The Christie's Auction of Bird's Memorabilia

By Nina Hodgson

"If you'll forgive the pun, Ella Fitzgerald is strictly for 'the Bird'. Yardbird Parker." For $1,619 that scrap of Jazz memorabilia (a Western Union telegram set to Ella Fitzgerald on May 25, 1954 could have been yours. Or you could have taken home Bird's union card ($4,774), a menu from Birdland ($2,046), or a staff-paper manuscript of a "Summertime" arrangement in Bird's handwriting ($6,820).

On September 8, 1994, Jazz history went on the auction block as the Chan Parker Collection was sold at Christie's, the venerable London auction house. More accustomed to dealing in Picasso originals and Greek antiquities than the humble artifacts left behind by a Jazz legend, Christie's was commissioned to sell a number of objects from Chan Parker's personal collection.

The glamor item was lot eighty-three, the cream-colored acrylic Grafton alto that Bird played at the legendary Massey Hall concert in 1953, but the real fascination for Jazz fans lies in the other eighty-some lots sold that day. From recording dates to union beefs to strained finances, the auction catalog contains material never published in full and provides a startlingly intimate look into Bird's genius, his triumphs and failures, his mental decline, and his overwhelming love for Chan. There is also a compelling glimpse into the business of music in the era when bebop was born.

For instance, there are Bird's income tax forms (in 1949 he earned $4,366.67 from Arjay Restaurant Corporation ) and printed-form employment contracts (Arjay paid the band $1,000.00 per week in 1949; Chicago's Blue Note paid $2,500.00 in 1950 but added a forfeiture clause in case Bird failed to show). A letter to the musicians' union from the manager of the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles details a formal complaint against Parker and shows us how Bird's behavior could be an expensive nightmare for a club owner.

Genius can be messy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in a 1947 letter on Dial Records stationery from Ross Russell to Chan in which he tells her that Bird had "ridden just about as far as he can hope to go on the 'screw-ball' genius kick..." According to Russell, Bird was "either on the needle or heavy doses of goof balls." The letter goes on to set the scene behind some famous recording dates, telling us that Bird "did one record date for Dial that was tremendous;;;Shortly after this date (April) he began to slip...At Charlie's request I moved up a scheduled recording date and the result may be heard on Lover Man and Bebop. He collapsed completely after Bebop." Soon afterwards, Bird was committed to Camarillo State Hospital as "Alcoholically insane, whatever that may mean," as Russell puts it.

"He's had a habit since he was fifteen," Chan replies in a letter to Russell one week later. But while he was on the West Coast, Bird apparently made an attempt to go straight. "The time he was working at the Finale [a club in Los Angeles]...he practically carried a briefcase," she continues. Towards the end of the letter, Chan gives a concise summation of Bird's chaotic genius which could just as easily be applied to Mozart. "He'll hurt anyone that he's close to. But it's worth knowing him and realizing his greatness."

There is a disturbing leitmotif of alcoholism, drug addiction, and madness running throughout the items in this collection, and for this reason, the many commonplace articles of ordinary family life stand out like eight bars of Mozart at a rock festival. A handmade Christmas card showing a saxophone, a musical notes, and a bird; Father's Day cards scrawled in crayon; congratulatory cards from Bird's mother on the birth of his and Chan's children.

A second leitmotif is Bird's great love for Chan. Although never legally married, Charlie Parker and Chan Richardson were together from 1950 until Bird's death in 1955. They had two children. Many items in the collection consist of love notes that Bird left around the house addressed "To The Summation of Beauty" and scribbled in pencil on scraps of paper. "Dearest," he says, "have gone to made the Bacon! Don't Ans' The Door. I love you more each day. Charburd."

Bird must have had a penchant for sending telegrams to Chan while he was on the road. Most of them in the collection are of the unremarkable love-and-kisses variety, but one stands out in the crowd for its odd sense of humor. "Finally Reached Seattle [Don Lanphere] Broke His Old Ladies Neck Last Night...Gets Out On Suspended Sentence...By The Way Having A Wonderful Time...Guess Who."

Chan's correspondence with Bird includes handwritten letters so personal they are painful to read. Her last letter to him, dated March 13, 1955, was written before she had learned of his death on the previous day. It is more than an uncanny prediction; it is a paraphrase of Bird's deterioration by the person closet to him. "I have a terrible premonition about your death," Chan writes. "If not your death as a man, then your death as a musician... You've stopped being productive musically. You didn't win the Downbeat poll this year --Paul Desmond did." Then she chastises him bitterly about their chronic lack of funds. "It's a sin that your daughter's grave is unmarked because we haven't the $300 which you could earn in a night if you could stay sober long enough...I'm working two jobs -- day and night but Pree is going to have a stone..."

There are, of course, the sort of things you would expect to find in a musician's collection -- an autographed picture of Dizzy Gillespie, Down Beat award plaques, show posters -- but none of these tells a story the way the correspondence and personal effects do. Nothing is so informative, for instance, as the four clarinet mouthpieces in the catalog and the accompanying notes which tells us that Bird played the saxophone on stage, but he played the clarinet at home for his own enjoyment.

And speaking of saxophones, whatever happened to the Grafton alto, lot eighty-three? Oh yes. The city of Kansas City, the birthplace of Charlie Parker, won the bidding at $144,500.

by Nina Hodgson

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