Bird is back.
How fantastic that sounds! Yes indeed, the Bird you know and love has returned, his powerful wings beating the air. In every corner of this planet – from Novosibirsk to Timbuktu – people are going to gaze up at the sky, spy the shadow of that magnificent Bird and cheer. And the world will be filled once more with radiant sunlight.
The time is 1963. Years since people last heard the name Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Where is Bird, and what is he up to? Jazz lovers around the world whisper these questions. He can’t be dead yet, can he? Because we never heard about him passing away. But you know, someone might say, I haven’t heard anything about him still being alive either.
The last news anyone had about Bird was that he had been taken into the mansion of his patron, Baroness Nica, where he was battling various ailments. Jazz fans are well aware that Bird is a junkie. Heroin – that deadly, pure white powder. Rumor had it that on top of his addiction he was struggling with acute pneumonia, a variety of internal maladies, the symptoms of diabetes and even mental illness. If he was fortunate enough to survive all this, he must have been too infirm to ever pick up his instrument again. That’s how Bird vanished from sight, transforming into a beautiful jazz legend. Around the year 1955.
Fast forward to the summer of 1963. Charlie Parker picks up his alto sax again and records an album in a studio outside of New York. And that album’s title is Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova!
Can you believe it?
You’d better. Because it happened.
It really did.
This was the opening of a piece I wrote back in college. It was the first time that anything I wrote got published, and the first time I was paid a fee for something I’d written, though it was only a pittance.
Naturally, there’s no such record as Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova. Charlie Parker passed away on 12 March 1955, and it wasn’t until 1962 that bossa nova broke through, spurred on by performances by Stan Getz and others. But if Bird had survived until the 1960s, and if he had become interested in bossa nova and performed it . . . That was the setup for the review I wrote about this imaginary record.
The editor of the literary magazine at the university who published this article never doubted it was an actual album and ran it as an ordinary piece of music criticism. The editor’s younger brother, a friend of mine, sold him on it, telling him I’d written some good stuff and that they should use my work. (The magazine folded after four issues. My review was in issue no. 3.)
A precious tape that Charlie Parker left behind had been discovered by accident in the vaults of a record company and had only recently seen the light of day – that was the premise I cooked up for the article. Maybe I shouldn’t be the one to judge, but I still think this story is plausible in all its details, and the writing has real punch. So much so that in the end I nearly came to believe that the record actually existed.
There was considerable reaction to my article when the magazine published it. This was a small, low-key college journal, generally ignored. But there seemed to be quite a few readers who still idolized Charlie Parker, and the editor received a series of letters complaining about my moronic joke and thoughtless sacrilege. Do other people lack a sense of humor? Or is my sense of humor kind of twisted? Hard to say. Some people apparently took the article at face value and even went to record shops in search of the album.
The editor kicked up a bit of a fuss about my tricking him. I didn’t actually lie to him, but merely omitted a detailed explanation. He must have been secretly pleased that the article got so much attention, even though most of it was negative. Proof of that came when he told me he’d like to see whatever else I wrote, criticism or original work. ( The magazine disappeared before I could show him another piece.)
My article went on as follows:
. . . Who would ever have imagined a lineup as unusual as this – Charlie Parker and Antônio Carlos Jobim joining forces? Jimmy Raney on guitar, Jobim on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, Roy Haynes on drums – a dream rhythm section so amazing it makes your heart pound just hearing the names. And on alto sax – who else but Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker.
Here are the names of the tracks:
(2) Once I Loved (O Amor em Paz)
(3) Just Friends
(4) Bye Bye Blues (Chega de Saudade)
(1) Out of Nowhere
(2) How Insensitive (Insensatez)
(3) Once Again (Outra Vez)
With the exception of ‘Just Friends’ and ‘Out of Nowhere’ these are all well-known pieces composed by Jobim. The two pieces not by Jobim are both standards familiar from Parker’s early, magnificent performances, though of course here they are done in a bossa nova rhythm, a totally new style. (And on these two pieces only the pianist wasn’t Jobim but the versatile veteran Hank Jones.)
So, lover of jazz that you are, what’s your first reaction when you hear the title Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova? A yelp of surprise, I would imagine, followed close on by feelings of curiosity and anticipation. But soon wariness must raise its head – like ominous dark clouds appearing on what had been a beautiful, sunny hillside.
Hold on just a minute. Are you telling me that Bird – Charlie Parker – is actually playing bossa nova? Seriously? Did Bird himself really want to play that kind of music? Or did he give in to commercialism, get talked into it by the record company, reaching out for what was, at the time, popular? Even if, say, he genuinely wanted to perform that kind of music, could the style of this 100 percent bebop alto sax player ever harmonize with the cool sounds of Latin American bossa nova?
Setting aside all that – after an eight-year hiatus, would Bird still be master of his instrument? Had he retained his powerful performing skills and creativity?
Truth be told, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy about all that myself. I was dying to hear the music, but at the same time I felt afraid, frightened of being disappointed by what I might hear. But now, after I’ve listened intently to the disc over and over, I can state one thing for sure: I’d climb to the roof of a tall building and shout it so the whole town could hear. If you love jazz, or have any love for music at all, then you absolutely must listen to this charming record, the fruit of a passionate heart and a cool mind . . .
What’s surprising, first of all, is the indescribable interplay between Jobim’s simple, economical piano style and Bird’s eloquent, uninhibited phrasing. I know you might object that Jobim’s voice (he doesn’t sing here so I’m referring only to his instrumental voice) and Bird’s voice are totally different in quality, with contrasting, even conflicting objectives. We’re talking about two very different voices here, so different it might be hard to find any points they share. On top of that, neither seems to be making much of an effort to revamp his music to fit that of the other. But it’s exactly this sense of the divergence between the two men’s voices that is the very driving force behind this uniquely lovely music.
I’d like you to start by listening to the first track on the A side, ‘Corcovado’. Bird doesn’t play the opening theme. In fact he doesn’t take up the theme until one phrase at the end. The piece starts with Jobim quietly playing that familiar theme alone on the piano. The rhythm section is simply mute. The melody calls to mind a young girl seated at a window, gazing out at the beautiful night view. Most of it is done with single notes, with the occasional no-frills chord added, as if gently tucking a soft cushion under the girl’s shoulders.
And once that performance of the theme by the piano is over, Bird’s alto sax quietly enters, a faint twilight shadow slipping through a gap in the curtain. He’s there before you even realize it. These graceful, disjointed phrases are like lovely memories, their names hidden, slipping into your dreams. Like fine wind patterns you never want to disappear, leaving gentle traces on the sand dunes of your heart . . .
I’ll omit the rest of the article, which is simply a further description, with all the suitable embellishments. The above gives you an idea of the kind of music I was talking about. Of course it’s music that doesn’t actually exist. Or at least, music that couldn’t possibly exist.
I’ll wrap up that story there and talk about something that took place years later.
For a long time I’d totally forgotten that I’d written that article back in college. My life after school turned out to be more harried and busy than I ever could have imagined, and that review of a make-believe album was nothing more than a lighthearted, irresponsible joke I’d played when I was young. But close to fifteen years later, the article unexpectedly re-emerged into my life like a boomerang you threw whirling back at you when you least expect it.
I was in New York on business and, with time on my hands, took a walk near my hotel, ducking inside a small, secondhand-record shop I came across on East 14th Street. And in the Charlie Parker section I found, of all things, a record called Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova. It looked like a bootleg, a privately pressed recording. A white jacket with no drawing or photo on the front, just the title in sullen black letters. On the back was a list of the tracks and the musicians. Surprisingly, the list of songs and musicians was exactly as I’d invented them in college. And likewise, Hank Jones sat in for Jobim on two tracks.
I stood there, stock-still, speechless, record in hand. It felt like some small internal part of me had gone numb. I looked around again. Was this really New York? Yes, this was downtown New York – no doubt about it. And I was actually here, in a small used-record shop. I hadn’t wandered into some fantasy world. And neither was I having a super-realistic dream.
I slipped the record out of its jacket. It had a white label, with the title and names of the songs. No sign of a record company logo. I examined the vinyl itself and found four distinct tracks on each side. I went over and asked the long-haired young guy at the register if I could take a listen to the album. No, he replied. The store turntable’s broken. Sorry about that.
The price on the record was $35. I wavered for a long time about whether to buy it. In the end I left the shop empty-handed. I figured, it’s got to be somebody’s idea of a silly joke. Somebody, on a whim, had faked a record based on my long-ago description of an imaginary recording. Took a different record that had four tracks on each side, soaked it in water, peeled off the label and glued on a homemade one. Any way you looked at it, it was ridiculous to pay $35 for a bogus record like that.
I went to a Spanish restaurant near the hotel and had some beer and a simple dinner by myself. As I was strolling around aimlessly afterwards, a wave of regret suddenly welled up in me. I should have bought that record after all. Even if it was a fake, and way overpriced, I should have gotten it, at the very least as a souvenir of all the twists and turns my life had taken. I went straight back to East 14th Street. I hurried, but the record shop was closed by the time I got there. On the shutter was a sign that said the shop opened at 11.30 a.m. and closed at 7.30 p.m. on weekdays.
The next morning, just before noon, I went to the shop again. A middle-aged guy – thinning hair, in a disheveled, round-neck sweater – was sipping coffee and reading the sports section of the paper. The coffee seemed freshly brewed, for a pleasant smell wafted faintly through the shop. The shop had just opened, and I was the only customer. An old tune by Pharoah Sanders filtered through the small speaker on the ceiling. My guess was the man was the owner.
I thumbed through the Charlie Parker section, but the record was nowhere to be found. I was sure I’d returned it to this section yesterday. Thinking it might have got mixed in elsewhere, I rifled through every bin in the jazz section. But as hard as I looked, no luck. Had someone else bought it? I went over to the register and spoke to the middle-aged guy. ‘I’m looking for a jazz record I saw here yesterday.’
‘Which record?’ he asked, eyes never wavering from the New York Times.
‘Charlie Parker Plays Bossa Nova,’ I said.
He laid down his paper, took off his thin, metal-framed reading glasses and slowly turned to face me. ‘I’m sorry. Could you repeat that?’
I did. The man said nothing and took another sip of coffee. He shook his head slightly. ‘There’s no such record.’
‘Of course,’ I said.
‘If you’d like Perry Como Sings Jimi Hendrix, we have that in stock.’
‘Perry Como Sings –’ I got that far before I realized he was pulling my leg. He was the type who kept a straight face. ‘But I really did see it,’ I insisted. ‘I was sure it was produced as a joke, I mean.’
‘You saw that record here?’
‘Yesterday afternoon. Right here.’ I described the record, the jacket and the songs on it. How it’d been priced at $35.
‘There’s gotta be some mistake. We’ve never had that kind of record. I do all the purchasing and pricing of jazz records myself, and if a record like that crossed my desk, I would definitely have remembered it. Whether I wanted to or not.’
He shook his head and put his reading glasses back on. He returned to the sports section, but then, as if he’d had second thoughts, he removed his glasses, smiled and gazed steadily at me. ‘But if you ever do get hold of that record,’ he said, ‘let me listen to it, okay?’
There’s one more thing that came later on.
This happened long after the record-store incident (in fact, quite recently). One night I had a dream about Charlie Parker. In the dream Charlie Parker performed ‘Corcovado’ just for me – for me alone. Solo alto sax, no rhythm section.
Sunlight was shining in from some gap somewhere and Parker was standing by himself in a spot lit up by the long, vertical beam. Morning light, I assumed. Fresh, honest light, free of any superfluous meaning. Bird’s face, across from me, was in deep shadow, but I could somehow make out the dark double-breasted suit, white shirt and brightly colored tie. And the alto sax he held, which was absurdly filthy, covered in dirt and rust. One bent key he’d barely kept in place by taping the handle of a spoon to it. When I saw that, I was puzzled. Even Bird wouldn’t be able to get a decent sound out of that poor excuse for an instrument.
Suddenly, right then, my nose picked up an amazingly fragrant aroma of coffee. What an entrancing smell, the aroma of hot, strong black coffee. My nostrils twitched with pleasure. For all the temptations of that scent, I never took my eyes off Bird. If I did, even for a second, he might have vanished from sight.
I’m not sure why, but I knew then it was a dream. That I was seeing Bird in a dream. That happens sometimes. As I’m dreaming I know for certain this is a dream. And I was strangely impressed that in the midst of a dream I could catch, so very clearly, the enticing smell of coffee.
Bird finally put his lips to the mouthpiece and tentatively blew one subdued sound, as if checking the condition of the reed. And once that sound had faded away, he quietly lined up a few more notes in the same way. They floated there for a time, then gently fell to the ground, each and every one. Once they were swallowed up by the silence, Bird sent out a series of deeper, more resilient notes into the air. That’s how ‘Corcovado’ started.
How to describe that music? Looking back on it, what Bird played for me in my dream felt less like a stream of sound than a momentary, total irradiation. I can vividly remember the music being there. But I can’t reproduce it. Over time, it’s faded from memory. Like being unable to describe in words the design of a mandala. What I can say is that the music reached to the deepest recesses of my soul, the very core. That kind of music existed in the world – I was certain of it – a sound that reconfigured, if ever so slightly, the very structure of your body.
‘I was only thirty-four when I died,’ Bird said to me. ‘Thirty-four!’ At least I think he was saying it to me. Since we were the only two people in the room.
I didn’t know how to respond. It’s hard in dreams to do the right thing. So I stayed silent, waiting for him to go on.
‘Think about it – what it is to die at thirty-four,’ Bird said.
I thought about how I’d feel if I’d died at thirty-four. When I’d only just begun so many things in life.
‘That’s right. I’d only just begun so many things myself,’ Bird said. ‘Only begun to live my life. But then I looked around me and it was all over.’ He silently shook his head. His entire face was still in shadow, so I couldn’t see his expression. His dirty, battered saxophone dangled from the strap around his neck.
‘Death always comes on suddenly,’ Bird said. ‘But it also takes its time. Like the beautiful phrases that come into your head. It lasts an instant, yet they can linger forever. As long as it takes to go from the East Coast to the West Coast – or to infinity, even. The concept of time is lost there. In that sense, I might have been dead even while I lived out my life. But still, actual death is crushing. What’s existed until then suddenly, and completely, vanishes. Returning to nothingness. In my case, that existence was me.’
He looked down for a time, staring at his instrument. And then spoke again.
‘Do you know what I was thinking about when I died?’ Bird asked. ‘My mind had just one thought – a single melody. I kept on humming that melody over and over. It just wouldn’t let go. That happens, right? A tune gets stuck in your head. That melody was a phrase from the third movement of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1. This melody.’
Bird softly hummed the melody. I recognized it. The solo piano part.
‘This is the one Beethoven melody that really swings,’ Bird said. ‘I’ve always liked his Concerto No. 1. I’ve listened to it I don’t know how many times. The 78 rpm record with Schnabel on piano. But it’s strange, don’t you think? That I – Charlie Parker – died while mentally replaying, of all things, a Beethoven melody, over and over. And then came darkness. Like a curtain falling.’ Bird gave a little laugh, his voice hoarse.
I had no reply. What could I possibly say about the death of Charlie Parker?
‘Anyway, I need to thank you,’ Bird said. ‘You gave me life again, this one time. And had me play bossa nova. Nothing could make me happier. Course being alive and actually playing would have been more exciting. But even in death this was a truly wonderful experience. Since I always love new music.’
So did you appear here today in order to thank me?
‘That’s right,’ Bird said, as if reading my mind. ‘I stopped by to express my thanks. To say thank you. I hope you enjoyed my music.’
I nodded. I should have said something, but couldn’t for the life of me come up with the right response.
‘Perry Como Sings Jimi Hendrix, eh?’ Bird murmured, as if recalling. And chuckled again in a hoarse voice.
And then he vanished. First his saxophone disappeared, next the light shining in from somewhere. And, finally, Bird himself was gone.
When I woke up from the dream the clock next to my bed read 3.30 a.m. It was still dark out, of course. The fragrance of coffee that should have filled the room was gone. There was no fragrance at all. I went to the kitchen and gulped down a couple of glasses of water. I sat at the dining table and tried once more to recollect, even if only in part, that amazing music that Bird had played just for me. But I couldn’t recall a single note. I could, though, remember what Bird had said. Before his words faded from memory, I wrote them down as accurately as I could. When it came to the dream, that was the sole action I could take. Bird had visited my dream in order to thank me – that I recalled. To thank me for giving him the opportunity, so many years before, to play bossa nova. And he grabbed an instrument that happened to be around and played ‘Corcovado’ just for me.
Can you believe it?
You’d better. Because it happened.
It really did.
Artwork © gray318