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The real Charlie Parker: what the movie didn't tell you.

What The Movie Didn't Tell You

FOR a man who only lived 34 years, legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie (Bird) Parker crammed a whole lot of living into a short period of time.

It began when he was growing up in Kansas City, Mo., in the '30s. Obsessed with jazz as a teenager, he would sneak around the city's famed nightclubs at all hours of the night to hear the music tht he loved. He dropped out of school at 15, married at 16, became a professional musician at 17, and was a father at 18.

By the time Parker reached his 20s, he was well on his way to becoming a great jazz artist. He eventually became one of the greatest ever, despite a troubled personal life that was plagued by alcohol and drug abuse. Parker's bad habits took such a toll on his health that when he collapsed and died of lobar pneumonia on March 12, 1955, the physician called to the scene estimated his age at between 50 and 60.

Today, nearly 34 years after his death, Parker is arousing more interest than ever due to the widely discussed movie, Bird. Produced and directed by actor and jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood, it features a critically acclaimed performance by Forest Whitaker in the title role. The film focuses on the last years of Parker's life, including his relationship with his White common-law wife, Chan, and is based on her recollections.

However, some critics and musicians have questioned Eastwood's decision to interpret Parker's life in terms of his relationship with White characters, such as Chan and trumpeter Red Rodney, and to play down the social forces, notably recism, that shaped the saxophonist's life.

The movie also omits some important events in Parker's earlier life and many of the people who were part of tha life--his doting mother, Addie; his childhood sweetheart and first wife, Rebecca, who is Black; his second (late) wife, Geraldine, who was Black; and his third wife, Doris, who is White and whose marriage to Parker was challenged in court; and a number of jazz artists who also knew him well.

Those are the missing links that prompt the question, "Who was the real Charlie Parker?"

First and foremost, he was a brilliant musician who revolutionized jazz. A master of improvisation, Parker played the alto sax as it had never been played before. Jay McShann, the Kansas City bandleader and pianist who hired Parker for his group in 1938, says Parker was so good that, "He not only influenced saxophone players, but influenced trumpet players, bass players, piano players -- everybody."

It was Parker's remarkable talent that made him a star of bebop, the jazz form developed in New York City in the early '40s. Others prominent in the movement included trumpeter Dizzy Gillespi (whose character is featured in Bird), pianists Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and drummers Kenny Clarke and Max Roach. Roach, who played with Parker in the '40s, says the saxophonist continues to influence the music world, not just the jazz world. Says Roach: "He's all over the place."

Roach also remembers Parker as a man who enjoyed life as much as he did music. "You could say that Bird was a person who gave all of himself to just about everything that he did," he says. Though Parker often drank heavily and used heroin, some associates say he kept his bad habits to himself. "He drank, but I never saw him drunk," says Roach. He and Gillespie both say they never saw Parker use drugs.

One person who once witnessed Parker's heroin use early in his life was his first wife Rebecca, now a retired dress designer living in a Los Angeles suburb. She recalls that when Parker was 16, he called her upstairs one night as he was leaving for work and asked her to sit on the bed and look in the mirror. She watched as he plunged a needle into his arm. "I screamed and got up, and I said, 'What are you doing?'" she recalls. "He never said a word. He took that tie off [that he had used as a tourniquet] and put it around his neck. Then he put on his jacket and said, 'I'll see you in the morning.'"

Parker had a big appetite, too. About 5' feet 10", he usually weighed around 160, but his weight sometimes ballooned to 200 pounds. McShann remembers his fondness for Kansas City ribs and chili. Rebecca says he liked anything "greasy". Parker also liked chicken, which is thought to be one of the reasons for his nickname "Yardbird," later shortened to "Bird." McShann says that when he first met the saxophonist, a few people already were calling him by his nickname. The name really stuck after an incident that occurred in 1939 while he, Parker and other band members were traveling to an engagement in Nebraska. McShann recalls that, "The car Bird was riding in hit a chicken and Bird told the driver, 'Go back and pick up that yardbird." When they arrived at the home where they were to stay overnight, McShann says Parker "took this bird into these people's home and asked the lady to cook it, and she did."

Those who knew Parker often expected the unexpected from him. A complex man, he could be wise beyond his years one minute, and playful the next. Parker's oldest son Leon, now 50 and living in a Denver suburb, remembers his father as "this kind of chubby, happy-go-lucky guy." Rebecca Parker, Leon's mother, says she was amazed at how quiet her ex-husband could be at times. "I would be running off at the mouth," she says, "and he would just stare. Then, he'd smile." Gillespie and Roach found Parker to be a warm and intelligent man who seldom had an unkind word to say about anyone, and who was well-read and able to talk about any subject.

Parker was also a "ladies' man" and apparently had a healthy sexual appetite. Rebecca recalls that when their marriage began to sour in the late '30s, Parker often got intimate letters at home from women he had met, and would drive up in front of their house with another woman. Roach, however, says that looking back on Parker's love life, "It didn't seem like Bird had more than his share of women. He always had a woman, but it was Gerri, Doris, then Chan."

Controversy surrounded Parker's marriages. It's a known fact that he was legally married to Rebecca Ruffin and then to Geraldine Scott. In 1948 he wed Doris Snydor, but the legality of that marriage was questioned during a five-year court battle over Parker's estate that began a year and a half after his death in 1955. In 1962, an agreement was reached granting varying portions of estate proceeds to Geraldine, who died in the early '80s; Parker's son, Leon, who is administrator of the estate; Parker's son by Chan, Baird, who now lives on the East Coast; his mother, Addie, who died in 1967; Doris, who lives in New York City, and Rebecca.

CHARLES Parker Jr. was born Aug. 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Kan. His father, Charles Sr., was a singer and dancer who later found work as a Pullman chef. The family moved to nearby Kansas City, Mo., in the late '20s. Always on the go, Charles Sr. left home for good (he was stabbed to death a number of years later). Addie Parker became the breadwinner, working as a domestic and taking in boarders to support her only child. A strong-willed woman who did not allow liquor in her house, Ardie Parker pampered and protected young Charlie.

In 1934, 14-year-old Rebecca Ruffin and her family moved into the second floor of the Parker home. Rebecca says Charlie was more than just spoiled. "He was rotten," she says. "Loving, but rotten." The two youngsters soon began "courting" and married when they were both 16. At the time, Charlie was an aspiring musician without steady work. Rebecca had just completed high school and worked in a library. They lived at home with his mother.

During the next few years, Parker began to mature as a musician. One of his earliest idols was the great tenor saxophonist Lester (Prez) Young, and Parker would spend hours listening to Young's music. Parker played with several Kansas City bands in the late '30s, including McShann's group. McShann first heard Parker play in 1937 when he was passing by a club in the city. "I was definitely impressed," he recalls. "That's why I went inside to see who was playing."

In 1939, Parker decided to branch out and asked Rebecca for permission to leave. "We went into the dining room," she recalls, "and as he was holding my hand he said: 'Rebecca, I need to be free. I believe if I were free I could be a great musician.'" Parker moved to New York City, where his first job was as a dishwasher.

After a few New York gigs, Parker rejoined McShann's band in 1940, and then worked regularly on 52nd Street in New York. He joined the Earl Hines band in 1943 as a tenor sax player. That same year he married Geraldine Scott, a dancer. They were together for less than a year. She later said: "When I met him, all he had was a horn and a habit. He gave me the habit." Parker's next big romance began around 1944 when he met Doris Snydor, a hat check girl at a club on 52nd Street.

During the mid-'40s, Parker and bebop went to the West Coast, and he spent a number of months in Los Angeles. By this time he shared the stage with gifted trumpeter Miles Davis. In July 1946, while suffering from malnutrition and alcoholism, he recorded the now famous "Lover Man." Afterwards, police and firemen were called to Parker's hotel after he appeared in the lobby naked and then somehow set a mattress in his room on fire. He was jailed and admitted to Camarillo State Hospital, where he stayed about six months.

By 1950 Parker had begun a common-law marriage with Chan Richardson, as detailed in the movie. A daughter, Pree, who was born in 1951, died of pneumonia in 1953. Son Baird was born in 1952.

It was also in 1950 that Rebecca Parker and her son, Leon, moved to Inkster, Mich. A year or so later, Leon saw his father for the first time when Parker performed in Detroit. The youngster was about 11 at the time and knew very little about his father since neither his mother nor his grandmother, Addie, ever talked about Charlie Parker.

Leon saw his father sporadically for the next few years. He says that when they were together, Parker would give him advice such as, "Don't ever become a musician unless you really want to." A few years later, Parker surprised his son by giving him a brand new saxophone he had gotten from an instrument company. That same day, however, Parker's unpredictability surfaced. Leon says: "From what I understand, he came back later that evening and picked it up. I never saw that horn again."

During the last years of Parker's life, some of those who knew the musician well seldom saw him. Rebecca Parker's last encounter with her first husband was about nine months before he died when Parker and Chan visited her home in Inkster. She says he took her into the kitchen and said, 'Rebecca, if I had my life to live over again this is what I would want.' He was saying, 'forgive me.'" She adds that, "I knew he was dying."

When Charlie Parker died in 1955, the jazz world mourned one of its most gifted stars. Because his music lives on, it can be said that he is gone, but certainly not forgotten.
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Title Annotation:Clint Eastwood's movie 'Bird'
Author:Marshall, Marilyn
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1989
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