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Charlie "Bird" Parker and the craziest jazz party ever

Charlie "Bird" Parker and the craziest jazz party ever
Photo courtesy of the William P. Gottleib Collection

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.

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.

Jirayr Zorthian's art studio today
Jirayr Zorthian's art studio today
Photo by Danny Liao

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!"  

John Burton
John Burton
Photo by Danny Liao

Jirayr Zorthian has been dead for 10 years, and the famous party at his house happened more than six decades ago. But the events of that night are far from apocryphal. A recording of Parker's performance survives, and it's clear enough that you can hear audience members yell, "Take it off." There's also a videotape of Zorthian later describing how it all went down. It's a lot of documentation for a raucous party thrown long before the age of Instagram.

Blame (or credit) John Burton. A civil rights lawyer and a socialist, Burton ran for California governor in the 2003 recall election. His website boasts that he finished 14th in a field of 135, winning nearly 7,000 votes -- not enough to beat Arnold Schwarzenegger or Arianna Huffington, but not too shabby.

Despite his political passions, the walls of Burton's Pasadena office look more like the back room of Amoeba Records. They are plastered with jazz memorabilia: album covers, autographs and a large, framed photograph of his musical obsession, Charlie Parker.

Burton, 61, is among a small, dedicated community of Charlie Parker fanatics who spend their off hours tracking down artifacts and lost recordings of the late musician. Burton calls them "Bird Detectives," referencing the saxophonists' nickname.

Most of what they find isn't worth much; the recordings are usually scratchy and low-fidelity. But it's not about money, not for a true Parker devotee. It's about the love of music, and the thrill of the chase.

Burton first got into Parker when he was in high school and noticed the musician's name popping up in liner notes: Some, like the ones from musician Eddie Harris, called Parker their inspiration. Burton was intrigued. But when the young jazz fan heard his first Parker album, the saxophonist's fast playing sounded jumbled -- like confetti. It was only when a bunch of saxophone students in Pasadena explained Parker's style that it grew on him.

Burton began following the 1970s Grammy-winning jazz group Supersax, which slowed down Parker's solos and harmonized them. At slower speeds, Parker's improvisations revealed perfect melodies, as if they'd been carefully composed. Burton became convinced that Parker was a genius, a musician who could improvise faster on his feet than anyone else. He's been hooked ever since.

"I think he's the best musician of the 20th century," he says. "Every fragment of his music is worth studying to see what we can learn from him."

Those fragments include bootleg recordings of Parker's live performances. For many collectors, especially in jazz, where so much is improvised, live shows offer spontaneity, an honesty that can't be captured in the studio. Part of Burton's fever to find them is a question of what could still be out there; each bootleg of a Charlie Parker show might reveal a moment of brilliance never shown before or since.

"By finding these artifacts from Bird, I feel like I'm making a contribution," he acknowledges.

Fifty years after Parker's death, such artifacts have become extremely hard to find. Almost all of the good stuff has already been discovered and catalogued. That's led to an unspoken competition among Bird Detectives to find any remaining treasures. They all know one another. And while they share some leads, they keep mum about others: No point in tipping off rivals to the next big find before it's safely in hand. You never know what might show up when someone sorts through an old archive or cleans out a collection of boxes in an attic.

The 1952 party at Zorthian's ranch is perhaps Burton's greatest discovery. It also has sentimental value: The surviving reel-to-reel recording of the evening was his first Parker breakthrough.

"I mean, even how I found it is unusual," Burton says. Behind his desk, he adjusts his bright red Hawaiian shirt into a comfortable position before leaning deep back into a swivel chair and closing his eyes. "It goes back to when I first started looking for Bird stuff in my 20s."

Then a law student, Burton wanted to collect rare Parker recordings but didn't know how. This was pre-Internet, and at any rate, the Bird Detectives never did get into message boards or chat rooms. They only had each other's phone numbers, and would occasionally see one another at auctions for recently unearthed Parker collections. So Burton wrote a letter to Stash Records, an imprint managed by real estate agent-turned-jazz collector Bernie Brightman. Brightman put him on the phone with the No. 1 Parker collector of the 1980s, a guy named Norman R. Saks.

Even then, Burton was familiar with the name. An investor who lived on Long Island, Saks was about as dedicated as Bird Detectives come. He'd gained acclaim among Parker devotees after coming across unreleased recordings made by Bob Redcross, who caught Parker playing tenor sax in a Chicago hotel room in 1943 -- an extreme rarity, as Parker was an alto player. The acetate recordings were legitimized by the fact that they were still wrapped in 1943 issues of the Chicago Tribune. Saks later released a book, The Norman R. Saks Collection, an obsessive curation of Parker's autographs, discography, concert posters and photographs.

Saks is a true obsessive. At one point, he admits to the Weekly, he even wore a hidden microphone under his coat to tape a record that someone had agreed to play for him. He didn't want to sell it, he says; he just wanted the recording for his own personal collection.

He was definitely the right man to talk to Burton. When the law student got Saks on the phone, he pressed the veteran collector for tips on how to find rare Parker artifacts.

"Anytime you see a jazz band," Saks told him, "ask the players about unreleased Bird recordings."

Months passed. But in fall 1989, Burton finally tried out Saks' advice -- at Burton's own father's funeral. It was the first, and only, time it ever worked.  

Art at the Zorthian Ranch
Art at the Zorthian Ranch
Photo by Danny Liao

Gene Burton's memorial was held at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Burton's mother was on the board of trustees). Artists abounded. There was also a live jazz band. Suddenly remembering Saks' advice, Burton approached the band. "You wouldn't know of any Bird recordings, would you?"

"Actually, yeah," one member replied. "Go talk to Zorthian. He has one."

"Zorthian, really?'"

The name came as a surprise. Not only was Jirayr Zorthian at that very memorial, but Burton knew him from his childhood years of going to Zorthian's summer camp for kids. Zorthian used to drive down his steep and winding driveway in a large green school bus with the name "ZOR 2" painted on the front and pick up kids around Altadena.

"Back then, everyone knew him," Burton says. At belly dancing nights at Pasadena's Armenian-owned restaurant Burger Continental, Zorthian would dance with a full pitcher of beer balanced on his head ... and it never fell. Later, the Dionysus of the Altadena foothills became known for a raucous Primavera party he threw each spring, complete with naked nymphs, in celebration of his birthday. (See "At Zorthian Ranch, a Return to Bohemia," below.)

But that was the first Burton had heard of any connection between Zorthian and Charlie Parker. He immediately tracked down Zorthian, who confirmed he had a recording and agreed to share it.

The reel-to-reel was being safeguarded by Zorthian's lawyer, George Hedges, who had recently transferred it to an audiocassette at USC. Burton made arrangements to pick up the cassette from Hedges the day after the memorial, then raced home to play it on his own stereo system. What he heard amazed him.

The sound was muffled and scratchy, as if the microphone had been kicked over on the floor. The bass was impossible to hear, and the horns sounded tinny.

But there was also no mistaking who was playing: Bird. And Burton knew how rare it was to hear him soloing outside of a club, in such a relaxed, party setting.

"I must have played it 12 times in a row, at least. Then I called Norman [Saks], who immediately asked me to play it for him over the phone. I put the receiver to the speaker, and he listened to it for about 30 minutes."

Both men recognized two of the tracks from a previous bootleg, although it had never been confirmed where they were recorded. Now Burton knew they were from Zorthian's Ranch, and there were six other tracks to accompany them.

In his first year as a Bird Detective, he had stumbled upon a major discovery.


Over the years, John Burton had Zorthian recount every detail of the party multiple times. He even filmed Zorthian narrating it on video and spent time fact-checking his tale. He knew what he had was huge: the only definitive account of what happened that night in Altadena.

The genesis of the party was a string of gigs Charlie Parker had lined up at the Tiffany Club in Los Angeles in June 1952. It was right around the time that Parker hooked up with a young Chet Baker, the masterful trumpet player who was just beginning to make a name for himself on the West Coast.

But while Baker was on the rise, Bird was fading. "I mean, he played well, because -- I mean, hell -- he was Charlie Parker," Burton says. After 1949, though, he was clearly in decline.

In early July 1952, Zorthian was out one night in the city at a party with Julie McDonald. A fellow sculptor, McDonald hung out in the same bohemian circles as Zorthian. She also was a close friend of Parker's -- suspected by the Bird Detectives of having been the saxophonist's "West Coast girlfriend."

That night, Zorthian apparently decided the party they were at was kind of a drag. On his way out, he encountered a drunk Charlie Parker playing pingpong. Zorthian suggested they would all have more fun if they went up to his ranch, where they could go swimming.

"So they haul ass up Fair Oaks Avenue, onto Zorthian's windy driveway to his ranch," Burton says. The trio went skinny-dipping in Zorthian's pool and horseback riding into the early hours.

Parker was in heaven. He told Zorthian, "You know, Jerry, I want to repay you by coming back here and doing a jam session."

They picked July 14 -- a Monday, because it was an off day for the jazz clubs. Zorthian had a few stipulations. "OK, Charlie, let's have you start playing at 9:30," he told Parker. "And I want to make sure you don't bring any of your junkie friends up here, all right?"

Parker agreed.

"So naturally the first people to show up on the 14th are Charlie's junkie friends," Burton says.  

The famous rocking horse, carved and painted by Jirayr Zorthian
The famous rocking horse, carved and painted by Jirayr Zorthian
Photo by Danny Liao

Parker's groupies from the Central Avenue scene were almost certainly among those who helped get the naked party started. And after Parker, Zorthian and the majority of the guests took off their clothes, the playing really got raucous.

The recording, which was captured by Julie McDonald's brother, goes on for another hour, at which point it was well past 2 a.m. There is slurring, whooping and yelling throughout, which is probably why guests' ability to remember what happened gets hazy after the striptease.

Bird, though, must have sensed it was time to take flight. Following the slow and sexual "Embraceable You," he and his band more than doubled the tempo in a blistering rendition of "Hot House," answering the crowd's screams and hollers note for note by tearing up and down the chord progression. Parker directed the madness by fluttering his solos above the erratic punches of Marable's bass drum, and at times the band appeared on the verge of losing control.

But it didn't. The musicians fed off the audience's energy, reveling in the chaos, seeming not to care that some solos were sloppy and atonal. The evening was about capturing a feeling rather than impeccable playing, and when Morgan and Parker traded fours on "Cool Blues," the crowd reacted in kind by punctuating their exchange with primal cheers. Afterward, when the notes of "Dance of the Infidels" filled the studio, the partygoers took their cue from the title and played the part. It's no surprise that no one would notice, or care, that the microphone recording the show had been kicked over onto the floor.

When Zorthian recounted the tale to Burton, he would always embellish the scene by saying there was a guy there from Africa, visiting California for the first time. The man considered himself a cultural representative, on a mission to convince America that Africa wasn't backward. "So when he saw a bunch of black guys getting naked on the stage," Burton recalls, "he was so offended that he stormed out of the party!" Indeed, not everyone in the audience was having it; among those who didn't leave, Zorthian would estimate that one quarter cowered in a corner, unsure what to do with themselves or not drunk enough to join in.

Burton tracked down a few people who were actually there, in addition to Zorthian. One was Russ Freeman, a jazz pianist who died in 2002. In a conversation with Burton, he remembered "going up that long, windy driveway, and as soon as I got to the door, my clothes were taken away."

Another was Clora Bryant, a trumpet player from the Central Avenue scene and, at the time, the girlfriend of tenor saxophonist Don Wilkerson. She told Burton, "I didn't take my clothes off. But Don did. He had this style where he'd lean back and play, and he had a boner sticking straight up to the roof!"

Later, the party achieved such legendary status in the jazz community that even Thelonious Monk was jealous, asking Zorthian, "Wait -- you were the guy who threw that naked party?!"

Of course, despite Burton's research, the best proof of what happened that evening is the recording itself. Since Burton first heard the tape in 1989, Zorthian made multiple copies, and in the late 1990s, one version leaked and was released by an international record label called Rare Live Recordings. It became available on Amazon and through mail-order websites. Burton suspects it was leaked to the record label by a film crew working at Zorthian's ranch.

After the leak, Zorthian gave the original to Burton for safekeeping.

"It was a shame, because the leaked version is really poorly done," Burton says. "The audio is poor, the album art is generic and the liner notes are incorrect."

Burton has decided to rectify things by releasing a version in a better format, more up to his standards. He's working with audio technicians to remaster the reel-to-reel, bringing out the missing bass frequencies and cleaning some of the background noise. He hopes to have it ready by the end of this year. Done properly, the new release will immortalize what happened on that wild night in 1952.

For Burton, though, it's just as much about cementing his legacy as a Bird Detective. Some younger music lovers don't even know who Charlie Parker was, but the Bird Detectives continue to search for the clues that their idol left behind. Only about 10 "true" Charlie Parker devotees are left these days, Saks says -- or at least ones who "aren't full of it." And two of them are in Canada.

They continue to share some leads while guarding others. There are still some coveted artifacts and missing recordings out there, after all. The Holy Grail is the private reels of fellow sax player Dean Benedetti, since they capture Parker's most inventive playing in his prime solo years, from 1944 to 1949. "It would be like the best wine you can ever have," Saks says.

There's always something out there, just beyond reach. Burton even believes there could be another tape of the Zorthian naked party.

"I've listened to enough bootlegs to suspect the one I have is dubbed, which means the original could still be out there somewhere," he says, "... although I have no idea where it would be."

The Bird Detectives will stay on the trail.

"We have to have every last scrap," Saks says.

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