Biddy and Bird: The Evolution of Be-Bop

One day, I found a message on "Bird Chasers"(Message Board of this site). The message is from James Fleet living in NY. His father is William 'Biddy' Fleet who played with Charlie Parker at the legendary jam session in Dan Wahl's chili house 1939.
I contacted him, and he told me the fact between Biddy and Bird... [ Yoichi ]


Dear Yoichi:

Thank you for responding to my e-mail concerning Charlie Parker and my dad, guitarist William 'Biddy' Fleet. For many, many years I've held this information about their unique collaboration which helped to forge the beginning of be-bop music. With the passing of my father in 1994 and that of my mother in February of this year it has weighed heavy on my spirit. I now want to share this inspirational history.

First of all, Biddy and Bird jammed together many times, not just on one momentus December night in 1939, as historically reported. Secondly, Bird sought out Biddy for musical knowledge on alternate chords, melodies and progressions. Biddy Fleet had been playing the higher interval of chords long before he met Parker. Dad had a unique way of phrasing and altering chords so that the top notes would continue to carry the melody of the song but the sound would be different.

Bird, of course, was a genius who dug these changes and interpreted them in his own way, thus changing improvisational american music (jazz) forevermore.

Portrait of William 'Biddy' Fleet
Permission granted by James H. Fleet, Copyright 2004
Portrait of William 'Biddy' Fleet
According to my dad both he and Parker would jam in the back of Dan Wahl's chili joint in Harlem. The year was 1939. These jam sessions would ultimately extend to Clarke Monroe's Uptown House where other great and soon to be great musicians would be featured. My father often said that Bird's sound was different from the very beginning and a lot of older musicians, especially sax players, couldn't get into it right away. However, from the start Biddy dug Bird and Bird dug Biddy. This is not an idle statement. The association between my father and Parker was so important to Bird that it is through Bird's recollection that this information became public to the world. Dad, being a laid back, easy going type of guy, never said a word. Many jazz historians have missed this point totally.

I've read articles that Biddy Fleet was an 'unremarkable' guitarist and so forth. I've seen movies and documentaries which omitted my father's involvement with Bird, as if their collaboration never took place. Did it ever occur to them that in the eyes of Charlie Parker dad must have meant so much more?!
My father, like many guitarists of that era, was a sideman. His solos, though a lot slower, were reminiscent of Parker's style. It's a shame they never recorded together. This is one of the mysteries that I deal with to this very day.

The ad of Biddy and Bird at the Heatwave
Permission granted by James H. Fleet, Copyright 2004
The ad of Biddy and Bird at the Heatwave
Biddy was born in 1910 (September 17) and was ten years older than Bird, who was born in 1920 (August 29). When they met in 1939 Parker was 19 and dad was 29 years old. So, Biddy was a mentor to Bird, not just a sounding board.
According to my father Bird always had a pleasant personality and a fast and inquisitive mind. Dad would tell me that during jam sessions Bird would be 'making snakes' (playing chord progressions at a fast tempo) and leaving the other musicians totally lost. They didn't understand what Parker was playing. But, Biddy did. These occasions came after the now historic jam session in December, 1939 when Bird 'came alive' on Cherokee. Actually, the two of them experimented on other songs as well.
Biddy and Bird also played at other locations in Harlem, most notably a club called The Heatwave on 145th Street. (This was the club that Miles Davis came to in search of Charlie Parker!). I have one of the original posters advertising Biddy Fleet and Charlie Parker on the bill. It is one of several collectors' items from dad's be-bop days.

Also, between 1946 and 1948 Bird would come to visit my dad who, at that time, was living at the Parkview Hotel on 110th Street and Central Park North in Harlem. (the Parkview Hotel is still there!) It was during some of those visits that my mother met Bird. (Yes, she was in Bird's company several times). She recalled that Bird was a fun loving, happy go lucky guy who always had a smile. She often said that if you didn't know that Bird was a great, superstar musician you would never be able to tell by his personality.
He was just easy going. Bird would come by and try to get dad to perform with him. Remember, this was at least six to eight years after the legendary jam sessions. To this day I wonder why dad never took advantage of this opportunity. I mean after all this was Charlie Parker asking you to work with him!!! During one visit Bird jokingly asked my mother (who was dad's girlfriend at the time) 'what did you do to my man Biddy?! You changed him'.
Dad had played in Roy Eldridge's big band in 1946 and at age 36 was tired of the road. So, Biddy and Bird were in contact years after their legendary sessions of 1939.

My father was also influential in the formative years of other legendary jazz musicians, most notably saxophonist/flutist Frank Wess and pianist Dr. Billy Taylor. But, don't take my word for it. Ask them. These are some of the recollections that readily come to mind (there are others) as told to me many times throughout many years concerning my father and Charlie Parker. Biddy influenced Bird to some extent. Bird influenced and changed music and musicians worldwide forevermore.
It's really quite a story!

Peace and God Bless,

(I've sent you the ad of Charlie Parker and Biddy Fleet at the Heatwave along with a photo of my father. It occurred to me that most jazz historians and lovers of Bird's evolution probably never knew what my father looked like. Also, concerning the advertisement, notice how both musicians' names are misspelled! This performance must have been early in their careers.)

2004. 9. 5 James Fleet

Copyright 2004 James H. Fleet

Permission granted by Doris Parker under license
by CMG Worldwide Inc. USA

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