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.