Rare Bird

“I’m not a professional widow,” declares Chan Parker, a onetime chorus dancer, now a lyricist, who is best known as the love of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s life. Though she never married Parker, the seminally brilliant jazz saxophonist who died in 1955 at age 34, she lived with him for five years, and they had two children. Chan still calls herself Mrs. Parker despite a subsequent marriage to Phil Woods, a musician she met after Bird’s death.

In her effort to keep Bird’s name alive, Chan, 63, has found an unlikely accomplice: Hollywood tough guy, former Carmel, Calif., Mayor and long-time jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood. Eastwood’s award-winning Bird, his 13th film as a director, is exposing a new generation to the Parker legend, a paradigmatic tale of musical triumph—he is credited with helping shape the bebop era—and personal traumas, including a suicide attempt and a heroin habit. Chan served as a consultant to the movie, though she says neither Forest Whitaker, who plays Bird, nor Diane Venora, as the free-spirited Chan, needed much help. “Diane,” she says, “has me down perfectly.”

After visiting Hollywood at Eastwood’s behest, Chan returned to her modest farmhouse, incongruously filled with jazz memorabilia, in Champmotteux, a rural suburb of Paris. In her living room, beneath a large photograph of Bird, she talked to correspondent Georgina Oliver.

When I first met Bird, I was 18. I had grown up in jazz—my father, B.D. Berg, owned several clubs. After he died, I was living on 52nd Street with my mother, Mildred Darling, a former Ziegfeld girl. In those days, there were 10 jazz clubs on 52nd Street. Between sets, all the bands would come to our place to relax. My mother never objected to having musicians in the apartment, even though Ben Webster, the saxophonist, once peed on her sofa.

One night one of the musicians I knew brought Bird over. He was extremely shy, with a sweet, innocent smile. The other musicians I’d been seeing were just boys. Bird was a man. He was strong and mature. Later he told me he was absolutely terrified by my youth.

I went to hear Bird play on 52nd Street, and I became an aficionada. You could tell his horn was his life. It was as natural as breathing to him. You couldn’t imagine him doing anything else. We started to hang out, but we didn’t live together for another seven years. We were both working, and the dancer resisted the musician. Besides, I wasn’t sure I could compete with such a powerful personality. It would have meant holding my tongue. And I’ve always been very strong-minded. I was not used to giving men the kind of respect Bird wanted. I was a femme fatale, used to getting my own way.

We moved in together on May 29, 1950—me, Bird and my 3-year-old daughter, Kim, from an earlier marriage. My mother was very worried about my being hurt by Bird. As it turned out, life with Bird was not easy. But there was joy. Bird bought me a tape recorder, and when I took it to the clubs, he would play his solos right into my mike. Seven of my recordings are on the sound track of the film. He knew I understood the musical messages he was sending me.

Bird was always away on gigs, but he had a lot of time between tours, and anyway I wouldn’t have wanted someone who was around all the time. When he was home, he was a good father. He was a corny, affectionate guy. He took the children to amusement parks, bought them magic tricks and wrote songs for them. He liked everything that stood for the American way of life—cats, dogs, ice-cream sundaes, owning a Cadillac and having a maid. In a sense, Bird was far more conventional than I was.

Intermarrying would not have been a problem, because we lived in a polyglot neighborhood, and, besides, we held ourselves above that sort of thing. Anyway, the jazz world is color-blind. We didn’t marry because Bird, for complicated reasons, never divorced his second wife, Geraldine. But I was Mrs. Parker all right; we had two children in barely two years [Pree, who died of a heart condition at 2, and Baird, now 36, a chef]. Home was pristine. Bird kept drugs out of the house because he wanted the kids to have a normal life. And we never played jazz, just classical music.

I brought a lot of calm to Bird’s life, because I’m not a hyperhysterical person. In fact, someone once told my daughter, “If your mother were any more laid-back, she’d be on the floor.” I try to ooze through life. I don’t like jumping into cold pools. I don’t exercise. I don’t even drink orange juice—I don’t want it to upset my body.

In 1949, Bird came to Paris for the jazz festival. In France, he was treated with respect. Here, jazz was reviewed by serious critics. Musicians were treated like artists. The dressing room was not in the kitchen. If he had stayed here, his life probably would have been prolonged. He died of a heart attack, but he really died of a broken heart, frustrated musically from not getting the respect he wanted in the States. Bird craved respect. Things like having to play in clubs that were Mafia-owned and having to walk in through the back door of a lot of clubs were difficult for him.

Musically, he wanted to be part of the American mainstream. He wanted the legitimacy of strings and larger concert halls. He did perform at Carnegie Hall, but only with three violins and a viola. I don’t even think he had a cello. When he was scoring the movie, Clint said, “I know I overdid it, putting in 20 strings, but I’m sure that’s what Bird would have wanted.” It’s true. He would have wanted to play with a symphony orchestra. He was never really aware of his own stature and achievements.

Bird’s death was a nightmare. Everyone expected it but him. He was visiting Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, who was a jazz enthusiast, at the Stanhope Hotel in Manhattan and began to feel ill. A doctor came and looked at him, but he died an hour later of lobar pneumonia. He was so run-down from the drugs, the traveling, the stress, everything, that the coroner mistook him for a man of 65. In fact, he was only 34.

I was left destitute, of course. Four months later, my house in New Hope, Pa., was flooded, and I lost all my furniture. Luckily, I was able to save Bird’s horns. Nobody came to my rescue, except the Red Cross. For the next few years, I moved from one rented house to another with my children. For a while, I ran a restaurant, but I was a terrible businesswoman. Then, two years after Bird’s death, I met Phil Woods, a saxophonist with Dizzy Gillespie’s band. He was 26 and I was 32. We were married in 1957, and I gave up the restaurant. I don’t want to discuss the differences between Phil and Bird, because that still chokes me up. Bird has remained the dominant figure in my life, and that must have been difficult for Phil. We had two children, Aimee, who is now Phil’s manager, and Garth, who owns a radio-and-TV store. In 1968 we moved to France because Phil was despondent about not doing the kind of musical work he wanted in the U.S. and I was despondent about the Vietnam War. When he went to California to make an album in 1973, that was it for our marriage. In France, I began my own career as a lyricist; I’ve written lyrics for Leonard Bernstein, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock. I used to write a lot of love songs, but now I’m sick of soapy songs. I want to write nasty lyrics.

When I first heard Clint Eastwood was going to do the film, I was horrified. I really was. Then he called me, and I liked him immediately. He said, “Can I call you Chan?” And I said, “Can I call you Clint?” We were friends from then on.

I took Bird’s horn to California and offered it to Clint, because he really wanted everything very authentic. As it turned out, Clint was afraid it might be damaged on the set, so he kept it in a vault—the vault with all the Warner Bros, films. The day I left, he brought it to my hotel and said, “Chan, I have a confession to make. I took it out of its case and played one note on it.” Wasn’t that cute?

I’m pleased with the prosperity the film has brought me. I’ve bought an Alfa Romeo and a good piano. And I’m pleased that Bird is at last getting all the recognition he wanted. I can tell he’s pleased with what’s happening. Look at Bird’s picture on the wall. His smile is getting bigger every day.

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