One Night in Birdland

I’ve just re-read an interesting biographical study from last year on the ‘Neurological problems of jazz legends’ and noticed a interesting snippet about Charlie Parker:

As a result of a car accident as a teenager, Parker became addicted to morphine and, in turn, heroin. Contemporary musicians took similar drugs, hoping to emulate his playing. Through the 1940s, Parker’s career flourished. He recorded some of his most famous tunes, including ‘‘Billie’s Bounce’’ and ‘‘Koko.’’ Yet, he also careened erratically between incredible playing and extreme bouts of alcohol and drug abuse. This deteriorated in 1946, when after the recording of the song ‘‘Lover Man,’’ Parker became inebriated in his hotel room, set fire to his mattress, and ran through the hotel lobby wearing only his socks. Parker was arrested and committed to Camarillo State Mental Hospital, where he stayed for 6 months. This stay inspired the song ‘‘Relaxin at Camarillo (1947).’’

The track Relaxin at Camarillo is available on YouTube and it has a wonderfully rambling swing-backed sound. As far as I know, it is the only song about a stay at a mental hospital, but as musicians have had more than their fair share of hospital stays, I wouldn’t be surprised if there were any others, so do let me know if you know of any others.

By the way, the full article on the neurological problems of jazz legends is available online and has six biographies of jazz greats. There’s also a fascinating anecdote related by the author regarding a possible emperor’s new clothes moment during Thelonious Monk’s mental decline:

A personal anecdote: The author’s father, a professional jazz trumpeter, attended an outdoor concert in which Monk simply stared at the keyboard for the 16 bars of his solo but ultimately returned to playing as the next soloist took his course. The audience applauded wildly, assuming that if Monk was thinking through the course but not actually playing, then it must have been astounding, even immanent and transcending a human’s ability to perform much less understand. In retrospect, Monk’s mental status was disordered enough [whether dominated by depressed mood or confusion] that he must have been unable to perform for that verse.

Likely a moment of confusion but I prefer the version where the internal music soars above Monk’s declining skills.

Link to ‘Neurological problems of jazz legends’.
Link to PubMed entry for same.
Link to Relaxin’ at Camarillo.
Link to previous entry on the study’s beat poem abstract.

5 thoughts on “One Night in Birdland”

  1. I don´t know if this interests you in any way, but there is this CD, Diagnose: Lebensgefahr (band name) РTransformalin (album name), which supposedly is a therapeutic/rehabilitation album suggested by the ward he (Nattramn) was institutionalized. It´s a quite bizarre experience and not an easy listen, but interesting none the less. There´s not much information on the web that I could find to substantiate this claims, and they have taken down most the information from their main site and put on some weird stuff. Here´s what I´ve got: (Nattramns ex-band)
    The album is on some torrents/blogs for download e.g.

  2. You may be interested in the album “Electro-Shock Blues” by Eels, which contains several songs about psychiatric treatment and commitment to mental hospitals, although as far as I know they’re in reference to the singer’s sister’s life and not his own. It’s also just an amazing album all around — poignant, haunting and funny.

  3. Great post. As for other songs about stays in mental institutions – yes there are many others. James Taylor’s “Knockin Round The Zoo” is about his stay in McLean’s. “Hotel California” is rumored to be about a friend’s stay in Camarillo, it of the Parker song.
    The rock genre is replete with songs about mental illness, if not about mental institutions. “Brain Damage,” by Pink Floyd (Syd Barrett); “Manic Depression” by Jimmie Hendrix; Warren Zevon’s ouvre is replete with songs about mental collapse, rehab, and so forth. (Think “Detox Mansion,” “Excitable Boy,” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead.”)
    And speaking of Bird and jazz, I highly recommend, if you haven’t read already, Geoff Dyer’s imagined accounts of the lives of several jazz musicians (based on their bios), “But Beautiful.”
    Cheers, Clifton @cliftonwiens

  4. There’s a track that I think records Monk having one of those “moments.” I believe it’s “The Man I Love” off Miles Davis and the Modern Jazz Giants (memory hazy on this). When it is time for Monk’s solo, he starts playing the main theme at about half speed, and then sort of tapers off and stops playing until a sax comes in to sort of give him a nudge/suggestion. I had always thought it was Monk being kind of musically perverse, but maybe it was a bit of disordered thought. I think that’s also the record where you can hear Monk arguing with other players at the beginning of one of the tracks.

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