Charlie Parker’s heroin addiction helped make him a genius
By Larry Getlen
February 5, 2017 | 5:18am
Saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, born August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Kans., tried heroin for the first time at 15. Soon, “strangers began showing up at his house, and various items of value that belonged to his mother — her jewelry, her iron — began to disappear.”
At the same time, Parker worked tirelessly on his craft, practicing the saxophone day and night, often fueled by Benzedrine. Parker was a speed and heroin user from then until the end of his life.
“When Bird was sixteen he looked 38,” a club manager once said. “He had the oldest-looking face I ever saw.”
But as Parker sank deeper into addiction, writes Martin Torgoff in his new book “Bop Apocalypse,” “the truly astounding aspect of this period of his life is how the onset of addiction coincided with such a quantum leap in his musical abilities.”
According to the book, Parker was one of the greatest musicians ever to grace a stage not only despite his heroin problem, but possibly because of it. His relentless drug use only seemed to sharpen his talent, making music that seemed sent from heaven just as his addiction drove him personally to the depths of hell.
Parker was 16 and already a veteran drug user when he showed up for an open jam with legendary jazz drummer Jo Jones. A serious student of music, he played “a pathetic looking alto saxophone tarnished with age and patched with tinfoil, cellophane and rubber bands.”
He played too fast, and Jones slammed a bell to get his attention. When that failed, Jones “lifted his cymbal off its stand and sent it crashing at Parker’s feet.”
As he walked out, Parker was overheard saying, “I’ll fix those cats. Just wait and see.”
He practiced like crazy, and soon became one of jazz’s more prominent idols, establishing an ongoing collaboration with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie — himself a regular smoker of marijuana who disdained harder drugs — that became one of the great pairings in music history.
Throughout his heyday, Parker routinely showed up late and strung out for gigs and recording sessions, but then mesmerized the room as soon as he picked up his horn.
Booked to play a live show in Los Angeles on January 28, 1946, Parker showed up late because “he had been scouring the town for drugs.”
After getting high, he arrived “28 choruses into ‘Sweet Georgia Brown,’ ” and played “a chorus that brought the music to a whole new level and the audience to its feet.” When the show, which had been recorded, was later released as “1946 Jazz at the Philharmonic Concert,” “Bird’s choruses astounded musicians and jazz fans everywhere. Everything he played that night would become part of the basic syntax of modern jazz.”
The passion in his playing was equalled by his burning desire for drugs
But the passion in his playing was equalled by his burning desire for drugs. He signed half the royalties from one of his songs over to his dealer in order to keep himself steadily supplied. In time, the word on Bird was that jazz fans needed to “catch him before he dies.”
One night, Parker stumbled through the lobby of his hotel “without his pants on and fell asleep holding a lit cigarette, which started a fire.” He was arrested, knocked over the head and “handcuffed to an iron cot in the psychiatric ward of the LA County jail.”
Parker’s antics, combined with his explosive playing, cemented the relationship for many between heroin use and musical genius.
“Charlie Parker became famous as a man who was perfectly capable of spending a whole day in his hotel room, draining a fifth of whiskey as a reefer dangled from his lip, jacking heroin into a vein while a woman knelt between his legs,” writes Torgoff, “and then he would get on a stage and . . . take transcendent flight in music of such natural originality and power that it would leave his fellow musicians dumbstruck with wonder.”
By the late 1940s, “the strange and compelling myth was spreading that heroin could make you play like Bird,” writes Torgoff. “In Los Angeles, the first three notes of [the Parker classic] ‘Parker’s Mood,’ whistled into the night, became the code signal among musicians that they wanted to [buy drugs]. When they heard the three notes whistled back, they knew they were among their own kind.”
Charlie ParkerGetty Images
To those around him, the final years of Parker’s life were “like epiphanies of his helplessness and deterioration,” including failed efforts to get clean, a suicide attempt by drinking iodine and the death of his daughter from congenital heart failure.
The latter event was a final straw for the already depressed and strung-out legend.
“Something gave way inside of him after the event, like the earth shifting irreversibly along some deep fault line; he broke down and was never able to climb out of the abyss again,” Torgoff writes.
“ ‘Diz, why don’t you save me?’ he stammered the last time Dizzy Gillespie saw him play [the popular jazz club] Birdland. Thirty years later, Gillespie was still haunted by the moment. ‘It was the worst feeling in the world,’ ” he said.
Parker died on March 12, 1955, at age 34, after vomiting blood in a friend’s hotel suite. (The official causes of death were found to be numerous, including pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer.) Despite his prodigious talent, he was playing “dives and storefronts” by the end, with his friends unable to process the depth of his downfall.
“If people ran into him wandering around the city at dawn, shabby and broke, sleepless and alone, they could only stare and hope that it wasn’t really happening,” writes Torgoff.
One friend later recalled seeing Parker standing in front of Birdland in the pouring rain. “I was horrified and asked him why,” she later recalled. “He said he just had no place to go.”