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Charlie Parker Lives, This Sunday in Tompkins Square Park

Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Different stories are told about the source of the nickname, but it stuck: there’s only one Bird.

It was almost sixty years ago that, after changing the course of music forever, Charles Parker, Jr. died at the tender age of 34 in the Stanhope Hotel.

Despite being gone for so long now, Charlie Parker’s spirit comes vibrantly to life every summer in Tompkins Square Park. The Charlie Parker Jazz Festival has been held annually since 1993, close to Parker’s August 29 birthday. This year’s free concert at 3 p.m. includes pianist Kenny Barron and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana. Sponsored by CityParks Foundation, the events actually unfold in two locations — uptown at Marcus Garvey Park, near the Harlem clubs where Parker played and apartments where he stayed — and downtown at Tompkins Square, on a stage practically in view of his parkside home at 151 Avenue B.

Saxophonist and pianist Charles Gayle, who lives near the park, tells Off the Grid he’ll be in the audience this weekend. “I can say that in discussing music and Bird’s genius, it is not only felt in the hearts of people in this neighborhood, but all over the world that have been exposed to jazz,” Gayle wrote to us. “Charlie Parker’s past residence in the East Village is very meaningful to me and it is to many others, because it is a constant reminder not only of who he is, but also a reminder to all of us to strive to bring excellence to our work as musicians — as well as to those in any other field of endeavor or work that we participate in.”

Parker’s home on Avenue B was special to him for the peace it offered, and is special to us because he lived there: the Charlie Parker Residence was designated a New York City landmark by the Landmarks Preservation Commission in 1999. (The LPC’s designation report is a good read and the source of much information here.) A genius saxophonist and composer — who created be-bop with Dizzy Gillespie — Parker suffered from drink, drugs and breakdowns and moved frequently, though he yearned for bourgeois stability. After three marriages, he finally experienced a spell of relative calm on Avenue B with his common-law wife, Chan Richardson, from 1950 to 1954. She gave birth to daughter Pree in 1951 and son Baird in 1952, though sadly Pree died less than three years later, leading a sorrowful Parker to attempt suicide twice.

A recent view of 151 Avenue B, with its Landmark plaque visible between the basement windows.

In her autobiography, My Life in E-Flat, Richardson wrote:

Our apartment was in the Ukrainian section of the Lower East Side … Our building was across from Thompkins (sic) Square Park and each of the five families living in it occupied an entire floor. We occupied the ground floor, which had a separate entrance and opened onto a large courtyard in back for the children and all the animals we would eventually accumulate…

He entered this phase of domestic stability and his children brought much joy to him. He dug Sundays best of all … It was all very middle class, except for our table which we had made in the form of a G, or treble, clef. The indentation was the perfect spot for a high chair.

Saxophonist Al Cohn remembered:

They had a very nice place … It was a Ukrainian neighborhood and we went to three or four different bars. All the Ukrainians, working-class guys, knew him as Charlie. I don’t think they knew he was a musician, but it was obvious they liked him and were glad to see him.

The house itself has belonged since 1979 to jazz producer Judy Rhodes, who maintains a website about it. She lobbied for landmark designation, which was granted largely because of its most famous resident (though painter Franz Kline and sculptor Peter Agostini also both lived there, after Parker), but the architecture is noteworthy too. Built by 1849, it’s a fairly traditional rowhouse, the best-preserved in its row along the east side of the park. “What sets the house apart from most mid-nineteenth century dwellings in New York City is the use of the Gothic Revival style,” the designation report says, with considerable detail from that style, as well as a high stoop and box cornice.

An image from the 2010 fest.

The festival that celebrates Parker is always a good time, warmly hosted by radio personalities from WBGO and full of performers eager to share a memory of Bird, a testament to him, or an ode in music.  At last year’s festival, vocalist Sheila Jordan — formerly married to Parker’s pianist, Duke Jordan — delivered a tribute song as well as this promise: “As long as I live, Bird lives.” And she’s still going strong.


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