It all began just after Christmas, 1946, in a state mental hospital in Los Angeles. Malcolm J. Hunsacker, a shoe salesman from Pacoima, had been involuntarily committed three years earlier because of a debilitating fascination with ladies’ feet. His career in shoe sales dashed, Hunsacker whiled away his time in the hospital playing the harmonica and listening to jazz records, unsure of what his future held.
One afternoon Hunsacker returned to his room after lunch, and discovered a new roommate. Charlie “Bird” Parker, the legendary jazz saxophonist, had suffered a nervous breakdown and was being confined to the hospital for treatment. The two men became friends, and it is believed that Hunsacker was instrumental (pun intended) in Parker’s recovery.
Not much is known of what became of Hunsacker after Parker left the hospital in January of 1947, but he managed to leave behind one important story that has spawned one of the most widely-repeated phrases at modern live music performances.
According to hospital staff members who witnessed the event, it went something like this:
Parker and Hunsacker were seated side by side on the veranda one afternoon, looking out across the Pacific Ocean toward Catalina Island, barely visible through the coastal mist. Parker was bottoming out in his depression, and Hunsacker had become the only person he would talk to at the hospital. On this particular afternoon, Parker was trying to describe to his roommate his sense of being constrained, of feeling wrapped up in chains of self-loathing and doubt about his own talent. He was ready to give up the sax altogether, because the weight of the world on his shoulders was crushing his musical creativity.
Hunsacker listened patiently and intently, according to the hospital staff, and when Parker seemed to have finished unloading his psyche, the twisted shoe salesman put his hand on Parker’s arm, and leaned over so he could say softly into the jazzman’s ear, “Play free, Bird. Just play free.”
Parker’s well-documented recovery likely began from that simple springboard, a suggestion to just let the music lift him above all the corporeal noise and pain. His status as a jazz legend was cemented already, and Hunsacker’s advice that day probably saved one of the century’s most important musical icons from certain self-destruction.
Fans at Parker’s shows in New York, Chicago and Kansas City adopted the phrase, and began yelling it at him while he played, exhorting the sax master to new heights. “Play FREE, Bird!” they’d yell. “Play free!”
Parker continued to thrill audiences right up until his tragic death in 1955, and the phrase “play free, Bird” was lost to history.
But somewhere along the line, in the dark, murky world of rock and roll in the early 1970’s, the expression was resurrected by fans of a greasy, pot-smoking band of Southern hippies called Lynyrd Skynyrd. (Reportedly, the band’s name was copped from a one-armed Cajun moss farmer whose parents were placed under a spell by a swamp witch, who rendered them incapable of using vowels. The story has never been verified, however.)
The band was gaining popularity through incessant touring, and their big, show-closing number, “Freebird,” became their anthem. American youth, disenfranchised and deeply distrustful of the oppressive authority sweeping the country under Nixon, identified with the song and its yearning lyrics of freedom and restlessness. They took to calling the song’s name during Skynyrd shows, begging the band to play the song. None of them knew, of course, that they were yelling Hunsacker’s suggestion at the band, and they were oblivious to its meaning or source.
But the guys in Lynyrd Skynyrd knew. And they hated it. Soon, “Freebird” eclipsed the rest of the band’s material, and it became all the audiences wanted to hear. Despondent and frustrated, the band eventually chartered a small plane and crashed it into a swamp, killing most of its members.
So there you have it. Most working musicians across the country have heard the legend of Malcolm J. Hunsacker and his unlikely influence on one of jazz’s most beloved legends. But it’s still mostly unknown among the rank and file, those who go out to enjoy live music.
Ignorant chuckle-heads, not caring how stupid it makes them look, still call out “Freebird!” to any band, thus perpetuating the erroneous idea that it’s the Skynyrd song they’re talking about. You might as well be yelling, “I’m a moron!” So please think twice, my thick-skulled friends, before you haul out that hoary old cliché at the next show. Why don’t you yell something more original and fresh, like, “You’re all that and a bag of chips!” Seriously. The “Freebird” thing has been done to death. It’s beyond eye-rolling stale. It can actually damage your reputation, and lower your standing among your peers.
And, more importantly, you might think you’re referencing the Skynyrd song, but you’re actually disrespecting Charlie Parker, a giant in the jazz pantheon.
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