Have you ever discovered that a famous person once lived very close to you? And all the while, you weren't aware of it—until that person moved away, and the world let you know about the celebrity who had been in your midst. WRTI's Bob Perkins remembers when jazz great Charlie Parker lived in Philadelphia for a time.
Lots of folks were unaware that in the early and middle 1950s, jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker resided in a Philadelphia apartment building, just a few doors north of Girard Avenue, and a few blocks from the Temple University campus.
Leon Mitchell, a friend, a musician and orchestra leader let me in on this some years ago when he told me about the time that Parker was to speak to him and several other young musicians, as part of his contract agreement for a local jazz club booking.
Parker arrived too late for the meeting, and as an apology to the young musicians, he invited them to come to his apartment and he’d speak to them there.
Up in Charlie Parker's place, Mitchell began wandering through his record collection and found classical, R&B, jazz, and other genres of musical selections. It’s been said by those close to Parker that he was not a one-dimensional figure, and could speak with authority on world-related issues.
In the early days of his career, when he and Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, and a handful of others were formulating their new movement in modern jazz, Parker appeared in Philadelphia fairly often, to make music at Center City’s Down Beat, West Philly’s 421, and the Blue Note at 15th and Ridge avenues.
Charlie Parker was also known as 'Yardbird,' a name that became his handle after an incident driving through farmland, when his car hit and killed a chicken. The story goes that he stopped the car, ran back, put the dead bird in his car, took it home, defeathered it, and ate it. So, the handle of ‘Yardbird” stuck; years later the nickname was shortened to Bird.
Bird was described as a brilliant saxophonist and creative jazz musician by jazz critics and fellow musicians who also played the alto saxophone and wanted to sound just nearly as well … but just couldn’t. In his time, Bird was Superman, and his imitators were mere mortals.
But the habitual use of drugs, booze, and living a sometime hand-to-mouth existence took its toll, and death claimed him at age 34 in 1955. After examining the body, the coroner thought it was that of a man 20 years older, until he was corrected by family.
During the early days of modern jazz, musicians suffered because few listeners understood this new music, few were willing to support it. It was relegated to sometimes unsavory venues, and for the most part, was not allowed in concert halls and major dining places.
And so this great innovator died before the music he helped fashion wore long pants, so-to speak, and was able to strut a bit. When Parker died, graffiti covered vacant properties, especially in the Village area of New York City, stating 'Bird Lives.'
The music has lived on, and so has the place that was once home to this future jazz legend, although few knew it at the time. The apartment building at 1220 N. Broad Street in Philly is still there, with its proud history, because it once housed a nest for the Bird.
August 29th marks the 100th anniversary of Charlie Parker’s birth.