60 years ago, one of the most influential and self-destructive jazz artists pushed his body to the limit and died at the age of 34.
Charlie Parker was in the Stanhope Hotel in New York City on March 12 1955 when he took his last breath. He was in the suite of his patron Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter watching The Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on TV when he suddenly stopped breathing. The British-born Baroness was a patron of the bebop scene and with her wealth she hosted jam sessions in her sprawling hotel suite and financed many musicians such as Parker. In the aftermath of Parker’s demise, the Baroness was asked to vacate the Stanhope hotel by the management.
There were numerous causes of death, including cirrhosis of the liver, pneumonia, a bleeding ulcer and a heart attack. Parker had put his body through so much that the coroner mistakenly though he was aged around 55 years old. Charlie Parker lived the rock and roll lifestyle that brings ultimate excess and, in many famous cases, an early death.
Born in Kansas City in 1920, Parker was the only child of Addie and Charles Parker Sr who proved to be a musical influence on his son. Parker’s father played piano and was a locally known singer and dancer. At the age of 11, Charlie Parker took up the saxophone and from there progressed to become highly influential in the world of jazz where he gave weight to the development of bebop. He became an idol of the Beat Generation which rose to his fast paced sound and ran parallel to his ‘live fast die young’ way of life.
Throughout the 1930s, young Parker’s star was on the rise. He was touring across the states picking up attention at the same time he was picking up bad habits. He acquired a taste for strong liquor but heroin would emerge as the main destructive staple in Parker’s life. It began early in his career. While touring, he was involved in a car accident which saw him spend some time in hospital. Given morphine to dull the pain, Parker would continue to use it after he signed out of hospital.
In 1936, Parker married Rebecca Ruffin but due to his increasingly self-destructive lifestyle, the marriage ended in divorce after just three years. In 194o, ‘Bird’ was born. His signature nickname came about as he was travelling in a car in Missouri with other musicians when they hit a chicken, locally known as a yard bird. Parker laughed off the incident and took the road kill home for supper. Those in the car dubbed him ‘yard bird’. It stuck.
During the 1940s, Parker moved to New York where a new jazz scene was starting to bubble up. Bebop exploded on the New York jazz scene and Parker found himself at the centre of its busy heart. He married Geraldine Scott in 1942 but it wasn’t long before he left her in order to pursue a full time career of jazzing, drinking and drugging. Parker’s name was starting to gather weight in jazz circles and he decided to travel with Dizzy Gillespie to Los Angeles for a series of gigs and to spread his fame to the west coast. The trip would prove disastrous for Parker.
It was 1945 and Parker, along with Gillespie, went to L.A for an eight-week engagement at Billy Berg’s nightclub. When their stint was up, Gillespie went back to New York but the hedonistic Parker sold his train ticket for heroin and chose to stay in L.A to avail of the west coast way of life, albeit through a drug fuelled haze. While there, Parker managed to secure a recording contract but suddenly a heroin shortage occurred along the west coast and he began suffering from severe withdrawal which resulted him not being able to play his saxophone.
After trying and failing to play during a recording session, Parker left the studio and went back to his hotel room. After setting his bed on fire with a lit cigarette, he then ran around the hotel corridors naked. He was arrested and served 10 days in jail on a charge of arson and indecent exposure before being transferred to Camarillo State Hospital.
In 1947 he was released clean and sober, but it wasn’t long before Parker travelled back to New York and fell into his old ways again. One year on, Parker married for a third time, even though it is said that he had failed to legally divorce his second wife. A similar pattern emerged with third wife Doris Snyder when the two went their separate ways less than 12 months into the marriage.
Parker continued to record and play in New York, but his drug habit was starting to wear on his career. When he missed gigs or recording sessions he took to busking on the streets and when he was extremely hard up he would pawn his instruments. When heroin proved hard to procure, Parker took to drinking hard liquor by the gallon load. While recording Charlie Parker on Dial Volume 1, he drank extreme amounts of whiskey but carried on with the recording even though he had to be held up by the record’s producer.
Parker hooked up with Chan Richardson after his failed third marriage and by the dawn of the early 1950s the two were living together as common in law husband and wife. Chan bore the jazz maestro two children and even though they did not marry, she took his last name and became known thereafter as Chan Parker. Her husband was dealt a blow in 1951 when he was arrested for possession of heroin. Parker had his regular run-ins with the law but on this occasion the punishment was severe enough to have his playing permit confiscated. Known as a cabaret card, the permit let Parker play in the jazz clubs around New York but when he was busted for possession, it was revoked and it caused him much distress.
Parker had to tour outside the city limits where he made a miserable living for the next three years until his cabaret card was returned. By this time, his reputation as a drug addict resulted in some club owners banning him from their premises. By 1954 Parker’s self destruct button was worn down. He had tried committing suicide a number of times. In August of that year, Parker’s infant daughter died and he decided he too wanted to take leave of this world. He swallowed a bunch of iodine tablets but his suicide attempt didn’t work, just like the many others he had undertaken previous to that.
He made his last appearance on stage in March 1955 when he played at Birdland, a jazz club in New York that was named in his honour. One week later he was dead. Parker left behind little money as most of it was spent on his addiction but his close friend Dizzy Gillespie agreed to pay for his funeral which included a lying in state in Harlem as well as a memorial concert. His body was then taken to back to Kansas where, in accordance with his mothers wishes, he was laid to rest in Lincoln Cemetery.
Charlie Parker let his personal life spin recklessly out of control but for a long time he did manage to keep a tight rein on his musical career, but as we all know now, that too fell foul of his rock n roll life of excess.