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Vol. LXI, No. 16
Wednesday, April 18, 2007
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Record Review

Parker’s Mood: The Poetry of Charlie Parker

Stuart Mitchner

Now that we’re halfway through National Poetry Month, the time seems right for a column on a poet. April, however, is also “Looking at Jazz” month at the Princeton Public Library. Poetry and jazz have been mated before, not always happily, but Charlie Parker is big enough to contain both. Whether or not you agree, you can find out more about the man and his music tonight, Wednesday, April 18, at 7 p.m. when the library screens Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker, a film by Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons.

The film takes its title from Giddins’s richly illustrated book of the same name, still in print from DaCapo, which includes a newspaper reporter’s account of a “midnight visitation” from Parker in the last weeks of his life:

“He talked about poems he wrote and made a joke about visiting people late at night and reciting a poem. He said that the females who were smart enough to keep the poems realized their value. His language was succinct and distilled — things he’d brooded over and reduced to rhythmic, comic word-riffs.”

In saxophonist Buddy Colette’s Jazz Audio Biography (Issues Records), he remembers a gathering one night in Los Angeles when “Bird said to get a pencil and take this down; it’s a poem.” The poem Colette quotes is no match for Wallace Stevens, but what it suggests about Parker’s sense of his message is revealing, as are the first and last lines. It begins, “My shame is the life I’ve lived for so long” and ends, “A day shall come when I shall smile up/You shan’t see me but watch the blue buttercup.”

If these glimpses of Parker playing the poet suggest anything, it’s that he saw poetry as another way to express his sense of himself. That his playing was equal to “poetry” in essential ways is obvious; words like “succinct and distilled” could as easily be describing his music. It’s hard to think of another musician who has inspired as much actual poetry; he’s the subject of a full-length verse biography (Martin Gray’s Blues for Bird) and Testimony, a libretto by Princeton faculty member Yusef Komuyakaa. He not only inspired Jack Kerouac’s Mexico City Blues but, according to Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac “learned his line directly from Charlie Parker … all the Bird-flight-noted things which he then adapted to [his] prose line.”

That Parker took language nearly as seriously as he took music can be seen in poet/painter Ted Joans’s account of his behavior at a Greenwich Village party. A poet with surrealist leanings began to read “An Ode to a Piece of Vaccinated Bread” when “Bird interrupted: ‘Stop right there. We are all brothers and sisters. This man here is going to tell us about this piece of bread that has been vaccinated. Now you know there’s no idiots in the house; and if you want to hear these poems you can … but if you are like me, we will continue the party.’“ While this could be seen as the behavior of a competitive performer throwing his weight around, the wording and timing of the interruption remind me of the 1947-48 Savoy sessions where Parker shouts or whistles for the engineer to stop recording the instant something goes wrong (usually a squeaky reed or a glitch in the rhythm). In this case, it seems that he cared enough about good poetry to cut off what he probably rightly sensed was going to be the poetical equivalent of bad playing.

In Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (DaCapo), which is the source of the party anecdote, sculptor Julie MacDonald says her “one recurring thought” about him was “the wonder of his ability to perceive”:

“At times his awareness seemed sensitive enough to make mechanical radar and sonar equipment obsolete! Bird truly listened, with mind and heart, and he observed the same way. He could discover meaning in a cowboy ballad, no matter how insignificant, or in a simple nursery rhyme …. One spring morning amid a cacophony of birds and insects, he remarked, ‘If we could hear all the sounds existing, we’d soon be mad.’“

He also once told a friend, “There’s too much in my head for this horn.”


Listening to the music of Charlie Parker while keeping in mind Webster’s secondary definition of “poem” (“something … suggesting expressiveness, lyricism, or formal grace”) or “poetry” (“something likened to poetry, esp. in beauty of expression”), it’s easy to make a claim for the poetry of his playing and his composing. Too easy. “Expressiveness” isn’t enough to describe what happens when this player tears into, takes apart or reinvents a ballad or the blues. On landmark performances like “Embraceable You,” which can be heard on Rhino’s 2-CD set Yardbird Suite, he takes possession of the original melody (as he does with other standards like “All The Things You Are”) and creates something “rich and strange” and all his own. He composes and improvises according to another original form when he works within the traditional framework of the blues (as poets work with metre and within formal boundaries), but in “Parker’s Mood,” he goes beyond the blues; his playing bears out the title; he’s packed the essence of himself and his art into under three minutes of music, and in case you doubt it, he signs the number at the beginning and the end with a commanding two-bar introduction/coda that became a musical password whistled or hummed by his disciples. You might say as much for all his compositions, especially those on the 1947-48 sessions for Dial and Savoy. “Constellation,” “Koko,” “Perhaps,” “Donna Lee” and any number of others are no less fresh and infectious, lucid and complex in 2007 than they were 60 years ago. When Parker’s biographer and the producer/owner of Dial records, Ross Russell, looked for words to sum up his subject in Bird Lives! (also on DaCapo), he turned to Dylan Thomas, observing how both men had “boldly crossed a well-defined frontier” with “the same impression of a molten vocabulary cooled and fused into a new idiom.”

Night Life

The picture of Charlie Parker on the cover of the library’s Looking at Jazz display was taken in 1947 at the Three Deuces in New York. The face in the foreground belongs to bassist Tommy Potter. Look at Parker: you can see the reality of “too much in my head for this horn” in those eyes staring somewhere between trauma and trance. Think of the night-life element he lived and played in. If you want to challenge the too-easy jazz-as-poetry analogy, consider the jazz club environment that Norman Mailer called the “wild west of American night life.” Imagine all that unprocessed excitement and dissonance feeding into or marring a performance in the relatively sedate and civilized context of a poetry reading, even one by a performer like Ginsberg or Thomas, even during the regulated free-for-all of a poetry slam. The first time I “heard” Charlie Parker was on a cheaply recorded live date at Rockland Palace Dance Hall in Harlem from September 26, 1952 issued on an album called Bird is Free (available on CD on the Collectable label). For years I’d been told how great he was, the legendary Bird, but it took hearing his alto soaring over a sea of noise to bring his sound to life for me. You can almost hear fights breaking out, glasses crashing, bursts of crazed laughter. At one point someone’s yelling “Kill yourself!” Someone else keeps screaming “Watch it! Watch it!” Thousands of dancers are on the floor, and a drunk is singing along to “Laura,” distantly, faintly, almost inaudibly, until you think maybe you’re imagining it, but it’s happening and the dauntless beauty of the playing actually takes advantage of it, uses it, plays it. There’s your poetry, in the way he pursues the aching essence of the melody against the poignant human moment within, for the space of that song, a hushed, restless multitude. Picture a vast room of invisible couples dancing to a supremely haunting ballad written to score the story of a woman (“the face in the misty light”) who seemed to come back from the dead.

No written poetry comes close to the greatness of Charlie Parker, but I can recommend the first chapter in Bird Lives if you want a lively, vivid depiction of the man in action, putting away two huge Mexican dinners before playing a set back in the days when only a few enthusiasts knew who or what he was. Otherwise, go see Celebrating Bird and read the book, or at least this passage from the coda with which Gary Giddins ends it:

“This most restive, capricious of men is unequivocal in his art. He never deigns merely to impress, to blind with virtuoso dazzle. He draws you in, raises you up. His ballads are stirringly candid, his fiery free flights filled with zeal, desire, rage, love. Was he more enthralled by life or terrified by it? Dead at thirty-four, played out like a bad song, looking twenty years his senior. Yet Bird lives. Bird is the truth. Bird is love. Bird is thousands of musical fragments, each a direct expression of a time and place — the mosaic burst into radiant bits.”

Yardbird Suite, several copies of which are available at the library, contains four numbers from the Rockland Palace event, as well as most of the other music I’ve mentioned. The Princeton Public Library’s collection of Parker’s “poetry” also includes Bird & Diz, and a multi-CD set, A Studio Chronicle 1940-1948.

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