Eastwood's Parker, an Analysis. Part III

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Eastwood's Parker, an Analysis. Part III

Clint Eastwood’s “Bird”: The Good, The Bad, The Apocryphal

By Matt Silver

The real Buster Smith pioneered the so-called “Texas sound” on saxophone, played with Lester Young and Count Basie, and mentored Charlie Parker.

Part III: Apocrypha and Artistic License

The Curious Case of Buster Franklin

By most accounts, Bird’s Buster Franklin character, if not the film's primary black hat—that's probably vice-cop-cum-shakedown-artist, Estevez—then certainly its most emotionally resonant one, was meant to represent a fictional character cobbled together from different characters Parker would’ve known in real life. A so-called "composite character." But in real life, everything about the Buster character—aside from how he treats Parker— seems very consistent with a real person, Buster Smith.

Smith, the progenitor of the “fat” Texas saxophone sound (David Fathead Newman, a true “Texas tenor,” was a protégé), was an alto saxophonist best known for playing very loud, doing so alongside tenorman Lester Young and Count Basie in the 1930s, and for being a mentor to Charlie Parker. Why, then, did Eastwood and co. paint Franklin as a tormentor rather than a father figure?

It strains credulity to think that the “Buster Franklin” character could have been based on anyone other than Buster Smith. To start, Smith’s given middle name was Franklin; Buster’s what his family nicknamed him as a child. Also, the real-life Smith was known to have played with Kansas City bandleader Bennie Moten in the ’30s. In “Bird,” just seconds before a young Parker takes the Reno Club stage for that infamous Jo Jones-throwing-a-cymbal cutting session, one of Parker’s adolescent acquaintances has a word of warning for Bird regarding the Franklin character, who’d been taking-on all the young newcomers. “Don’t trifle with him,” he tells Bird. “He’s played with [Bennie] Moten, and you ain’t done shit. Just play a chorus and get off.”

In the film, Buster Franklin laughs cruelly and with great satisfaction when Jones’s cymbal lands with a gong at the young Parker’s feet. Years later in the story, we see Buster Frankin on 52nd St. The roving nightclub concierge (aka dime-store Joe Pesci) asks Franklin, in town to play with Count Basie (as the real-life Smith would’ve been), whether he’s come to “hear the new guy,” meaning Parker, who’s being featured in Dizzy’s band. Smith sneers and says, “Ain’t no new guy. I remember Parker from eight years ago in Kansas City. He couldn’t play ‘Come to Jesus’ in whole notes,” and he laughs a big, fat, haughty laugh.

What comes next is fun and memorable and among the top two most certainly apocryphal moments of Bird. Franklin walks into the club to find Parker flying all over the instrument—and making sense, musically—on “Lester Leaps In.” The crowd’s beside themselves. Buster’s smug grin turns to a scowl, he leaves the club in haste, turns a corner and chucks his saxophone in the river.

No, Buster Smith didn’t throw his horn into the river. And, no, the Buster Smith who played with Lester Young and Basie in KC, then later mentored Bird, and then much later became a respected bandleader and educator in the Dallas-area almost certainly did not laugh an adolescent Charlie parker off stage at the Reno Club, though whether any version of that story—including Jo Jones’ involvement—actually happened remains a live controversy among Parker experts.

My guess is that it’s like the Michael Jordan being “cut from his high school team” story. Not quite false, but not quite true either. As for the connection between the real Buster Smith and the fictional Buster Franklin, though Bird’s creators may have appropriated Smith’s CV for use by the fictional Franklin, the fictional Franklin’s brash and sneering demeanor—and most importantly, his dismissal of the filmic Charlie Parker—have nothing in common with the real Buster Smith, who died in 1991.

On the occasion of Charlie Parker’s centennial in 2020, the UK Jazz Archive published a quote from Buster Smith on his relationship with Charlie Parker that’s ultimately attributable to a 1960 interview Smith gave to The Jazz Review.

“He’d listen to you,” Smith said of Parker. “He used to call me his dad. I called him my boy.”

I generally liked what Eastwood did with Bird. But if you’re going to create a fictional character, make him an alto saxophone player from Kansas City and give him almost the exact same resume as an alto saxophonist who actually lived and knew Charlie Parker—like a son!—it seems to me you’ve got an ethical responsibility—if not a legal one— to do better by the person whose biographical info you’re borrowing.

For further exploration: Popular interest in this particular piece of Parker lore—Jo Jones, the flying cymbal, Reno Club— has revived some of late, albeit absent any mention of saxophone playing Busters, real or fictional. The infamous incident is mentioned multiple times in Damian Chazelle’s Whiplash (2014).

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