"The first time I heard Charlie Parker," says Clint Eastwood, "I was overwhelmed. Living in the Bay Area, I had been following the big resurgence of traditional jazz--Lu Watters, Bob Scobey, Kid Ory and all that--but hearing Bird, even though I couldn't understand him at first, really turned me around."
Eastwood is leaning against a dilapidated Ford parked outside a brownstone house on West 52nd Street, near Fifth Avenue--the fabled block whose small, shoebox-shaped nightclubs have played host to half the great names in jazz history.
This is, of course, not the original 52nd Street, but a strikingly real reconstruction on the lot at the Burbank Studios. Shooting began here last week on "Bird," the long-awaited motion picture about the legendary saxophonist Charlie Parker, that Eastwood, who once played piano in Oakland for beer and tips, is producing and directing.
"Bird," by Eastwood's own admission, is a labor of love and is being shot on a modest budget.
"This is a small, very personal story," he says. "It's funny--Americans have two original art forms--jazz and the Western movie. When you go to other countries you realize these are the two things that have the most influence around the world."
Eastwood's background in and around jazz has long been an open secret. "My mother was a great Fats Waller fan," he said, between takes. "By the time I was 15 or so I had learned enough to play at the Omar Club on Broadway in Oakland, where the laws were real loose and they'd let me play for free meals. At school the only instrument available was a fluegelhorn, which wasn't considered so hip in those days, but I did play horn a bit; however, mostly I concentrated on ragtime and blues piano." (Eastwood can be heard at the piano, along with Mike Lang and Pete Jolly, as part of a three-keyboard boogie-woogie number on the sound-track album of "City Heat.")
He remembers vividly his first exposure to Bird. "That was an incredible Jazz at the Philharmonic concert--Lester Young, my first reed idol, was also there, as well as Coleman Hawkins, Flip Phillips, Howard McGhee, Hank Jones. Later on, I was exposed to people like Dave Brubeck, and then, while I was in the Army at Ft. Ord, I'd go to hear Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker."
It was at Ft. Ord that Eastwood met Lennie Niehaus, an ex-Kenton alto sax player. Their friendship eventually led to jobs for Niehaus, who wrote the music for a series of Eastwood films: "Tightrope," "City Heat," "Pale Rider," "Heartbreak Ridge." When the "Bird" project got under way, Niehaus took his sax out of mothballs in order to teach Forest Whitaker, who plays the title role.
The decision to film "Bird" grew out of a convenient exchange of scripts. "Columbia had the script with Richard Pryor in mind," said Eastwood, "but word got out that Pryor was no longer interested. It turned out Warner Bros. had another script that Columbia wanted, so it was arranged to make a trade."
The script, by Joel Oliansky, concentrates mainly on Parker's last years, and on his relationship with Chan, the last woman in his short and star-crossed life (he died in 1955 at 34). Diane Venora, a 1977 drama major from the Juilliard School who had a small role in "Cotton Club," is playing Chan.
Red Rodney, the white trumpeter who toured with Parker, has worked on the sound track, served as a consultant and will be enacted in the movie by Michael Zelnicker. Dizzy Gillespie, who with Parker pioneered the be-bop revolution of the 1940s and whom Bird once called "the other half of my heartbeat," will be played by Sam Wright.
The quest for authenticity in "Bird" has been remarkable. Eastwood sent for the real Chan (known as Chan Parker during the years she spent with Bird) to leave her home outside Paris and serve as a consultant. She spent many hours in consultation with Venora, whose strong resemblance to the youthful Chan is coupled with a fierce dedication. Chan devoted a no-less-protracted session to filling in Whitaker on Bird's personality.
Parker's chaotic life involved at least one legal marriage, back in his Kansas City teen-age years; involvements with several other women; a son now in his 40s, and a daughter by Chan whose death in infancy was one of the many traumas of his later years. Some years after Parker's death, Chan married another alto saxophonist, Phil Woods, who at one time was hailed as the next Charlie Parker. After their breakup she settled in France.
Parker died at 34 of a seizure he suffered while visiting the East Side home of a jazz patron, the Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. (The New York Daily News ran a headline: "Bop King Dies in Heiress' Flat.") He had been destroying himself for years through drugs, drink and pills, but there were periods when, after straightening out, he was a relatively normal and consistently amiable human being.