Charlie "Bird" Parker and the craziest jazz party ever
Charlie "Bird" Parker has been called the greatest saxophonist who ever lived, a jazz legend who not only spearheaded the bebop movement but also laid the foundations of modern jazz.
Photo courtesy of the William P. Gottleib Collection
He was also a party animal.
In 1952, Los Angeles would play host to one of Parker's wildest exploits. The New York-based musician was in L.A. for some club gigs, even as his health was rapidly declining -- fat, and alternately strung out on heroin or in the throes of withdrawal, he nursed his pain with alcohol binges. He went hard until the end. When Parker died in 1955 from a bleeding ulcer and liver disease, the coroner estimated his body to be between 50 and 60 years of age. He was 34.
But not even Parker could have anticipated what unfolded in the early hours of July 15 at Zorthian's Ranch -- an artists commune in the foothills above Altadena in northern Los Angeles.
That evening, the saxophonist was invited to perform at a party by the ranch's eccentric owner, a bohemian sculptor named Jirayr Zorthian. Something of a legend himself, Zorthian was friends with everyone from Andy Warhol to Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, and the ranch, perched atop Fair Oaks Avenue, was his personal Utopia, with life-size art installations and recycled construction materials scattered across hillside chaparral. Still standing today, the place looks like a cross between an old Western movie set and a scene out of Alice in Wonderland.
It was the perfect stage for an all-out Charlie Parker bacchanal -- a night when the jazz didn't start till late but played long into the morning. A night when one beauty stripped, and then everybody else followed.
Sixty-two years later, they'd still be talking about it.
It was already midnight, the beginning of July 15, 1952, as the pickup truck carrying a half-dozen band members and a baby grand piano came grunting up Zorthian's steep driveway. For the crowd gathered at the ranch -- a collection of beatnik artists and intellectuals -- it was a reassuring sight. Most had been waiting since 9 p.m. to hear Parker play, and they were relieved to know that the musicians had not reneged on the commitment.
Until they noticed that Parker wasn't in the truck.
The outlook only dampened when the other musicians seemed confused. "You mean he's not already here?" one asked.
No one had any idea where Parker was, which was not uncommon at the time. Deep into various addictions, Parker was becoming increasingly erratic, missing shows and pawning musical instruments to buy drugs. With no way of contacting him, the band knew it would be best to start without him.
Photo by Danny Liao Jirayr Zorthian's art studio today
So Zorthian directed everyone into his art studio, where he'd set up a stage. Inside, guests packed around the performers. The jerry-rigged wooden structure, which still stands today, is only about 20 feet by 50 feet -- small enough that Zorthian's son Alan, who currently owns the ranch, says that guests who couldn't fit inside used to drink up on the roof.
The band played for an hour. Then, around 1 a.m., Parker suddenly arrived.
"Get onstage," Zorthian implored.
"No, I think I'd rather go swimming," Parker replied.
The band Parker had assembled was a virtual who's who of the L.A. jazz scene in those days. Nineteen-year-old Frank Morgan, whose father ran a club on Central Avenue, was there to play second alto sax. Larance Marable, who died in 2012, was on drums. David Bryant was on bass, Amos Trice on piano. And Don Wilkerson, a Texas-style honker, was on tenor sax.
Up to that point, their performance had been relatively uneventful. With the appearance of their unpredictable ringleader, though, the evening transitioned into a different kind of party.
Cajoled by Zorthian, Parker finally started playing. That's when a beautiful woman approached Zorthian and told him that if Parker asked nicely, she'd perform a striptease for the crowd.
When Parker heard this, he got on his knees, begging, "Please!'"
That did the trick. The woman climbed on top of an ornate rocking horse, carved and painted by Zorthian himself. She began swaying back and forth, back and forth, performing a slow, sensual striptease while Parker blew the notes to "Embraceable You."
"Take it off!" people cried from the audience. "Take it off!"
From his vantage point onstage, Parker got so excited by the striptease that he dropped his pants. Then Zorthian tore off his shirt.
"And next thing you know," Zorthian would later exult, "three-quarters of the party was naked!"