Bird in Chicago
by Joe Segal
I don't remember exactly when I met Charlie Parker for the first time. I'm sure it was in Chicago in 1946 or '47. He played Chicago frequently, sometimes with his quintet but more often as a single, usually at the Pershing Hotel Ballroom. In the hotel's basement, once called the E1 Grotto, Bird first shook up Chicago musicians as a tenor saxophonist with the 1943 Earl Hines Band.
In 1948 he played the Beige Room with his quintet of pianist Al Haig, bassist Tommy Potter, trumpeter Kenny Dorham, and drummer Max Roach. At this time I was enrolled at Roosevelt College, supposedly to further my education, but I had become immersed in the formation of the student Jazz club and had instituted a program of weekly sessions. Bird appeared at two of the sessions. It was then that I began to know him personally.
The first session, in 1949, was sponsored by a student group other than the Jazz club and was to feature Charlie Ventura's group. But Ventura had just completed a week's engagement at the Chicago Theater and, therefore, according to a musicians union rule, could not appear. Luckily, Parker's manager at that time, Teddy Reig, was in the booking agent's office when the student group was trying to find a replacement for Ventura, and he booked the job for Bird. The majority of the audience that attended the concert was from the sponsoring group and didn't really know one Charlie from the other, but they heard an afternoon of superb music.
The second Bird session at Roosevelt was at the time he was appearing as a single at the Bee Hive in 1953. I was working there as host and also produced Monday sessions at the club. The Roosevelt sets had become quite popular with Chicago fans, and attendance averaged between 200 and 300. I had become fairly tight with Bird during the Bee Hive engagement and had written a flattering piece about him for the university's paper, stating that the jazz club hoped to present Charlie at its upcoming session. When Bird read the column, he looked up at me with a benevolent smile and said, "Well, I guess I'll have to come." Knowing of his unfulfilled promises to others, I publicized his appearance with as much bravado as I dared. As the time for his appearance that night drew near, there was but a handful in the audience, and they were so apprehensive they refused to pay the 25-cent admission until he actually was there.
I had stationed someone at the entrance to the school's lobby to watch for Parker, and when Charlie came in the door, my man dashed up to the second floor, where the sessions were held, and shouted, "He's here!" As one, the audience turned toward the door. When Bird walked in, the applause and shouts were so thunderous students passing by looked in to see what was happening. Almost magically the hall filled with wide-eyed students as, I imagine, the study halls, cafeteria, and library emptied. I was so excited and proud that by the time I regained my wits I managed to collect only $13 from the throng.
Of the other times Parker played in Chicago, one of the greatest was the Saturday night in August, 1948, when he was guest soloist with Dizzy Gillespie's big band at the Pershing Ballroom. The audience was transfixed, hearing yet unable to believe the music Parker superimposed on the greatest big band ever.
The last time Bird appeared in Chicago was in January, 1955, again at the Bee Hive. He had arrived late from Detroit for the four-day engagement. Some of us knew he had just been through a severe illness, and when he showed us the great swelling at the back of his tongue, we knew he was very ill, perhaps deathly so. He had a couple of bad nights, but he began playing better Sunday afternoon, and by the time the gig was over Monday night, he was wailing as of old. I'll always remember the last thing he said to me as he was leaving, though I still don't quite understand what he meant--he said, "I'd tell you a joke, but you're too hip."
Adapted from an article in Down Beat, March 11, 1965. Used by permission.