Selling fragments of Charlie Parker's life

September 09, 1994|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- An alto saxophone owned by Charlie "Yardbird" Parker brought $140,000 in two minutes yesterday at Christie's auction rooms, more money than "Bird" ever earned in a year, or two, or three, of playing some of the finest solos in the history of jazz.

The cream-colored Grafton plastic sax went to the Jazz Hall of Fame in Kansas City and set a new record price for a saxophone.

The old record, $33,000, was held by a tenor saxophone played by, get this, Bill Clinton.

Charlie Parker, perhaps equaled only by Louis Armstrong as a soloist and as an influence on jazz, was born in Kansas City. His saxophone will become the centerpiece of the new Hall of Fame, which is being developed in a historical district at 18th and Vine.

Mayor Emanuel Cleaver bid on the Parker sax by telephone at 4 a.m. K.C. time then got on a plane to fly to Washington to accept an All-American City Award -- from Bill Clinton.

Revered now as a musical genius who was the single most important innovator in the bebop revolution, Bird lived hard, played brilliantly and died young. He was 35 when he died in New York in 1955. He had been addicted to drugs and alcohol for years.

Bird played the alto sold yesterday at the 1953 Massey Hall Concert, in Toronto, which is often called the greatest jazz concert ever. He played with a quintet that has become legendary: Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet, Max Roach on drums, Charles Mingus on bass and Bud Powell on the piano.

He made $100 up front, along with a promise of a share of the ticket sales. Months later he was still trying to get paid.

The Massey Hall contract, the letter asking for the rest of his money and the sax were part of a touching, troubling and revealing cache of artifacts and memorabilia sold by Chan Richardson, a dancer Bird knew for a decade and lived with during the last five years of his life. He called her Mrs. Charlie Parker and they had two children together. She's 70 now and lives near Paris.

She worked as an adviser on Clint Eastwood's film "Bird," and her memoir called "Life in B-Flat," published in France, provided much of the background material for the script.

Her "Chan Parker Archive" drew hundreds of jazz aficionados and devoted Parker fanatics to Christie's South Kensington house and brought a remarkable 206,637 pounds, more than $310,000 including fees, and three or four times more than expected. The sale put a price tag on a lifetime of memories.

In a small, sad irony the Massey Hall contract brought $3,600, a couple thousand more than was paid to all the musicians put together.

But irony abounded as auctioneer Hugh Edmeades proceeded with the sale like a man emptying an old family trunk.

Forty years ago Chan received a check for $150 for five songs Bird had written. She found the amount insulting and never cashed it. Mr. Edmeades knocked it down for $3,000.

There was a bit of everything: from Bird's musicians' union card (sold for $4,200) to traffic tickets, contracts, posters, four watches ($5,100) and dozens and dozens of notes, poems, apologies, explanations and excuses to Chan scrawled on old envelopes, matchbook covers, hotel stationery.

The driven, erratic genius of jazz lore could also be tender, even sentimental. He sent Chan flowers for Mother's Day 1952. On the florist card, he wrote "I love you, Charlie Parker." The card turned out to be worth $1,650 yesterday.

He sent her a Western Union Valentine wire in 1954: "In words that gently rhyme, I'm very much in love with you, so be my Valentine."

Chan Parker called him "the most sensitive cat I know."

But she also said: "He'll hurt anyone that he's close to. But it's worth knowing him and realizing his greatness."

Norman Saks, a vacationing American who claims the world's largest collection of recorded material by Parker, stamped his feet with glee when he bought Bird's 1952 Downbeat Award for being America's favorite jazz soloist -- $4,800.

He's visited Chan Parker: "She was living with a ghost."

No one quite understood why she was now selling her collection.

"She's guarded it for decades and decades," says Richard Chapman, Christie's jazz consultant, who spent a great deal of time with her during the past year cataloging it all.

"She didn't know what to do with it really," he says. "She thought about it a long time."

She was very friendly. She says: "Hey, you cats, are quite hip after all."

Mr. Chapman and Mr. Saks felt she would be pleased that most of her memories went to people who would cherish them.

But there remained the final irony that once more an American jazz musician was worth more dead than alive.

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