Bronzeville Gypsy
Charlie Parker (center, with sunglasses, leaning forward) performing with the Howard McGhee Band in 1946 at the Finale Club in what today is Little Tokyo. Parker stayed in Los Angeles for 14 months. Photo courtesy the Peter Vacher Collection.

Some of the oldest buildings in Little Tokyo are on East First Street, between San Pedro Street and Central Avenue. On the north side, a timeline in brass script has been set into the pavement to mark historic milestones in front of each doorway. A ribbon of black runs the length of that sidewalk, signifying the World War II years when the area's Japanese residents were interned at various remote camps. It's a silent, bitter reminder of one of American democracy's worst hours.

Nothing of Little Tokyo's history remains on the southwest corner of First and San Pedro streets. Certainly nothing of the interlude when African Americans flooded the area during the war. California Bank & Trust sits off the corner, a square of pavement between the building and the intersection.

Historic markers here might note two points: At what used to be 115 S. San Pedro St., Charlie Par-ker's musical genius soared to some of its most brilliant heights and plunged to some of its most tortured depths. And here, at the southwest corner, is where the Bird came crashing down in smoke and flames in an upstairs hotel room.

Sixty years ago this spring the Yardbird prowled Bronzeville. It was a brief but incandescent episode in Los Angeles jazz history.

New Boom Town

Executive Order 9066 was implemented in early 1942 and Little Tokyo quickly emptied out. The human vacuum was eventually filled by itinerant African Americans who had migrated west - largely from the south - to work in the defense industries. Little Tokyo was, after all, on the north end of the main stem of black Los Angeles, Central Avenue. All manner of business thrived on the street, from the luxurious Dunbar Hotel to insurance agencies, law offices and markets, right down to shoeshine stands. Segregation was firmly in place making it inevitable, perhaps, that L.A.'s new black population would fill the vacant district on the north end of the Avenue. Little Tokyo became known as Bronzeville.

It all happened so fast. Japanese Americans were given very little time to liquidate their holdings and sell their belongings; bring only what you can carry, they were told. They'd be back, they hoped, but who knew just when?

Bronzeville became a magnet for black entrepreneurs and hustlers. Businesses sprang up overnight, sometimes in the tiniest spaces. The district was a labyrinth of legal question marks, even for the police department. Prostitution might have operated off the Avenue in a parlor, euphemistically called The Do-Right Tea Room. In Bronzeville it could be viewed from a hotel window in an open lot below. The place took on the look of a boom town - wide open, vastly overcrowded and, after the sun went down, wild.

In December of '45, L.A. got a mainline jolt of bebop when the Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker band left New York's 52nd Street for Billy Berg's on Vine and DeLongpre in Hollywood. The opening attracted every jazz-minded young musician in town, but business eventually tapered off. The band, used to the frantic pressure cooker of New York, felt disoriented in the land of palm trees and a midnight curfew. It was especially hard on the 26-year old alto saxophonist Parker. A confirmed heroin addict, he couldn't find a reliable, steady source of the drug.

The Berg's gig ended in early February. Gillespie, the businesslike trumpeter, gave out plane tickets for the return trip to New York. But Parker's outlook was forged in the moral twilight of narcotics, where cunning and guile were required. He had a gypsy soul and would silently slip away from friends. He cashed in his ticket and stayed behind, a decision that nearly cost his life. What began as an eight-week engagement turned into a 14-month purgatory.

Musical Daring

Bird astounded the locals with his musical daring. At the Streets of Paris on Hollywood Boulevard, he sat in with the Howard McGhee Sextet, L.A.'s resident bebop band. Over "I Got Rhythm" chord changes, he insinuated the bridge to Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm" into his solo. At a concert at Philharmonic Auditorium near Pershing Square, Parker conjured an extended, funky, blues solo over the genteel changes of "Lady Be Good." It stands as one of his greatest recorded solos.

Those triumphs quickly faded as Parker was plunged into a desperate search for drugs - or a substitute - and work to pay for them. The city was, in junkie argot, hot. What passed for heroin in L.A. was a dirty opium-derivative that looked like its street name: mud.

The police acted as Jim Crow enforcers and arrested Parker twice near Berg's, each time with white musicians holding drugs. Bird and Harry "the Hipster" Gibson were smoking marijuana when a plainclothes duo hopped out of a car. Fisticuffs followed. Former Golden Gloves boxer Gibson held his own, and Parker ditched his recent score. After being booked at the nearby station, Berg raised holy hell and had the charges dismissed. The second time, the callow Gerry Mulligan was caught with two joints stashed in a fountain pen. Parker skated but Mulligan was arrested and tried.

In a Hollywood bar in February, Parker ran into tap dancer Foster Johnson, who presided over an after-hours spot in Bronzeville: the Finale Club. A makeshift cabaret, it sat in the back of 115 S. San Pedro St. A long, low-ceilinged room, it was accessed by a hallway past office doors. A former hall for a Japanese cultural organization, it was transformed by an elaborate set of gathered drapes behind a small, low stage. Customers brought their own bottles and bought ice and mixers inside.

Parker quickly assembled a band, with 20-year old trumpeter Miles Davis and Joe Albany, one of the few white pianists who played bebop. Addison Farmer was a young bassist of promise, as was drummer Chuck Thompson. With Parker's group as the draw, the Finale quickly became a magnet for musicians and Hollywood celebrities. The orchestras of Woody Herman, Stan Kenton and Boyd Raeburn were in town and a trip to the Finale was a pilgrimage for every young, modern jazzman.

Brink of a Breakdown

The music started at 1:00 each morning and went on, most days until well after daylight. Johnson arranged for broadcasts, over station KPAS in Pasadena, each night from 1:30 to 2 a.m. The floorshow - with shake dancers, comics and other entertainers - began at 3:00. With Davis's softer horn, Parker adjusted his frontline sound. No longer would he joust pell-mell with a flame-throwing trumpeter like Gillespie. Tenderness surfaced in his playing, especially on ballads.

Parker's mood, proficiency, even his interest, all depended on drugs. If he scored, he played with inspiration and drive. If he didn't, he was erratic, distracted, irritable or even near-comatose. He tried substituting alcohol - port wine or whisky - sometimes a quart a day. Though he was staying at the nearby Civic Hotel, Parker's deteriorating body found little rest there. Tenor saxophonist Teddy Edwards took him to all-night movies. The syrupy movie music soothed him and Bird could finally sleep, slumped in a theater seat.

Police detectives pressured Johnson for payoffs and the Finale abruptly shut down. Parker disappeared. In June, trumpeter Howard McGhee found him living in an unheated garage, dissolute and dissipated, unopened gin bottles at the ready. McGhee reopened the Finale and built a band around Parker, with three saxophonists and a rhythm section. Even though he struggled with a physical constitution that was growing more overtaxed by the day, Bird could still inspire awe.

One night a couple approached the bandstand and requested "The Gypsy," a hit parade tune. McGhee sarcastically asked, "Anybody here know 'The Gypsy'?" The boppers sneered behind their dark glasses until Parker drew himself up from his chair. With great difficulty he stood near the pianist and called out the chords of the song. He then proceeded to turn the lighthearted ditty into a musical Rorschach test of a man on the brink of a complete physical and emotional breakdown.

Ross Russell had begun Dial Records in early February, to record Parker. A frequent visitor to the Finale, he saw that the window for recording was very small. A session with McGhee and a rhythm section was called for July 29, 1946. Bird was losing control of his body. His head might jerk or the sax might fly up into the air with his hands attached. He limped through four titles. The two ballads, "Lover Man" and "The Gypsy," are the work of a man operating on little more than instinct. The performances are possessed by a stark, pathos-ridden quality.

A few hours later, Parker was back at the Civic. In the early morning hours he wandered, dazed, into the lobby, oblivious to his nudity. Later, a hotel guest smelled smoke; Parker had set his mattress on fire. He left the hotel in handcuffs, blackjacked unconscious by the police and wrapped in a blanket. Parker spent the next seven months in Camarillo State Hospital, and narrowly avoided shock therapy.

His drummer, Stan Levey, never heard the brittleness of Bird's 52nd Street sound after he returned to New York. Charlie Parker died at 34 in March of 1955. Foster Johnson walked away from the Finale experience with a stack of acetate air checks, which he lost in the chaos of one of his several divorces. "The Gypsy" has long been part of the jazz repertory. It entered that pantheon early one morning in Bronzeville, 60 years ago.

Kirk Silsbee has written about jazz in Los Angeles for the past 30 years. His work appears in L.A. CityBeat every week.

page 1, 5/22/2006

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