On March 9, 1955, on his way to a gig in Boston, jazz great Charlie Parker stopped at the Stanhope Hotel to visit his friend and jazz patron, the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. He was near death; decades of heroin addiction, alcoholism, a bad heart, cirrhosis, and depression had taken their toll. His wife Chan had left him and moved to another state with their remaining children after the devastating death of their two-yearold daughter, Pree. For the next few days, Nica would try her best to nurse him back to health, soliciting the help of her physician who warned Charlie that he should be hospitalized or risk death, but Charlie refused. On March 12, while watching television, Charles Parker, Jr. died at the age of 34. His death certificate stated the cause of death as lobar pneumonia.
No good deed goes unpunished. The facts about his untimely death and what happened to him postmortem created quite a media sensation that followed the Baroness for the rest of her life. These accusations included the deliberate misidentification of his body with the wrong name and age on his toe, the amount of time it took to get his body to the morgue (about five hours), and why Nica did not tell anyone he had passed, allowing his body to lay unclaimed in the morgue for days. Because Nica was part of the Rothschild family, her actions were attributed to covering up the scandal of a black man dying in a wealthy, married, white woman’s hotel suite. Nica vehemently countered, stating she was only trying to help a sick friend get well and had immediately called the doctor when it appeared that he had passed. Charlie was taken to Bellevue’s Morgue with his correct name, and Nica said she wanted to find Chan to let her know about his death first, from a friendly source, before the newspapers or radio announced it. Nica searched all of New York, but Chan had moved to Pennsylvania. It wasn’t until Nica was able to find and notify Chan’s mother that she found out, adding a day or two more to Charlie’s stay in the morgue. As soon as Chan claimed his body, however, Charlie’s third wife Doris claimed him because Charlie and Chan had not legally married. As they fought over his body and later his estate for decades, Nica was evicted from the Stanhope, a segregated hotel, and disinherited by her family. Her husband later divorced her and took custody of their youngest children.
Imagine having an opportunity to realize one final dream before you die. Charlie Parker often talked about writing new music for an orchestra of 40 or more. He had already accomplished quite a bit. But as of March 12, 1955 this had eluded him. As his body lies misidentified in the morgue, Charlie’s ghost enters Birdland, a 500-seat club named after him that also featured caged finches as decor. Celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, and Joe Louis could be seen there regularly. Owning no part of Birdland, Charlie was kicked out in 1954 after an altercation with another musician. On March 4, 1955, he made his final appearance there. Eight days later he was dead.
His spirit, both surprised and inspired, now stands in this new Birdland. Here, he will create his final masterpiece. He is interrupted by Nica, who appears frantically in search of his wife Chan, so she can tell her Charlie is dead. Charlie needs all the time available to write. Nica, on the other hand, needs Chan to claim Charlie’s body and end the potential nightmare of the press announcing that he has died in her hotel suite forcing the hotel to evict her. Charlie tries to write but the notes will not stay on the paper. As a master of improvisation, Charlie long realized that the twelve semitones of the chromatic scale could lead melodically to any key, freeing musicians from the twelve bar blues.
Needing a new freedom, Charlie is visited and inspired by people who have meant much in his life. With the inspiration of his strong mother Addie, three of his four wives, Rebecca, Doris, and Chan, and his partner in the jazz revolution that was bebop, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker will struggle to calm his demons and write his new masterpiece before his body is identified in the morgue and this gig is up forever. Can he do it or will the demons of his past rear their ugly heads? Will he succumb to heroin or alcohol, or is he just too tired and sick to go on? Will he channel the strength and love of his mother, a woman who worked long hours to give him everything she could? He was her only child. Did she mother him too much or will he honor her with a new masterpiece? He left his first wife Rebecca with an infant son nearly 15 years earlier. Can she forgive him? Charlie will bravely revisit Camarillo State Mental Hospital, a purgatory, searching for inspiration and healing. Will he find it and will he be able to forgive himself for the death of his daughter Pree, whom he could not save? Can her forgiveness save him? This opera searches for the music in dreams deferred and the power of redemption.
We proudly close the opera with “I know why the caged bird sings,” the last stanza from “Sympathy,” a poem by Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906), understanding and acknowledging both the struggle and triumph of Charlie Parker.
Synopsis by Bridgette A. Wimberly, courtesy of Opera Philadelphia