My Life In E-Flat

Chris May By

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My Life In E-Flat
Chan Parker
ISBN 1-57003-245-9
Paperback, 191 pages
University Of South Carolina Press

The nearest I ever got to meeting alto saxophone and bebop incendiary Charlie "Bird" Parker was attending an auction of objects once owned by or associated with him. Held in London in 1994 by the international art auctioneers, Christie's, the prize exhibit was the white plastic saxophone played by Parker during his celebrated 1953 Massey Hall, Toronto gig with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. The winning bid of $150,000 was higher than I could contest and the saxophone went to the mayor of Parker's birthplace, Kansas City.

But I'd briefly breathed the same air as that fabulous, iconic instrument—which, to encourage bidders, had been taken through its paces by Peter King, then as now Britain's pre-eminent keeper of the Parker flame. It sounded like a knife slicing through clouds and revealing the sun. That was both enough and more than I'd ever expected.

Reading Chan Parker's autobiography, My Life In E-Flat, is another near-Bird encounter to be relished by anyone stirred by his music. Chan (1925-99) began hanging with Charlie in 1943, when she was a bohemian "it girl" living just off bebop's 52nd Street epicentre. She took his name and hand in common-law marriage in 1950. The couple had children and were together until a few months before Charlie's death in 1955.

My Life In E-Flat doesn't add many new career facts or musical insights to those previously assembled by Bird biographers Ross Russell in Bird Lives! (1972) or Robert Reisner in Bird: The Legend Of Charlie Parker a decade earlier (though it does offer a few corrections)—and Chan's years with Charlie take up only 40 pages. But the book does add greatly to our perception of Bird off the bandstand, as a husband, father and family breadwinner. Chan relates that he applied himself with diligence to all these roles, when not hitting bottom with his various addictions (it was Charlie's descent into shambling alcoholism which led to the couple's final parting, considered by Chan when it happened to be a temporary thing). Chan also evokes a vivid sense of Bird the life-force—a man, she says, whose presence lit up and dominated a room from the moment he walked into it.

Along the way Chan, white and half Jewish, tells what it was like to live as a mixed race couple in New York at the time (most musicians didn't care, most squares did, you tried not to let it get to you). Hip, well educated, beautiful and resourceful, it's easy to see why Charlie loved her. And her love for him was unconditional. A weed smoker most of her adult life, but never a heroin user, Chan once successfully pleaded with a psychiatrist at New York's Bellevue mental hospital not to use electro-convulsive "therapy" in an attempt to cure Bird's heroin addiction. "Madam," the doctor said in exasperation, "do you want a husband or a musician?" To explain that these things were interchangeable, writes Chan, was hopeless.

After Bird's passing, Chan married saxophonist Phil Woods (alto players were a recurring theme in her romantic life, hence the book's title), an alcoholic and absent father who does not play well in these pages. After Woods left her for the last time, Chan lived the final 16 or so years of her life in a small village south of Paris, France, where she wrote My Life In E-Flat in 1993. The story of these later years—and Chan's anecdotes about pianist Al Haig, bandleaders Cab Calloway and Quincy Jones (for whom Woods worked in the 1960s), and drummers Dave Tough and Max Roach, among many other musicians—is absorbing too, but it's the 40 pages about Charlie Parker (plus some rarely seen photographs) which are the most fascinating and valuable.


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