Clint Eastwood’s “Bird”: The Good, The Bad, The Apocryphal
By Matt Silver
Bird, and to his left, Chet Baker, playing the San Diego Coliseum in Nov. 1953. Photo by Ross Burdick.
Part II: Parker’s Relationships
Bird and Chan
In Eastwood’s world, these are two people genuinely in love, genuinely in awe of one another, and unendingly antagonistic towards each other. They come from different worlds—Parker from early 20th century poverty in Kansas City, Chan from affluent Westchester, the daughter of a vaudeville producer and man of grand romantic gestures whom Parker strives to emulate, at least superficially, to win Chan’s heart (or, arguably, emotionally manipulate her, if you want to be a cynic about it).
Chan’s rendering at times feels a little typecast; Eastwood really leans in to depicting her as the archetypal mid-century muse: a silver-tongued, bourgeois-bohemian enchantress, simply irresistible to any male creative type whose self-destructive tendencies are inextricable from his art. But I’ll give Eastwood the benefit of the doubt, since, one: this conception wasn’t nearly as trite 35 years ago as it is today; and two: the actors bring an inarticulable authority and credibility to the roles that makes it feel like they’re doing these real-life people justice; and three: it’s a friggin’ movie!
Eastwood could have portrayed Chan as a hipster, beatnik groupie with a heart of gold—like Cameron Crowe did with Kate Hudson in Almost Famous, but he gives Chan far more credit than that. And Diane Venora, playing Chan, executes on a difficult assignment. Chan is as cool and sharp as Parker is grandiose and bigger-than-life. She doesn’t trust; Parker doesn’t trust. Parker’s a serial philanderer; Chan’s the sophisticated beauty every musician wants to torment them. Neither—not at the time they meet, nor for years after— are portrayed as solid, stick-around types.
Parker gets her because he gets her. When they first kiss—after a protracted process of tailing one another from one jazz club or off-Broadway theater to another— she pulls away. Parker knows why. He tells her she’s scared to be with someone she’d “have to be faithful to.”
That strikes a chord.
Chan takes a dancing gig in Chicago, but they both seem to know she’ll be back and when she does return, Bird, the showman, whisks her off to dinner and dancing on a white horse, but not before hiring two sax player buddies to serenade her in song beneath her bedroom window, cementing his status as the only man as grandiose and larger-than-life as her late father. Parker wasn’t playing his saxophone because, as she realizes later, he’d hocked his horn to rent the horse!
Did this actually happen?! I’ve read things before about Parker hocking his horn in order to fund his illicit habits but I hadn’t heard that one about the horse before. Like much of the film’s apocrypha and urban legends, it feels more like a parable and less like a reliable biographical account. Some might quibble with that. To me, that’s what makes biopics fun and, at the risk of stating the obvious, different from documentaries.
In that same sequence, while they dance together to the music of an all-white big band at some fancy New York City restaurant that looks like Tavern on the Green, Chan remarks how the romantic, old-fashioned jazz they’re listening to is so “corny.”
Parker says she feels that way because she’s “running away from honest sentiment.” It’s a bullseye.
Though they never officially marry, it’s from that moment that we see them begin their life together. She becomes his common law wife and takes his name, but more crucially, however volatile their relationship becomes, she is consistently his protector.
When Parker attempts suicide by swallowing iodine tablets, not long after their daughter Pree’s death in 1954, Chan tells the austere attending psychiatrist at Bellevue that she will not consent to giving her husband shock therapy treatment or to committing him to a state hospital. She explains that she won’t do anything that could jeopardize his ability to play music and improvise. The doctor asks if she wants a husband or a musician. She responds that the two are inseparable and walks out, taking Parker home.
Her belief about Parker’s brilliance seems to track with the filmmakers’ and the emotional response they’re trying to evoke via the cinematography: for better and worse, the light is a product of the dark and the dark a product of the light. They are functionally inextricable. Remove the tumor and the patient dies, if not in body than certainly in spirit.
Some people take issue with this line of thinking. And certainly, when telling a story like this, you don’t want to glamorize addiction or the psychological torment that precedes it—or the physical AND psychological torment that addiction adds to whatever was already there. But it simply cannot be denied that Charlie Parker was somehow capable of making incredible music when drunk, high, sometimes neither, and probably often both. How do we reconcile that with what we’d prefer to believe about art and the parts of us it comes from?
Make no mistake, Eastwood’s “Bird” is definitely not pro-drugs. But it doesn’t strain to answer any big questions it doesn’t know the answers to. It’s a testament to the filmmakers’ humility and, again, Eastwood’s near-absolute reverence for the subject matter.
This includes his sensitive portrayal of Parker and Chan’s happiest moments. There’s a music-backed montage about two-thirds through that shows Bird and Chan as close to contentment as they seemed to get while together.
It’s either 1949 or ’50. Just back from touring the Deep South and headlining the newly opened Birdland, Bird’s seemingly clean and making money, and he and Chan and their three children (they have two children together, Baird and Pree, and Parker also acts as father to Kim, Chan’s oldest daughter from a previous relationship) move into a spacious new apartment at 151 Avenue B in New York City. We see Christmases and family dinners and Bird playing pranks on Chan and letting kids climb all over him, and it’s portrayed as this idyllic moment in the lives of a young, prosperous, growing family. And the depiction rings true, at least for Kim, the oldest Parker daughter, who told Parker biographer Chuck Haddix in 2015 that “[Parker] really loved Sunday dinners….Bird loved that because that was middle class….He was a square, yes!” Picture that, Charlie Parker, a deity to hipsters and beatniks, a “square”!
I’m no Parker historian, but the years with Chan and the children at 151 Avenue B seem like they were the happiest of Parker’s life, at least until Pree’s death (now known to be from cystic fibrosis) in early 1954. At least that’s what Eastwood seems to be suggesting anyway. As for Spike Lee and others who might offer similar criticism, I think they’ve gotten their read on “Bird” wrong. Parker’s warmth, his sense of humor and playfulness are treated sensitively and generously.
As is the relationship between Parker and Chan. The way Eastwood jumps around chronologically does make it more difficult than usual for the viewer to feel invested in their romance. But this is not a movie about plot and character development. For all the ways in which it’s not a documentary, Eastwood’s approach actually does resemble that of a documentarian endeavoring to make a feature biopic. It’s a movie about a place, a time, an aesthetic, and an atmosphere…and the man who, as Dizzy Gillespie’s character predicts in the film, becomes a kind of martyr for all of it.
Speaking of Dizzy Gillespie, there are two friendships that “Bird” does a really nice job depicting, those between Parker and Gillespie and Parker and the trumpeter Red Rodney.
Portrait of Charlie Parker, Red Rodney, Dizzy Gillespie, Margie Hyams, and Chuck Wayne, New York City, c. 1947. Photo by William Gottlieb, courtesy of Library of Congress.
Bird comes to be fond of Rodney after he meets him in Los Angeles in 1946. Rodney, originally from Philadelphia, had caught on with Woody Herman’s band and had made a special point of being out in LA because he knew Parker would be there with Gillespie. Parker was definitely frustrated with how long it took in other parts of the country, like the West Coast, for audiences to warm to bebop. What Rodney represented—and what Bird maybe overlooked—was the extent to which people like Rodney viewed him as a prophet they’d follow almost anywhere. The way it’s depicted, Rodney basically reorganized his career around trying to play this new sound.
The two reconnect in New York sometime after Bird’s extended stay at Camarillo. Bird and his quintet are looking for work because, as so often seems to be the case, Bird’s drug habit has cost him his cabaret card (it becomes one of the sad ironies that the greatest musician of the time can’t even play at the club named in his honor for this reason). Rodney’s booked a bar mitzvah in Brooklyn, and he asks the guys to join him on the date. Parker and Rodney play bebop klezmer and the father of the bride loves it, giving Rodney a generous tip, which he splits with everyone. It’s another fun moment that may be a more illustrative parable and/or product of Eastwood’s creative license given what he did know for sure about the Rodney/Parker relationship. Either way, for this Jewish boy, to even think for one second that Charlie Parker once played a bar mitzvah to great acclaim is enough to help keep me in the faith for another lifetime.
Bird returns the favor in a way that does seem to be supported by the history. He invites Rodney to join a small group he’s put together to tour the Deep South. Worried about running afoul of Jim Crow with an integrated band, Parker, unbeknownst to Rodney (now that part I could see being a fabrication for the film), bills his red-headed Jewish trumpet player as “Albino Red,” a soulful blues vocalist from up north. And they really do—at least in the movie—playfully push Rodney into singing a few tunes they haphazardly put together, to great delight from both audience and band.
The relationship between Parker and Rodney, perhaps more than any other, showed the type of man that Bird at his most lucid aspired to be. He begged Rodney not to take on the kamikaze mission of trying to become the next Charlie Parker. He always knew where that road led.
When Parker died at 34, the coroner mistook him for being in his mid-sixties. But in the scenes with Rodney, he glows with youthful wonderment about, for instance, how he managed to “play inside” the melody to “Cherokee,” thereby “extending the chord changes.” He speaks in these moments as though recalling something sublime, as though he’d discovered a fourth dimension. He describes that path to Rodney as walking the “Bridge to Cherokee,” the dark humiliating road after being “gonged off” by Jo Jones at the Reno Club in Kansas City in 1939 (for getting lost playing outside the chord changes). That incident’s almost certainly the most retold episode of the Parker mythology, and the conventional wisdom seems to be that it probably exacerbated whatever demons he’d already been carrying around but also drove him to seek and perfect what he had been looking for musically. “Two days before Christmas 1939,” he tells Rodney. “What a Christmas present.”
Charlie Parker in the middle of Dizzy Gillespie (to his left) and an unidentified man, c. 1945. Gifted to the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture by Paxton and Rachel Baker.
It was a little surprising to see that the Rodney relationship was given nearly as much screen-time as that between Bird and Dizzy. But I suspect that Eastwood was looking to add something new, and the Rodney relationship probably just hadn’t received much coverage to that point. Eastwood knew there was much more heft and history to the Dizzy relationship and there’s simply no room in a movie that, because of its construction, doesn’t prioritize even the movie’s primary interpersonal relationship—that between Parker and Chan. If you want “Bird and Diz” from Clint Eastwood, it’d have to be a different movie. That said, the Gillespie character does memorably steal one scene near the film’s end.
It’s March 1954, Parker’s been booked for a week at an LA club. Chan asks him not to go, but their youngest daughter Pree needs daily medical care and Parker can’t book club gigs for the usual reasons; they need the money.
If he could stay clean, show up on time, and manage the non-musical responsibilities of leading his own band, he could be well situated financially like Gillespie. Of course, we know he can’t stay clean and/or sober. This contributes to Parker’s money problems; even places that do hire him know they can lowball him and get desperate genius on the cheap. Eastwood seems to suggest that even though beloved by musicians and sophisticates, his status as a pariah commercially led record labels to stiff him—“I only make the records. I don’t sell them”— and white singers to transpose his solos, put lyrics to them, and watch them become hits without Parker seeing a cent.
This infuriates Chan but Parker’s resigned to it. He’s also resigned to the idea of his life ending pretty much how his childhood doctor in Kansas City told him it would, in a morgue at a very young age. He fears it more than anything — “Don’t ever let them send me back to Kansas City,” he tells Chan on that car ride to La Guardia—and that’s why he expects it. There’s a lot of self-fulfilling prophecy to Eastwood’s Bird. And that kicks into overdrive after Pree’s death.
But back momentarily to this March '54 engagement in LA. Dizzy’s there and they’re staying at some beachside mansion. Evening’s arrived, and Parker’s nowhere near ready for his gig. He’s at the beachside bar drinking, knowing that if he shows up late, he’ll just play a little overtime, and no one will mind. This frustrates the hell out of Gillespie, who walks away annoyed with his friend. Parker follows Gillespie out to the water’s edge. He asks him, “What’s your secret?”
Essentially what he’s asking is: Why can’t I do what you do? Lead a band, show up to gigs on-time, etc.
Dizzy tells Bird essentially that he makes it his business to be beyond reproach because when you show up drunk or high or late, you give white club owners the satisfaction of being right about you.
“I’m a reformer,” Diz says to Bird. “You tryin’ to be a martyr. They always talk about the martyrs longer.”
The filmmakers, maybe better than anyone, know just how true that is; they’ve made a film called Bird, not Diz.
It’s a powerful moment and reveals why it’s just not necessary for Eastwood to include more shared scenes between the two. It serves as a microcosm for all Eastwood wants you to know about the Bird/Diz dynamic. Gillespie’s no more looking to change Parker than Chan is. The overwhelming sense is that both, along with some frustration and some resentment, mostly feel grateful for having shared a brief slice of time with someone as singular as Parker.
Continue on to Part III: Apocryhpa and Artistic License