Charlie Parker at the Open Door: The Greatest Jazz Photo?

Apr 8, 2019

A few weeks ago (March 8, 2019), the New York Times ran a piece entitled, “Is This the Greatest Photo in Jazz History?” I was immediately struck by the silly conceit of declaring anything the greatest (except, that is, for the ice cream made from dairy cows at a local farm that I’ve assiduously avoided since February 5, 2017), but of course I read on. Robert Parent’s photo depicts Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, and Roy Haynes, playing at the Open Door in Greenwich Village on September 13, 1953.  It’s an eye-catching picture, not only for its vivid depiction of this quartet of renowned figures, but for a drawing of a female nude along the rear wall. I’ve been familiar with it ever since it first jumped out at me about 50 years ago from the pages of Robert Reisner’s book, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker.

Bob Reisner was also the man who presented jazz at the Open Door, and his book is dotted with reminiscences of the club. Here’s what Ted Wald, a bassist who died a few years ago, recalled of being on the bandstand with Bird and of the saxophonist’s humane way of guiding musicians who were overawed by his presence.

“I first met Parker in 1950. The first greeting I received from him was, ‘Give me a cigarette.’ I didn’t see him after that night until the summer of 1953. That summer…was wonderful. Those of us who lived in the Village got to play with Bird almost every day, either at the Open Door or at Sherry Martinelli’s pad on Third Avenue and 4th Street. Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, and another guy who’s left, Ronnie Singer were around; so it was pretty swinging. [Trumpeter] Don Joseph and Bird used to sound nutty together. Brew [Moore] and Bird used to groove each other, too.

“I was lucky enough to work a gig that summer with Charlie and [pianist] Al Haig. It was at The Open Door. When we got on the stand to blow the first tune, I was petrified. It was a real up-tempo tune. Bird had a way, with besides his blowing, that made a guy want to play. He dug I was unrelaxed, and so he called a blues. The second chorus he made me walk the twelve bars by myself. He just stood there snapping his fingers saying, ‘Walk on.’ The rest of the gig was a ball for me.

“Some put him up as a god; others put him down as a goof. I heard him speak as a man and as the most wailing alto player that has been.”

(Theodore David Wald died on January 29, 2016. A native New Yorker born in 1929, he had lived for many years in the Pacific Northwest community of Port Townsend, Washington. He was married for the last 26 years of his life to Virginia McEwan, who was married briefly to Chicagoan Paul Butterfield in the mid-sixties and was the mother of blues drummer Gabriel Butterfield. Virginia died in 2018. In the new documentary, Horn From the Heart: The Paul Butterfield Story, she is hailed by Butterfield's brother Peter for the selfless act she provided the emerging 22-year-old blues harpist when she offered to marry him in 1964 so that he'd have a deferment from the Vietnam War era draft. Here’s the obituary that Virginia wrote for Ted Wald. And here’s a link to her recollection of spending the summer of 1961 hanging out with her companion Lin Halliday, pianist Sonny Clark and other jazz players associated with the Jazz Loft on Second Avenue. Virginia was only 17 at the time, and her account of living the life in the company of drug-addicted musicians makes for a harrowing read.)