Interview with Kim Parker during her visit to the Charlie Parker Residence 151 Avenue B in the summer of 2005
Q: Kim what is it like to come back here?
Kim: Its good to be back and its been quite a while. Everything looks about the same. The hallway was just like this. There was once a funny incident involving the hallway whenever Bird was going to have himself committed or something. He called the police and the police arrived but in the interim somebody broke in so he said to the cops, thank you officers take him away and that’s what they did. They took the burglar away. Bird got out of having to go off to a facility so that was it. I once had a refrigerator box that I lived in for a while out here. The room was entirely black. I had a black bedroom. There’s a fireplace back here and above the fireplace we had a white death mask which was really comforting. My bed was over there and my younger brother and sister had a crib over here. My brother and sister moved into what was formerly my back bedroom. We were set up for family. We had family Sundays, family dinners but we never had visitors. Bird's tape recorder was over there and the TV was over there. Bird loved cowboy shows, really corny cowboy shows and so he would sit and laugh his arse off. Bertha my mothers bed was over there. This room served as everything from the family room to the kids bedroom at some time or other.
This whole space was open so we just had a flow through and then we had our dining room table here where we would have family suppers when Bird was around. He loved that and we would have family around on Sunday. We would all sit around our dining table that Bird had built--it was in the shape of a G cleft . We probably had wind chimes too.
I had a pretty hot den here with this big room. The bathroom is as tight as it was then Bird spent a lot of time in there. He was either setting the hamper on fire or doing something weird in there. I remember the bathroom very well and the kitchen. We had a table here , and of course we didn’t have a washing machine so things were a little more roomy. I don’t know how we ever lived here it was pretty tight. Outside we were very lucky to have a back yard. I must say what you've done to the garden is spectacular. It used to be all concrete and there was a swing set over there. This whole thing used to be open, its been reduced by the neighbours. This used to go from wall to wall so it was quite a bit bigger then but there was nothing here except concrete. Its fun to be back, its great to see it and its great to see that’s its been taking care of and respected and immortalised. That’s a nice thing especially.
Q: All these different memories of the rooms
Kim: Yeah, Bird of course whenever he was not on the road he would be here for Sunday dinners. We would all sit in the middle room with the family--my grandmother and my uncle and my mother and Pree and Baird my brother and sister. Sister and brother and I had 2 fake aunts, not real aunts. I call them fake aunts but they were part of the family. We would all gather and Bird just loved that. He loved eating and hosting, he loved to host, but never musicians. We never had musicians visiting because Bird was very private and wanted to keep those people away from his family.
Q: What was he like as a father?
Kim: He was a really wonderful father-- very kind, very gentle with me. When I was a child, I used to go to school about 2 or 3 blocks up the street. When I was in first grade, nobody woke up with me first thing in the mornings so I would have to make my own breakfast and make my own lunch to carry. I would walk myself to school and I didn’t know what children were because I lived a nightlife. I didn’t really understand what children were and I didn’t understand why I was captured in this place everyday. Every morning at 10:30 I would throw up in school and every morning the janitor would wait outside the door at about 10:30 to take care of me. Finally the school sent a note to my home and said you have to take this child to a doctor--there’s something wrong with her--she throws up everyday. I was a nervous wreck in school. Bird walked me to 10th Street to the doctor and the doctor said there’s nothing wrong with this child she’s just terrified. She needs to be reassured. So Bird walked me back to school and back to my classroom. I had no sense of colour or prejudice. When I walked into school holding my daddy’s hand I was at the top of the world –walking with this big Black man into the classroom full of little white snotty kids that I was terrified of. Being there with my daddy made it all ok. That was really a wonderful thing and that’s what made the relationship I had with my father so special to me.
Q: Were you aware about how special he was outside the house as well as to you?
Kim: Well yeah...I was aware of how special he was because of the way he presented himself in public and the way the people reacted to him in public. He was worshipped and he was always very cool about it. He wasn’t egotistical about it at all. He blended with all sorts of people. He found every kind of people to be very fascinating. He was in no way a snob but his stature as a man and just something that radiated from him was very powerful and that was obvious to me even as a child that he was special.
Q: So life was pretty good when you moved into the house here?
Kim: I would say that life was excellent and we really had a family situation. Of course there were conflicts behind the scenes that I was not aware of at all. I was pretty protected from that until my sister died and then everything sort of fell apart. That was the year before Bird died. My sister died in March 1954 and Bird died in March 1955. That was pretty downhill. My grandmother lived on what later became known as Swing Street-- 52nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenue—I was shipped off there after my father died.
Q: Do you remember his death?
Kim: I remember the night when Pree died and my mother came back from the hospital hysterical. It choked me up and I didn’t understand what death was so it was hard for me to really grasp what had happened. I guess I was 7 at the time. We didn’t have TV where you’re exposed to life and death a lot earlier. We had TV but it was in its infancy and we weren't exposed to violence then as children are today.
Q: What were you aware of between your parents and family life, what was the atmosphere like?
Kim: Again I was a child and I really wasn’t privy to that but in retrospect all I can say is that things just got worse. My mother moved us to New Hope Pennsylvania thinking a change of scene would be beneficial for everyone. My mother was completely devastated by the death of her daughter and Bird. I think Bird detached from things to save himself which meant that in a way the sadness between them was very powerful. I’ve seen very sad photographs of them in Washington Square Park shortly after Pree’s death and there’s just a complete space between them and I think it was just the beginning of the end, really.
Q: How much did you see of Bird after moving to Pennsylvania?
Kim: We didn’t, I don’t recall seeing Bird that often. Whenever he would come out, he would take the train to Trenton and then my mother would pick him up with the car. He was very proud of that trip. He would come with a newspaper rolled under his arm and pretending that he was an average commuter. I don’t even know if they had black people commuting in those days. He would always pass himself as whatever he thought he could be and he loved that being the happy commuter. He loved those corny things, he really did.
Q: How do you remember him being with other people when you were in other people’s company how was he?
Kim: I think he could certainly go for weakness and use that to his advantage but he didn’t necessarily look for that in others. If you presented it to him and he could get 5 bucks from you or whatever he wanted he would go for that--but he was not cruel and he was not deliberately manipulative to innocent people--but some people deserved it!
Q: You’re a musician how do you look back on his musical talent?
Kim: As a child I really didn’t understand jazz because we never had jazz played in the house--we had classical music. Bird loved Peggy Lee and standards, too. We didn’t have jazz at home. It was only when I would go out with my parents to a club that I was really presented with it. Bird really kept our world separate from his professional life. Of course my mother would go out with him very, very often and I would go sometimes. Our home was more of a relaxed and protective environment.
Q: What entertained him?
Kim: Bird loved, he just loved simple entertainment. He died watching jugglers on TV and laughing himself into a spasm which killed him. He loved cowboy movies. One of his greatest thrills was he met Gaby Hayes on the street. Now Gaby Hayes was whose side kick? I can’t remember if it was Roy Rogers or Gene Altree--but a famous cowboy person and that was just the best thing. Getting his autograph was a thrill of a lifetime for Bird. Here was this genius of a man and this was his thrill. There’s a famous story about him renting a horse. The story in the Bird movie is actually fictitious because he rented the horse to come to impress me. He didn’t come to woo my mother, and it was in the daytime. He came up with the horse when I was living on 52nd Street—I missed him because I wasn't at home. By the time we got home my mother said, “oh your father was just here with a horse” and I said “I know, I know the whole neighbourhood is talking about it”. He took the horse over to the West side and parked it in the Kinney parking lot near Charlie’s Tavern. He was a man full of fun. One of his big thrills--there was a magic shop over near Roseland on Broadway where he would buy magic tricks and bring them home--you know buzzers, you would shake hands and you get like a buzz shock--he loved that stuff--he was a baby, he really loved it.
Q: Chan talks about him being afraid; did you ever sense any of that in him, weakness or unhappiness?
Kim: I never sensed any weakness from him. That was something that he probably didn’t show my mother very often if at all. I don’t know but, no, no because he would have protected me--those things were not for me to see. I don’t think he was afraid of anything--I think he lived his life pretty directly and I don’t think he was that introspective, and I maybe wrong, I maybe totally wrong but I don’t see him as a very introspective person. He was busy living, grabbing life I don’t see him as fretting about things.
Q: What memories do you have the days around that?
Kim: When Bird died we were living with my grandmother in Lumberville, Pennsylvania. Bird didn’t actually know where we lived. My mother had moved us and my mother was working, checking coats at a jazz club in Trenton, New Jersey. She was not at home, my grandmother was babysitting, when we got a call from an uncle-- saying that Bird was dead. I was somehow privy to this through my grandmother but my grandmother wouldn’t tell my mother until my mother came home because she didn’t want her killing herself on the way home by driving into the canal or something. The next morning I went to school and then I was pulled out of school and we came to New York to stay at my grandmothers for a few days while the horrendous funeral went on. I was not a part of the funeral. I didn’t go Bird's funeral nor did I go to Pree’s funeral. I still wasn’t really aware of death and what it was.
Q: What was Chan like weeks afterwards?
Kim: My mom lost 2 of the most important people in her life in a space of a year and she was left alone. Everything of Bird’s legacy was either taken from her or people were trying to take it from her. All she had left were a few memories and possessions and she was not treated well by the avaricious side of the jazz business. On the other hand in order to help her income she had jazz concerts at a local place out in the country and many, many musicians like Jackson and Stan Getz and Lee Connets and lot of people came out and donated their playing in order to raise money so she could stay on her feet. Then in the summer after Bird died, 5 months after Bird died we were in a flat and lost everything except the Bird memorabilia which my mother managed to evacuate. We lost everything, everything, we had--water and mud up to the attic. There was a lot of starting over during that time and for me it wasn’t so bad because I was a kid and kids are resilient. I knew my mother very well and I understand her even better now, so I know what a terrible, terrible time it must have been for her, terrible time.
Q: In the book Chan blamed *** for not doing more to help. Do you think looking back there was a way out for Bird?
Kim: I don’t think there was a way out for Bird I think Bird was on a course and he fulfilled his destiny. He was like a nova, burned out and that’s why people are still talking about him because he was special and he was sort of uncontainable. His appetites were bigger than anyone else’s and his life was bigger than anyone else’s and his talent was bigger than anyone else’s and it happened as it happened and I don’t think he would have changed anything if he had a chance too.
Q: 50 years on how far has his influence been has it surprised you at all?
Kim: I think his influence frustrated a lot of musicians because the bar was raised so high. In 50 years some people have come up to it maybe but nobody has jumped over it. except for Coltrane—although he's in a different category. I think Bird will live on forever, I really do.
Q: In one of the radio shows he did he says that in 20 to 25 years someone would come along . Was he aware then that he set the bar that high?
Kim: Well he was an astute man I think he was well aware of his influence on musicians becuase people were falling over him, they were kissing his feet and he knew that he’d changed music forever maybe that wasn’t the end of where it was going to go but he knew that he had changed it forever. Once he had started introducing opera partials into music and people started playing flat nines all those notes, yeah it changed things.
Q: What’s your last memory of him?
Kim: My last memory of him would probably be kissing him goodbye when we lived in the house where we first moved into when we moved to New Hope. Kissing him goodbye when my mother was going to take him to the train. I don’t think it was more than a week later, I don’t know, I don’t know what the time span was, when he died. He and my mother were a little estranged at the time of his death because he was being irrational. It was very hard on my mother she was still grieving the loss of my sister and she would always say, god you’re weird. To put up with him was not an easy thing but as I said these are all the things I was not privy to as a child.
Q: How does it feel for you to be talking about him 50 years on?
Kim: Doesn’t bother me to talk about him at all. I was extremely proud of him and I loved him very much. I was very blessed to have another wonderful step-father Phil Woods--so I never lacked for good fathers. I was very lucky that way, really lucky that way and I count my blessings for the life that I have and the things that I were exposed to. When I lived with my grandmother we were a block away from the Modern Museum of Art and my mother would take me over there everyday and I grew up thinking Picasso was my friend and because it seemed like my parents knew everybody so I guess they knew Picasso, too. I was exposed to wonderful things--my mother would take me to the ballet and to the City Centre Ballet, Modern and to tango movies and low fight movies and it was wonderful. I don’t look back with sadness. I think the only period in my life that I got sad was when I realised that everybody else was normal and my family wasn’t and I wanted to be normal and that messed me up for a while but im almost 59 years old and I have no regrets at all.