Monday, October 20, 2014

Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Toby Byron/Multiprises, Pioneer Artists, Sony Video Software Company, 1987)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2014 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Recently Charles and I screened Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, a 1987 documentary on the fabled jazz musician Charlie Parker, a.k.a. “Yardbird,” a.k.a. “Bird,” which I’d wanted to see as a follow-up to the 1996 film Improvisation because between them the two contain the only extant footage of Parker in action. Celebrating Bird contains the one film known to exist of Charlie Parker actually playing in real time — a DuMont network telecast of a program called Stage Entrance from February 24, 1952. He and his equally legendary — but quite a bit longer-lived — partner, trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, perform Tadd Dameron’s “Hot House” (a bebop original based, like quite a lot of other bop tunes, on the chords of a standard — in this case, Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love?”) with an all-white rhythm section: Dick Hyman on piano, Sandy Block on bass and Charlie Smith on drums. None of these were major bebop stars, and Hyman was actually more identified with ragtime and Dixieland than modern jazz, though he was a good enough musician to deliver a competent and professional piano solo. I can vividly remember the sense of occasion that surrounded this clip when I first saw it: in 1977, at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco as part of their second annual program of “Jazz in the Movies.” The “Hot House” clip was shown on the very last night of the festival, and it wasn’t announced in advance because its existence hadn’t been known when the programs for the series were first printed — but as the night was about to begin an announcer came out and told us we were about to see something very special: a newly rediscovered film that was the only audio-visual record of Charlie Parker playing. For those of us who’d been too young to see him live (I was 1 ½ when Parker died) and had thought the experience of seeing Charlie Parker play was one we’d never have, it was a galvanic shock as we realized just what we were about to see.

The clip was a pretty ordinary piece of performance television for 1952 but at least it had the advantage of being a straight-on kinescope recording of a live TV broadcast, with Bird and Dizzy playing in real time. There seems to be some confusion as to where this show originated; I got the personnel from an online Dizzy Gillespie discography ( that gave the February 24, 1952 date and said the show was from New York City, but the credits on Celebrating Bird merely give the year and identify the locale as Newark, New Jersey. Celebrating Bird overall was a good if not definitive hour-long vest-pocket tribute to Parker as musician — and it’s woefully represented on, which lists only two of the people shown in the movie (Parker himself and Los Angeles-based alto saxophonist Frank Morgan, a contemporary and acolyte of Parker who got busted on drug charges, served a long prison sentence, was released in the early 1980’s and hailed as a living throwback to the original bebop era the way Magda Olivero was acclaimed as a living throwback to the verismo opera era when she was rediscovered in the 1970’s) on their “cast” list and doesn’t have a “soundtrack” list for the film at all. Producer Toby Byron (an old high-school acquaintance of mine who, ironically, first heard of Charlie Parker from yours truly — and another guy we went to school with, Richard Saylor, is among the people listed in the “thanks” section of the show) and director Gary Giddins (who also wrote the film, at least nominally based on a biography of Parker he had published, also called Celebrating Bird) did the best they could given the paucity of actual film of Parker available to them: just the DuMont “Hot House” and a silent clip of Parker blowing which they synchronized as best they could to Parker’s records — including, ironically, “Ballade,” a haunting ballad performance by Parker and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins recorded by Norman Granz.

The irony is that “Ballade” and “Celebrity,” another performance by the same group (Parker, alto sax; Hank Jones, piano; Ray Brown, bass; Buddy Rich, drums) but without Hawkins, are the two songs Parker played on the 1950 Gjon Mili film Granz produced, but which was never released until 1996 and which eventually became part of the Improvisation DVD — but at the time Celebrating Bird was made the footage of Parker post-synchronizing to “Celebrity” and “Ballade” was still moldering in Granz’ vaults and thereby unavailable to Giddins and Byron. Besides Parker himself (in whatever film clips survive, a plethora of still photos and, at the end, a brief radio interview with jazz disc jockey “Symphony Sid” Torin promoting his latest record in 1950, “Leap Frog” b/w “Relaxin’ with Lee” from the Bird and Diz LP with Thelonious Monk, piano; Ray Brown, bass; and an overly loud and inappropriate Buddy Rich on drums, that shows Parker’s speaking voice to have been surprisingly literate and, as Charles noted, not particularly Black-sounding) and Morgan, the film also featured interviews with Parker’s first and fourth wives — Rebecca Davis and Chan Richardson, respectively — as well as Dizzy Gillespie, Jay McShann (with whose Kansas City band Parker made his first known recordings, broadcast transcriptions from Wichita, Kansas in 1940[1], as well as his first commercial records in Dallas in 1941), jazz critic Leonard Feather, pianist Roy Porter (who played on the disastrous “Lover Man” recording session for Dial in Los Angeles in 1946 that took place on the day Parker had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental institution) and drummer Roy Haynes (who joined the Charlie Parker Quintet in 1948, replacing the great Max Roach, and at least according to his own comment here took the job as a temporary replacement for Roach but Parker liked him so much he kept him on even when Roach was available again).

The film claims that Charlie Parker was actually born in Kansas City, Kansas, but his parents moved to the far larger city on the other side of the state line, Kansas City, Missouri, when he was still a boy. Parker’s dad, a Black vaudeville performer, had little or no interaction with him, and he was raised by his doting mother Addie (just as Louis Armstrong, who’d had the same towering effect on jazz in the 1920’s Parker had in the 1940’s, was raised by his beloved mom Mayann after his dad deserted their family and ultimately drank himself to death). Rebecca Parker Davis recalls that she and her family were houseguests of the Parkers, and when they moved out she continued to see Charlie even though her family thought she could do better, and they married and had a son, Leon (named after the great and tragically short-lived 1930’s tenor saxophonist Leon “Chu” Berry, who died in a car crash in 1941), until Parker decided to try his luck in New York City in 1939 and asked Rebecca to divorce him so he could make the trip unencumbered by a wife and son. Parker washed out on that first New York stint — he ended up washing dishes in a club called Jimmy’s Chicken Shack, where the only fringe benefit was getting to hear Jimmy’s entertainer, the fabulous pianist Art Tatum — though he recalled years later that he’d jammed at Jimmy’s with a guitarist named Biddy Fleet (though on the Internet I found a post by Fleet’s son claiming that his dad and Parker played together many times, including paying gigs as well as jam sessions). As Parker explained it, he had been hearing a sound in his head that he hadn’t been able actually to play, and one night, while he and Fleet were playing Ray Noble’s pop song “Cherokee,” Parker realized that “by using the higher intervals of the chord as a melody line and backing them up with appropriately related changes, I could play this thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.” Parker returned to Kansas City, briefly played with Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy — a decade-old and well-established band — but washed out quickly and was hired by the younger, hungrier McShann group.

Back in New York in 1942, he met Gillespie and the other young jazz radicals who were jamming at clubs like Minton’s Playhouse and Clark Monroe’s Uptown House and also working on a new form of jazz that would build on extended harmonies, faster tempi and sophisticated melody lines. Dizzy welcomed Parker as a brother and formed one of those intriguing partnerships that have advanced the history of jazz — a brilliant but flighty and irresponsible musician (Bix Beiderbecke, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Parker) teaming up with a more solid, grounded, responsible one (Frank Trumbauer, Stéphane Grappelli, Dizzy Gillespie) who got him to gigs, kept him clean and sober enough to play, and worked his contacts to get them both jobs. Celebrating Bird touches — inevitably — on Parker’s lifelong heroin addiction, a habit he supposedly got into when he was involved in a car accident in Kansas City in 1936 and which Rebecca found out about a year later when — without any explanation — he called her into their bedroom and shot up in front of her. (The accident also had a more positive effect on Parker’s life: he got an insurance settlement from it which he used to buy himself a new Selmer saxophone, the first quality instrument he’d ever been able to afford.) The film also mentions that largely because Parker used it, heroin became “cool” among the early beboppers (“bebop” became the genre name for the new jazz Parker, Gillespie and their comrades played), though — contrary to the accusations of some writers — there is no evidence that Parker himself ever encouraged any other musician to become a heroin user. Quite the contrary: a lot of musicians recall Parker warning them away from drug use, saying in essence, “Don’t screw up your life the way I’ve screwed up mine” — but, alas, all too many ended up doing as Parker did rather than as he said. Indeed, in the film Frank Morgan rather ruefully recalls that when he and his fellow L.A. musicians heard that Parker had died (in 1955, at age 34, in such a state of premature aging that the doctor who viewed his body and signed the death certificate put down his age as mid-50’s), they commemorated the occasion and expressed their grief by … scoring heroin and shooting up. Looking back on it, Morgan wonders why they didn’t respond to Bird’s death by getting themselves off the drug that had killed him — but that wasn’t the jazz mind-set of the time.

Celebrating Bird has its lacunae — Parker’s second and third wives are totally missing from the dramatis personae, so when Chan explains that she lost control of Parker’s funeral arrangements because “I didn’t have a wedding ring” we aren’t given any clue as to why — because when he started living with her he hadn’t bothered to divorce his third wife, Doris Sydnor, and so she was his legal widow and she won control of his estate. It was Doris who dictated that Parker’s body be sent home to Kansas City to be buried with his relatives — Parker had been so embittered about his origins he never wanted to go back there, alive or dead — and she gave him a generic funeral at Adam Clayton Powell’s church in Harlem with a non-jazz organist sending him out with Sir Arthur Sullivan’s “The Lost Chord.” Parker’s friend, the blind white pianist Lennie Tristano, had volunteered to play Parker’s music on the organ during the service, but he was turned down. Indeed, Parker’s funeral became such an infamous travesty in the jazz world that when John Coltrane was on his deathbed in 1967, he told both his wife and his record producer, Bob Thiele, he wanted Ornette Coleman and Albert Ayler to perform at his funeral (which was done). Celebrating Bird is as good a movie as could be expected given that it was only an hour long and almost no film footage of Parker performing existed — there’s a bit of the reverse racism that’s become the mainstream view of jazz history in Giddins’ introduction (delivered by narrator Ted Ross) to the 1952 TV clip, saying that co-host Earl Wilson (a Broadway columnist and lifelong friend of Frank Sinatra until they broke bitterly over a 1974 book Wilson published about Sinatra) seemed patronizingly racist in his introduction. To me, Wilson just seemed nervous about presenting a racially mixed band — two Black musicians in the front line and three whites in the rhythm section — to a 1952 TV audience, so he took refuge in some stock remarks about the jazz world being colorblind (which it really wasn’t — not anywhere near as much as Wilson made it sound, anyway). The “Hot House” clip, complete with its introduction by Wilson and co-host Leonard Feather, is reason enough for any jazz fan to want this DVD.

[1] — Though a discography at lists an even earlier one, an amateur recording of “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Body and Soul” played by Parker without accompaniment in Kansas City in 1937.