff?" I said. Charles smiled and said, "Don't destroy any of that, Mama, it's too good". It is also obvious from this statement that Addie is not only aligning herself with popular public opinion about marijuana but is also emphasising this by a rather unconvincing disassociation, and pretended ignorance of the drug. However, Charlie's request to his mother begs the suggestion that she had perhaps destroyed some inferior 'stuff' previously.
As hard as Addie tries, her chapter in Reisner's book is strewn with references to drugs and their effects. "They bought a boy into the hospital. They had to tie him down. They put a thick strap acros(s) his chest. The doctor's didn't know what it was, but I knew what it was and wouldn't tell. I just told them it'll take three days, and then he'll be alright". Although Addie didn't become a nurse until 1949, one must assume therefore that her experience of these withdrawal symptoms must have occurred before then, but when is unclear.
There is a tendency for the Charlie Parker advocate to underplay the drug aspect of his life and this bias extends to his family and his biographers, (excluding Ross Russell!). Admirers don't like to think of their hero being a junkie, panicking about the next fix, injecting junk into his body, etc, etc. Unfortunately this was probably the case. Yet the advocates tend to juxtapose this against the music, the technique, the invention, all while there was this 'monkey' clinging to his back. This is part of the enigma of Charlie Parker: his ability to create under adverse circumstances, a troubled genius. However, heroin dependence in certain conditions simply allows the addict to function normally, it is only the withdrawal that causes the erratic, desperate behaviour.
Therefore it must be assumed that for most of the time, Charlie functioned normally and was able to create and play until the need arose, as it inevitably would. As Gidden's states, "As dozens of younger musicians would soon learn, heroin was a sedative that relieved the stimulation of staying up all night every night". It is probable that Charlie, for the most part, dealt with his addiction with no detriment of his playing or composing. It is the bad behaviour that most biographers' focus on, yet by doing this they are perhaps diminishing the catalogue of work.
There are many stories told by friends and acquaintances about Charlie's drug use and his addiction to heroine, and some are true or partly true, other fabrication, but Gerry Mulligan's memory contains some common themes. "He kept drugs away from me, but after we'd spent a lot of time together, he injected himself in my presence and said, 'This is something that I have to do. It's terrible but I'm stuck with it.' It was terrifying to watch my hero doing that. He made it as revolting as possible, as though it were a lecture on what not to do." Rowland Greenburg has a similar tale; "…he kept talking all the time about drugs. Booze is all right, if you're careful, and if you eat enough. I eat a lot, all the time. But drugs - taboo!"
Charlie never advocated the use of drugs at any point in his life. In a famous interview he said: "Any musician who says he is playing better on tea, the needle, or when he is juiced, is a plain, straight liar. When I get too much to drink I can't even finger well, let alone play decent ideas. And, in the days when I was on the stuff, I may have thought I was playing better, but listening to some of the records now, I know I wasn't. Some of these smart kids who think you have to be completely knocked out to be a good hornman are just plain crazy. It isn't true. I know, believe me. That way you can miss the most important years of your life, the years of possible creation."
There is no need to repeat all the stories of Charlie's excesses here, as by repeating them is to add an element of truth to an already debatable list of events recalled by numerous friends and acquaintances, all of whom derive some form of sensational reflected fame from their personal experiences with Charlie. There is no doubt that Charlie struggled with life during the times when he was not playing music. Towards the end, he probably began to doubt himself and his abilities, which would also contribute to his difficulty managing his day-to-day existence.
As an aside, in the 1950's the study of addiction was in its infancy. There was one analyst who believed it was the type of jazz you played that dictated what drugs you took, that if you played traditional jazz you were far less likely to become addicted to heroin because traditional was 'square' music, and modern jazz was 'hip' and the essence of being 'hip' was not to be 'square'.