Jim Gardner   •  October 25, 2004

Bird Watching: Charlie Parker as Classical Hero

A Review of Martin Gray’s Blues for Bird

Blues For Bird by Martin Gray. Santa Monica, CA: Santa Monica Press, 2001. 288 pages. ISBN: 1-891661-20-5, $16.95 (paperback)   www.santamonicapress.com

Over a decade before “Clapton is God” avowals appeared in ’60s London, “Bird Lives!” testimonies graced New York walls and sidewalks. Worshippers in the religion of musical virtuosity, it seems, tend to express their devotion through graffiti. Somewhere in Italy the faint traces of “Paganini Power!” must be scrawled on back of an 18th century concert hall seat. Some 21st century bathroom stall in L.A. probably swears that “Joe Satriani is The Oversoul!”

Jazz poetry is another, perhaps slightly more dignified, mode of devotion in this cult. Writers as diverse as Amiri Baraka, Robert Creeley, Langston Hughes, Sekou Sundiata, Anne Waldman, and Al Young have composed paeans to “the music.” The charms and the limitations of such poetry often are the same: the poems, functioning as verbal turntables, invoke the songs and channel some of the music’s energy. Rarely do the poems swing as hard as the music, however. A personal library that contained jazz poetry but no jazz albums would be an absurdity.

Martin Gray, a Tennyson expert, college professor, and composer of several “verse biographies,” contributes impressively, if unevenly, to the jazz poetry tradition with his tribute to Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, Blues for Bird (Santa Monica Press, 2001). Gray spent eight years writing 12 “books” of 5,665 trimeter lines. Employing a Virgilian reference to kick things off (“Sax and the man I sing”), Gray plays the epic bard to Charlie Parker’s heroic deeds. His rationale, as he explains in the introduction, is that “Bird’s achievement is indeed heroic, as he created a new music.”

That new music, of course, was bop (or be bop, but Parker preferred to call it, simply, “music”). Now that bop is a standard, codified language for jazz students, who can learn it in college, and is a familiar, borderline-staid and/or invisible art form for the public at large, it is easy to forget that the music was a revolutionary break with the big-band past, a cultural lightning rod in the 1940s that made the music’s creators — Charlie Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk — revered as gods or derided as heretics. No longer was jazz a Dionysian dance music that demanded little of its listeners beyond immersion into pleasure-centered sound. Bop demanded an ear for subtlety, an appreciation for technical prowess, a toleration and affinity for dissonance and “out” harmonies, and an against-the-grain musical and cultural sensibility.

Charlie Parker was bop’s Aeneas, as author Gray would have it. The arc of Bird’s heroic journey is probably familiar to even the most casual music fans, thanks to the mythologizing/historicizing machine of pop culture (Ken Burns, Clint Eastwood, CBS Sunday Morning, etc.). Born in Kansas City and raised there by his mother, Parker learned saxophone as a teen and apprenticed with various KC bands before taking his horn, and a drug addiction that would haunt him for the rest of his life, to New York City and its famous jazz scene. In the Apple, he soon impressed musicians, and, eventually, discerning members of the listening public, with his unmatched technical ability. Bird quickly established himself as the fastest horn and the greatest harmonic and improvisatory creator in jazz. And the rest is sad history, unfulfilled promises and personal tragedy, the template for subsequent tortured musical geniuses from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain. In March, 1955, Bird died at age 34, the victim of two decades of drug and alcohol abuse combined with the unquantifiable suffering of a black artist in pre-civil rights era America.

Gray tells this story in sparse verse that makes for a quick read. To his credit, however, he goes beyond the familiar outlines of Parker’s life and reveals the man and musician beneath the myth. Relying on previous biographies by Ross Russell, Robert Reisner, Gary Giddins, and others, Gray takes an anecdotal approach, often fashioning complete stanzas out of quoted observations from musicians who knew Bird, such as Art Blakey, Gerry Mulligan, and Dexter Gordon.

Max Roach likened Bird
to solar energy.
“We drew our warmth from him.
We’re drawing on it still.
In all things musical
his ideas bounded out
and this inspired us all.
Bird had a playful means
that raised each instrument.”

Interweaving such homage with detailed narrative about Parker’s artistry, Gray paints a portrait of Parker that strikes a balance between hagiography and exposé. While only hardcore jazz heads will be interested in the makes and models of alto saxophones Parker played, or the thickness of the reed he used, any reader will appreciate the glimpses of Parker’s humor and warmth that Gray offers in anecdotes about drunken golf matches or the time Bird dressed as a country rube and stood outside Birdland just to mess with the minds of jazz fans.

Gray doesn’t shirk from communicating the ravaging effects of Bird’s drug habit and alcoholism (poverty, homelessness, broken marriages, a stay in Bellevue hospital, embarrassments on the bandstand, missed gigs). The emphasis, however, is on Bird’s artistry. At his best, Gray combines an awareness of the technical aspects of Bird’s musicianship (groundbreaking use of “higher” intervals, such as elevenths and thirteenths, for example) with a lyrical appreciation for how the music speaks to the soul in quintessential Parker tunes, such as “Now’s the Time” and “Koko.” Here is how Gray sums up Parker’s collaborations with trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie:

They’d then consolidate
as both shared music’s world
until they moved beyond
what formerly they did
when Diz outbirded Bird
and Bird outdizzied Diz

That passage swings, to my ear. Such moments compensate for the occasional forced anastrophe (“Bird died aged thirty-four/yet more than fifty looked”) or overwrought phrase (“All light had left the world/when Charlie Parker died”) and make Blues for Bird a worthwhile flight. Just be sure to play Bird’s records as you read.