Obituary: Chan Parker

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The Independent Culture
CHARLIE PARKER was probably the most awkward genius since Vincent Van Gogh. Anyone stricken by the tornado of his life could be sure of suffering misfortune ranging from desperate unhappiness to death. Some were lucky to escape with a glancing blow. Chan Parker got one right between the eyes.

The writer Alun Morgan was once offered a large fee by a magazine for men to write an essay on Charlie Parker. As a devotee of the alto saxophonist's music, Morgan was delighted. "We want the emphasis to be on the sex-and- drugs bit," said the man from the magazine. Morgan backed hastily away.

"Gargantuan" might have been invented to describe Parker's appetites. He took everything in his life to the extreme, whether it were music, drug addiction, eating or his sex life. He had a wife, Rebecca, and son Leon back in Kansas City when, in 1945, he began dating Chan Richardson in New York. At the same time Charlie, who had been sharing Miles Davis's apartment, moved in to live with Doris Sydnor, a hat-check girl at the Spotlite, one of the many jazz clubs on 52nd Street where Parker played. The excesses took their toll. "Charlie was always old," said Rebecca. "I couldn't believe that he was just 26," said Chan.

She was born Beverley Dolores Berg in New York but changed her name to Chan Richardson. She grew up on 52nd Street, known to musicians simply as "The Street". She lived with her mother who had come there during the Depression with the Ziegfeld Follies show. Following the death of her husband, a successful night-club owner, Chan's mother survived financial ruin to acquire the hat check concession at the Cotton Club. The two women lived in an ageing brownstone house at 7 West 52nd Street.

Chan helped her mother out at the Cotton Club or worked at the nearby Three Deuces. After graduating from the local high school, she took professional dancing lessons and became a night-club dancer. Naturally she heard a lot of the new music, bebop, in the clubs, and was a devoted jazz fan before she met Charlie Parker. An outstandingly beautiful woman, she gravitated naturally to the company of jazz musicians and used the "hip" language of the time. Her mother tried to warn her off. "Mother, you're so square," said Chan. "I don't have to sleep with these cats. They're my buddies."

Under her influence 7 West 52nd Street became an open house for musicians. Chan worked hard as an unpaid press agent for the music. Charlie Parker met her when he began visiting the house. He was 23 and she was 18, already married to and divorced from another musician, Bill Heyer. When, in 1950, Parker moved in with Chan and her daughter Kim, he was at the height of his fame and also at the height of his spectacular excesses that were to lead to his early death five years later. He soon broke off his relationship with Doris Sydnor.

Parker and Chan had two children, a daughter, Pree, and their son Baird. Chan took the name Parker, although she was never legally married to him. He was eventually divorced from Rebecca, but there was another wife, Geraldine, and some common law wives, too. Chan was the only one of them who called Parker by his nickname "Bird".

Despite a horrifying series of drug-related incidents, Chan was devoted. "His life was a joyous thing. He lived it fully, loved his kids, music, movies. Simple things. Bird liked simple things. He was the strongest man I ever met in my life." Parker's giant status as a jazz creator was now universally recognised. In 1950 the largest of the jazz clubs, on 52nd Street and Broadway, was renamed "Birdland" in his honour. He had no financial interest in it and indeed because of his behaviour he was soon banned from the club.

He was featured in the black magazine Ebony, where he was shown as the father of a happy, integrated family (Chan was white), dining with Chan and Kim as they ate a meal which had in reality been prepared as a photographer's prop. When Rebecca saw the photograph she and her second husband filed charges against Charlie Parker for failing to support his son Leon. Parker admitted that he hadn't paid any money for 14 years and was sent to gaol. Later, shortly before he broke with Chan, the two visited Rebecca in Detroit and a reconciliation took place.

During 1954 Parker's life was disrupted by his addiction to drugs. Gerry Mulligan went to hear him for the last time in the middle of 1954. "He was faltering. I cried. His playing had exuberance at best, at worst a manic velocity, but always a musical control. What was missing was the kind of gentleness he could project."

Parker's behaviour became impossibly erratic and he battled constantly with Chan. After one of their rows he swallowed iodine, and he was twice detained in Bellevue, a "hospital" that specialised in the treatment of addiction. Towards the end of the year the two broke up and Parker died a few months later in controversial circumstances in the apartment of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, sister of the third Lord Rothschild.

The Baroness kept the death secret for two days, explaining that she had decided not to report the event until she could find Chan. But Doris Sydnor found out from another musician, and there was a farcical battle between Doris and Chan over who should have the body. The unfortunate saxophonist was moved from one funeral parlour to another before finally being buried in Kansas City ("Don't let them bury me in Kansas City," he had told Chan) with the wrong date engraved on his tombstone.

That was not the end of the affair, for years of litigation followed over Charlie Parker's estate between the various women with whom he had been involved. Eventually a settlement was reached out of court, but its terms were never disclosed. Chan Parker kept two of his alto saxophones and one of them, made of acrylic plastic, was sold at Christie's in London in September 1994 as one of 83 items in "The Chan Parker Collection". The Mayor of Kansas City flew over for the occasion and bought the horn for the city, paying more than pounds 80,000 for it.

After Parker's death, Chan Parker, herself an accomplished pianist, turned to song-writing and made a brief return to dancing. She went into the restaurant business before she married the altoist Phil Woods in 1957. Woods remains Parker's most devoted musical disciple, but the marriage ended in divorce.

In 1971 Chan Parker bought a house in Champmotteux, south of Paris. She lived there for the rest of her life, emerging in 1988 to work with Clint Eastwood on Bird, a film based on Charlie Parker's life. Her memoirs, My Life in E Flat, were published in 1993.

Beverley Dolores Berg (Chan Richardson/Chan Parker): born New York 1925; married first Bill Heyer (one daughter; marriage dissolved) (one son, and one daughter deceased, by Charlie Parker, who died 1955), secondly Phil Woods (one son, and one daughter deceased; marriage dissolved); died Etampes, France 9 September 1999.