December 7, 2016

Q&A With Judith Rhodes, Owner of Manhattan's Charlie Parker House

  • By: Katherine Flynn

photo by: Judith Rhodes

Judith Rhodes says that Parker lovers frequently stop on the sidewalk outside the house to take pictures and pay homage to the artist.

The incomparable jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker was just 34 when he died in New York in 1955, but he had already changed the face of modern jazz with his lightning-fast solos and uncompromising artistic vision. During the last four years of his life, he lived in an 1849 brownstone in the city’s East Village with his common-law wife, Chan Richardson, and their two children.

Judith Rhodes, a South Carolina native and a lover of jazz (and Parker in particular), purchased that same house in 1979 and has been working tirelessly to protect and maintain it. She succeeded in getting it listed in the National Register of Historic Places in 1994, and registered as a New York City Landmark in 1999. In addition to its ties to Parker, the house is notable as a rare surviving example of a residential building built in the Gothic Revival style.

Rhodes now lives in the same ground-level apartment that “Bird,” as Parker was affectionately nicknamed, did before his untimely passing. We chatted with her about Parker’s legacy, and what it’s like to live in the same space that the iconic musician once did.

What kind of shape was the house in when you purchased it?

Well, it was in worse shape than I thought that it would be. I thought it was fine, but I’ve done nothing but work on it for all these years.

What work have you done on the house?

I’ve completely redone just about everything—a new roof, a new boiler. Right around the time it was landmarked, I did a lot of work. That was the late ‘90s when I started. Before that it was sort of as-is. I’ve redone all the apartments. The backyard was like pink cement, and now I have a beautiful garden back there with a little koi pond. Not huge, because it’s a brownstone, so it’s not a big lot.

I just had the hall repainted, and for the first time—I’m very excited—I was able to get off all the gunk over the years that they just painted over. I have a really good guy now working here. I was able to have him completely take all the junk off the molding and redo the walls.

photo by: Judith Rhodes

Rhodes has transformed the back yard of the property into a Zen garden.

Can you tell me about your background with jazz?

Before I moved over here, I started having jazz concerts at the St. Mark’s Church. I was studying African influences and selling Gullah baskets in [a shop that I owned], and I sort of fell into jazz studying African influences. I don’t know what possessed me, but I said "I think I could do concerts on Sunday afternoons." So I did several there, and then a woman from the Third Street Music School asked me to do the jazz portion of her concert series, which I did for about three years. Then I started booking the musicians from that into places like the Village Vanguard, and then I started photographing.

So I sort of stopped booking and started photographing. I’ve done a major body of work of photographs of musicians in performance. And then mostly a lot of musicians that I loved died, frankly. Jazz musicians back then didn’t live too long, so most of them were dead, and I just sort of gradually stopped working at it.

What’s your favorite thing about living in the house?

It’s very magical because I worked in jazz, and that’s why I bought the house. It had been bombed out over here [in the East Village]. In the ‘70s, the economy just went downhill and this neighborhood was burned out, mainly by landlords who set the houses on fire to collect the insurance.

I had already lived in the neighborhood for 11 years, but bought the house and moved over here with four kids because Bird lived here. And working in jazz, I was well aware of who he was, and how important he was. The group that he worked with, bebop musicians, modernized music from swing to a more modern music where people sat down and listened instead of danced.

Sometimes I forget that he was here. We found the ghost of birdcage wallpaper in the middle room, so I preserved that where you can see the actual birdcage. That’s something that he and his wife put in. I have a big book of pictures, and there’s the kids taking a bath in the tub that’s still here—it’s amazing.

It’s quite a privilege to be here. It’s very intimate, something that nobody else really experiences but me with this amazing musician.

Katherine Flynn is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. She enjoys coffee, record stores, and uncovering the stories behind historic places.

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