One night in 1937, a teenage musician called Charlie Parker joined a queue of players waiting to jam onstage at Kansas City’s Reno Club … Parker thought his moment had come, 16 years old or not. He had been practicing an improv method of his own, deploying keys rarely used in jazz tunes, and modulating between them to free up new ways of phrasing—and he’d bought a new Selmer saxophone.

After a promising start, though,  Parker lost the tune, and then the beat. [Count Basie Orchestra drummer Jo] Jones stopped, and Parker froze … Jones contemptuously threw a cymbal at his feet, and the reverberations were followed by the sound of laughter and catcalls. Explaining his perspective on the gaffe, Bird said:

“I knew a little of ‘Lazy River’ and ‘Honeysuckle Rose,’ and played what I could  … I was doing all right until I tried doing double tempo on ‘Body and Soul.’ Everybody fell out laughing. I went home and cried and didn’t play again for three months.”

Thankfully, the humbling experience didn’t keep Parker down; like the many drop-outs and intellectual rejects of note who went on to shape the world as we know it, Bird was able to bounce back from his humiliation and reach unprecedented heights of musicianship. Literary critic Harold Bloom one said: “[If] God appeared in 19th Century America, it was as Ralph Waldo Emerson. In the 20th Century it would have been as Charlie Parker.”

Parker died on March 12, 1955, in the suite of his friend and patroness Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter in New York City, while watching the Dorsey Brothers’ Stage Show on television. The official causes of death were  lombar pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, but Parker also had an advanced case of cirrhosis and had suffered a heart attack. The coroner who performed his autopsy mistakenly estimated Parker’s 34-year-old body to be between 50 and 60 years of age.

Since 1950, Parker had been living with Chan Berg, the mother of his son Baird (who lived until 2014)[and his daughter Pree (who died as an infant of cystic fibrosis). He considered Chan his wife although he never married her, nor did he divorce his previous wife, Doris, whom he had married in 1948. His marital status complicated the settling of Parker’s estate and would ultimately serve to frustrate his wish to be quietly interred in New York City.

Parker wished never to return to Kansas City, even in death.He had told Chan that he wanted to be buried in New York, the city he considered his home. Dizzy Gillespie his longtime musical partner and friend paid for the funeral arrangements and organized a lying-in-state, a Harlem procession officiated by Congressman and Reverend Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., as well as a memorial concert.

Parker’s body was flown back to Missouri, in accordance with his mother’s wishes. Parker’s widow criticized the dead man’s family for giving him a Christian funeral even though they knew he was a confirmed  Parker was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Missouri, in a hamlet known as Blue Summit.


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