When Charlie Parker, the prodigiously talented alto saxophonist, passed away, his obituary in The New York Times listed his age as “about 53.”
In reality, Parker was only 34.
What created this egregious error? New York Times’ obits are usually spot-on.
The story of Parker’s death is as tragic as much of the rest of his life. As the astute jazz chronicler, Nat Hentoff, wrote: “There have been a number of instances in jazz history of the incandescent hero-as-world-overturning-improviser eventually plunging, like Icarus, into burnt out extinction…but there has been no more daring, dangerous, revolutionary flight than that of Charlie Parker.”
Jazz critic Whitney Balliett put it this way: “Parker…was one of the wonders of 20th century music…he tragically consumed himself, and at the same time he was a demon who presided gleefully over the wreckage of his life.”
Parker’s final journey began on March 9, 1955 when, on the way to a gig in Boston, he stopped off at New York’s posh Stanhope Hotel to visit his friend and patron, Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter.
Leaving his luggage in the car, Parker appeared at the Baroness’ suite in rumpled distress.
She offered him a drink, which he refused, saying that he was on the wagon. He did accept some ice water to “cool” his fiery ulcers — and then promptly began vomiting blood.
Alarmed, the Baroness summoned her physician, Dr. Robert Freymann — the same doctor who later famously lost his license over his liberal use of amphetamine prescriptions for celebrity clients. Freymann immediately urged Parker to enter a hospital; Parker refused, but did agree to remain in the Baroness’ apartment to recover.
A few days later, Parker appeared to be on the mend. He was allowed to sit in the living room to watch Tommy Dorsey’s program on television; suddenly, Parker began choking and, within minutes, was dead.
Although the official cause of his death was pneumonia, a friend more accurately put it, “Charlie died of everything.” Years of alcohol and drug abuse compounded with intemperate habits finally killed him.
So decimated by his life style, Parker’s body appeared to be that of a much older man: 53 was just a guess on the part of the authorities.
But personal chaos will never overshadow the musical legacy Parker left in his wake.
Miles Davis said it well: “you can tell the history of jazz in four words. Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.”
Although “Bird,” as he was nicknamed, is primarily remembered for creating bebop, he mastered the entire Jazz genre.
Balliett described it: “No other saxophonist has achieved as human a sound. It could be edgy, and even sharp…it could be smooth and big and somber. It could be soft and husky…the blues lived in every room of his style.”
Parker had eclectic taste in music; he keenly admired the classical composer, Igor Stravinsky. One memorable evening, Stravinsky and three companions came to see Parker perform live at a nightclub — aware of his presence in the audience, Parker added a portion of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite into one of the numbers, much to the delight of all present.
Charlie Parker was a musical genius — he took his life and his art to the limits. As he said, “if you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn.”
2020 marks Parker’s 100th birthday; it will be celebrated with remastered musical releases, limited edition art works and public performances (COVID permitting). A forum, Bird and Beyond, Celebrating Charlie Parker at 100 took place in January at Lincoln Center — it can viewed here.
Finally, Bird, the 1988 Clint Eastwood film about Parker’s life is showing on Amazon Prime. It’s a bittersweet account which deftly balances his remarkable gifts and his equally remarkable self-destructiveness. The soundtrack is extraordinary: through technical wizardry, Parker’s original mono-recordings are paired with current musicians.
Critics have called the soundtrack his final masterpiece.
Charlie Parker, August 29, 1920 – March 12, 1955. RIP.