Charlie Parker has been idolized by generations of jazz musicians and fans. Indeed, his spectacular musical abilities — his blinding speed and brilliant improvisational style — made Parker a legend even before his tragic death at age thirty-four.
In Chasin’ The Bird, Brian Priestley tells Parker’s life story, from his Kansas City childhood to his final harrowing days in New York. Priestley offers new insight into Parker’s career, beginning as a teenager single-mindedly devoted to mastering the saxophone, to his first trip to New York, where he washed dishes for $9.00 a week at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, a favorite hangout of the great pianist Art Tatum, whose stunning speed and ingenuity were an influence on the young musician.
Priestley sheds light on Parker’s collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, Mary Lou Williams, and Thelonious Monk, and he illuminates such classic recordings as “Salt Peanuts” and “A Night in Tunisia” and Parker’s own compositions “Shaw ‘Nuff” and “Yardbird Suite” — music which defined an era.
Priestley also gives us an unflinching look at Parker’s dark side — the drug abuse, heavy drinking, and tangled relations with women and the law. He recounts the death of Parker’s daughter Pree, who was only two-and-a-half years old, and Parker’s own death at thirty-four, in such wretched condition that the doctor listed his age as fifty-three.#
In a February, 2006 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita, Priestley discusses the life of Charlie Parker.
photo by Pete Armstrong; Driggs Collection
Charlie Parker and Gene Ramey, Kansas City, 1940
“Everything had a musical significance for him. He’d hear dogs barking, for instance, and he would say it was a conversation — and if he was blowing his horn he would have something to play that would portray that thought to us. When we were riding the car between jobs we might pass down a country lane and see the trees and some leaves, and he’d have some sound for that. And maybe some girl would walk past on the dance floor while he was playing, and something she might have would give him an idea for something to play on his solo. As soon as he would do that, we were all so close we’d all understand just what he meant.”
– Gene Ramey
KoKo , by Charlie Parker
JJM You originally published this book in 1984 under the title Charlie Parker. In the preface to the 2005 edition, you wrote, “My own leanings toward composition and arrangement (and the consequent work of not wanting to throw away anything) led me to preserve virtually all of my first text — except where it has since turned out to be inaccurate — and add new layers, more akin to overdubbing than improvising.” What was inaccurate in the 1984 edition?
BP It is probably the case of more details. For instance, there is some confusion concerning the chronology of some of Parker’s movements during the forties. It is still not clear even now, to some extent, exactly when he left Jay McShann’s band, and how long he had been back in Kansas City after stopping off in New York, or when it was that Billy Eckstine tried to reach him about joining his big band. Dates are a bit hard to come by in that particular period.
JJM So when you suggest that things may have been inaccurate in the book’s first edition, you are saying these were fairly trivial issues…
BP I think so, yes. I don’t remember having any major re-think about aspects of his career or achievements. There may be slight differences in emphasis, but I wasn’t aware of any major inaccuracy.
JJM When did you first understand the importance of Charlie Parker’s music?
BP I suppose that was a process that came to me during my late teenage years. As I also explain in the preface that you quote me from, I wasn’t aware of Charlie Parker until his death, when I heard somebody play a track of his on BBC Radio. I am sure that was the first time I actually heard him. If I heard anything of his before, it had not gotten through to me. In the subsequent years, when I was a teenager, I got to know other musicians in the Manchester, England area — where I grew up — who tried to play the same sort of music Parker did. I knew someone who played the alto saxophone, and he had a lot of Charlie Parker records, so it gradually sank in that he was somebody who was not only good to listen to, but who had been significant in the development of jazz music to that point.
JJM Were you into Lester Young before Parker, or, were there others you recall having an interest in?
BP I was born in 1940, and I had some background in classical music, so the first things I could appreciate were post-bebop west coast jazz, as well as some of the New York groups of the mid-fifties like the Modern Jazz Quartet. I could get a handle on understanding this music rather than just feeling it or being drawn to it in some way. It was a slight step backwards chronologically to take on people like Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and then finding out about people before them like Lester Young or Coleman Hawkins, and then again before them, Louis Armstrong. So, I was learning about jazz backwards.
JJM Parker’s father, Charles Parker, Sr., was a railroad porter who Parker seldom saw. Consequently, his mother Addie raised him pretty much on her own, in a home he shared with John Parker, the son of his father and a white woman. What led to his interest in music?
BP That question is quite difficult to answer. In Ross Russell’s book, Bird Lives!: The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker, he implies there was a piano in the Parker household, but this is really just guesswork, so we don’t know this for sure. So, it is likely that he found out about music in a fairly sidelong way. The absence of any statement about his getting some kind of musical input directly from his father in the few interviews he did tells a lot. I believe he heard music in school when he was still attending school, and met other people there who were into playing — some of whom he continued to play with after he dropped out of school. Then he started hanging around the nightclubs, taking in a lot of music just by using his brilliant ear.
JJM As a young man, he often went to the clubs of Kansas City alone. He had a lot of freedom as a child
BP Part of what we know about his childhood comes from one of the only interviews done with his mother after his death. In order to keep the family afloat financially during the early depression years, she worked late nights as a cleaner and even took on lodgers, so I suppose she either turned a blind eye to the fact that Charlie, in his very early teens, would be going out on the town, or she did know about it and almost condoned it in some way.
JJM He also apparently sang in the school choir as a young boy. Did he ever sing in public after that?
BP Not in public, and not apart from the three syllables on the vocal to “Salt Peanuts .” I don’t think singing ever really grabbed him, whereas playing music in the school marching band did. In an interview late in his life, he complained humorously that it wasn’t very much fun playing certain horn parts in marching band arrangements, because he was just playing backing harmonies. But that probably cultivated his ear for music, and it gave him an idea about expressing himself. It isn’t likely that he felt the same way about vocal parts.
JJM One of his heroes was Lester Young, and stories are told about how he would sneak into the Reno Club and hustle up the stairs into the balcony to hear him play with Count Basie’s band. What sort of impact did Lester Young have on Parker?
BP He must have been impressed by the fact that Lester was all about music. He had a personality, but it was a deliberately reticent personality unless he was socializing around other musicians, whom we have learned he was more open with. But it seems Lester didn’t make the time to relate to the general public — even in the clubs where the early Basie band was playing, or even with people who would be from the same social background. That may have influenced Parker to some extent.
Regarding his musical influence, even as a very young man he must have realized that Lester Young was a key musician on the Kansas City scene at the time, and a key component of that early Basie band. He sounded different from any other saxophonists Parker was hearing through records and radio broadcasts. At one point in the late thirties he said that his favorite saxophonist was Leon “Chu” Berry, who was the star player in the Cab Calloway band, and in fact, Parker named his son after Berry. Because he was already listening to music widely, he must have realized how special and how different Lester Young was, and that may have inspired him to seek an equivalent level of individuality.
JJM In 1949, the journalists Michael Levin and John S. Wilson said that Charlie Parker, “…discovered jazz, heavily disguised as Rudy Vallee.” What was that all about?
BP I have some reservations about how true that is. The story is that the first music Charlie admitted to noticing on radio broadcasts was that of Vallee, the white singer and saxophonist who was very big in the late twenties and early thirties. I suppose it figures that he would have heard him on the radio because he was one of the mainstream, popular artists of the day. But it did strike me that in some other later interview segments, Parker talked about having heard the saxophone playing of the twenties by another white musician named Rudy Wiedoeft — who it is said Vallee changed his first name from Hubert to Rudy in his honor — and I wonder if Levin and Wilson may have possibly gotten those guys mixed up.
JJM Of a famous jam session Parker participated in during the summer of 1936 that ultimately changed his life, you wrote, “He went so far as to sit in with the major-league men of the Basie band, doubtless with some nodded encouragement from Lester Young. But Basie’s recently returned drummer, Jo Jones, knew of Parker at least by reputation and, waiting till Charlie had just taken off on his solo flight, gunned him down in no uncertain manner, with a make-believe weapon reminiscent of the famous amateur-night verdicts at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Lost in concentration on the music, Charlie was abruptly halted by the resounding crash of the drummer’s cymbal thrown at his feet. ‘It fell with a deafening sound,’ said Charlie’s future colleague Gene Ramey, a fellow participant at this sesson, ‘and Bird, in humiliation, packed up his instrument and left.'” The ridicule he felt ultimately led to a self-imposed exile for three months. What do you know about this three month period, during which time he lived in Eldon, Missouri?
BP It is something that he talked about specifically in a 1950 interview with Marshall Stearns and John Maher, and it was also mentioned in Inside Bebop, a late-forties book by Leonard Feather that featured some biographical information about musicians he was writing about. The interview Parker did with Stearns and Maher seems to take a lot of its cues from Feather’s book because when they asked Parker about his time in Missouri, one of the interviewers said, to paraphrase, that Leonard Feather said you spent a summer season of three months playing in the Ozarks.
As far as we know, this time was spent with the Kansas City bandleader George E. Lee, who was very popular in the early twenties. Lee’s sister Julia played in his original band, but I believe she had gone out as a solo by then, and her brother was picking up local musicians for a particular engagement — or in this case for a summer season. So, Charlie was working with other comparative youngsters who knew what they were doing harmonically, particularly the piano player and the guitar player. Up to that point he was probably doing everything by ear, and because he had such a good ear had progressed a long way, but, he may have run up against a brick wall if he didn’t have input from people who could actually show him how things worked on the piano. At this time, apparently, Parker picked up some ability to work out his ideas on the piano. While not much has been made of this, it has been confirmed by people like Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach that Charlie knew his way around the piano keyboard by this time in his life.
JJM He must have done a lot of work in Eldon, because when he came back to Kansas City, he was a much improved player — good enough to eventually join Jay McShann’s band. Whose playing was even remotely close to Parker’s in Kansas City at this time?
BP Dates are a bit hard to be absolutely specific about, but one of the people that Charlie Parker worked with in that period immediately following his return from the summer season in the Ozarks was Buster Smith, a local alto saxophonist and arranger who had been a member of the early Basie band. There are one or two short bits of Smith on record in the late thirties and in 1940, playing with other Kansas City-based musicians — one of whom was the pianist Pete Johnson. Even though he only played three or four short solos, Buster Smith’s playing sounds like an early version of what we associate with Charlie Parker.
JJM Did he face much criticism while he was a member of McShann’s band?
BP Because he was a member of a band that played the popular big band style of the time, he was pretty well accepted by the other band members — as well as everybody who heard him. If you mean criticism in the negative sense, I think that only came up later. The people who heard him in the context of the Jay McShann band were all very impressed, to the point where somebody compared him to what Lester Young had done for the Basie band. So, he felt he was the equivalent of Young, and that he was playing like Lester Young, but twice as fast.
JJM So, the criticism of his work didn’t really come until after he returned to Kansas City from New York?
BP I think that is the case, yes.
JJM An influential Kansas City based Downbeat writer, Dave Dexter, was not particularly a fan of Parker’s
BP I wouldn’t want to emphasize this too much, but from what I gather, Dexter didn’t get along well personally with Parker, and he was an early example of the sort of person Parker himself didn’t have much time for because he felt Dexter had too high of an opinion of himself. Parker made this clear to him and played practical jokes on him, and forever after, Dave Dexter’s comments about Charlie Parker were fairly mean-spirited. But in the very early days, he wrote enthusiastically about the Jay McShann Band, and didn’t exclude Parker from his praise in any way.
JJM Parker left McShann’s band — and Kansas City — for New York, where he ended up working at a restaurant called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where Art Tatum played piano
BP His motivation was to see what it was like in New York. I don’t think he was particularly dissatisfied about working in Kansas City with McShann, although if you read some of the interviews with McShann himself, he and some of those in his band were already having problems with Parker because of his unreliability. So, it may be that Parker felt it was time for a change of scenery, and New York and its music offered that. He didn’t do much playing while he was there, partly because of the union restrictions for musicians who moved to New York, and partly because he may have underestimated how high the level of musicianship was there. As a result, on that very first New York trip of several months, he didn’t do very much playing.