Jazz Stories – Episode 1.
Who’s your favourite jazz musician?
It’s a jazz night and I’m sitting in the Parcel Yard pub, known as the Yard, nursing my ‘one for the night’ pint whilst waiting for Trevor. Mary drops me off and Trevor gets me back home safely. That’s the arrangement. I’m always early and Trevor’s always late. I like it this way because I get some quiet time to think. We are meeting to plan our jazz nights out for the coming season. Trevor loves it when Alan Barnes comes to town. “You know where you are with Alan Barnes: bloody good jazz and he makes you laugh,” says Trevor. One can’t disagree but sadly, there’s no Alan Barnes this time around.
Trevor and I have been going to jazz gigs together for more years than I care to remember. Our tastes differ to some degree but we both love our jazz live. Trevor prefers his music to be straight ahead and I’m inclined towards the “weird stuff” as he calls it. I remember one momentous occasion when we saw Sun Ra’s Arkestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. Saxophonists were wandering through the audience playing wild and free whilst Sun Ra glided around the stage in his regal outfit, arms around two beautiful dancers. The gig was a blast but Trevor said afterwards, “Sun Ra’s great but stark raving mad!” I suppose gigs don’t come weirder than that one. More up Trevor’s street was the wonderful night we saw the Duke Ellington Orchestra with all the legendary stars playing – Jonny Hodges, Cootie Williams, Paul Gonsalves, Harry Carney. The sound was like an exquisite rich red wine. Basically, we love jazz and I guess we love each other. He is my oldest and dearest friend. Recently though, he’s seems to have become a little too much like my minder. I know he’s been concerned about me and wants to make sure I’m safe and sound but I do find it irksome at times. Actually, I think he and Mary are in cahoots.
I like this reflective prelude to my jazz nights out with Trevor. It gives me a chance to mull over the questions. When I sit quietly, thoughts just bubble up but always in the form of nagging questions. I’ve never been able to work out why. I put both hands around the glass and stare into the beer. A pint of beer strikes me as being mysteriously beautiful. Like a crystal ball. I stop thinking and the questions begin popping up. What’s going to happen to this place – the Yard? Pubs come and go. Places get changed without you knowing why. It feels unsettling. I wonder what the Yard was like a hundred or more years ago? What will it be like in the future? Is there any permanence? The questions are like fish in the deep slipping in and out of view. And all the while I have this sense of a really big fish being somewhere ... deep down. I start to feel familiar pangs of anxiety. It’s something to do with never quite knowing the question and therefore the answer. I used to dream this when I was younger but now it seems part of my waking life.
Rosie, the darling daughter, knows I get anxious. Her favourite game involves stirring up Dad’s anxiety. When we meet, sooner or later she entices me into the game of: Who or what’s your favourite...? Last time it was: Who’s your favourite artist? After much debate back and forth I’m pinned in the corner of my own argument. She fixes me with her big blue eyes and says,
“Now Dad, you have to choose between Rothko and Pollock!”
She knows I can’t. Trevor was with us on this occasion and he couldn’t resist getting involved. They were like a pair of cats with a mouse.
“And, who’s your favourite jazz musician?” He said.
“Game’s over!” I said. “That one was below the belt.”
We laughed and I finished off my ‘one drink of the day’, wishing it wasn’t.
At this moment, hunched over my beer in the Yard, I’m absorbed in the questions and the bubbling anxiety. You have to keep an eye on the anxiety, chart its movements, and anticipate when it might emerge. Suddenly, I’m pulled out of my reverie by a big black man in a scruffy striped suit sitting down opposite me. I don’t know him and my anxiety shifts from inside to outside. Who is he? What does he want? Does he want money for a drink? Always questions! And then something really odd happens. He smiles at me and it is such a lovely smile that I feel the anxiety just seep away. I feel calm. He speaks in a mock English accent but I can tell he’s American.
“Good evening my esteemed sir. Trevor is going to be a few minutes late.”
Everything about him seems odd. He looks 30-40 years old but acts older. His accent and humorous way of greeting are unsettling. And how on earth does he know Trevor?
I manage to say, “Oh ... thanks.”
The question machine inside me begins whirring again but I’ve not really formulated anything before he surprises me once more.
“I may be able to help you,” he says.
I’m nonplussed and have the strangest feeling of being frozen in time. It’s peculiar when one encounters the unexpected. Odd things can happen as a response. On this occasion I have the most vivid image of my mother firmly saying,
“Now, you must remember to be polite! It costs you nothing to be polite.”
So, I respond to the black man again with, “Oh ... thanks.”
But, of course, I’m curious.
“Er ... what might you help me with?”
“The question,” he says.
“The question ... what question?”
“The big question ... the big one you can’t see yet,” he replies.
I’m transfixed and beginning to get anxious again. The situation reminds me of how it is when someone important, i.e. Mary, asks what shall we have for dinner tonight, and I have absolutely no idea. Furthermore, I know for certain that no matter how long I stand in the middle of Sainsbury’s I will never know what to have for dinner tonight. I liken this to having a wrestler put me in an arm lock and wanting very much to submit but knowing the game doesn’t allow submissions. The big black man has the upper hand here but he gives me another of those smiles.
“Don’t worry, man. It’ll become abundantly clear in due time,” he says.
He makes me feel strangely at ease despite his funny accent. Inexplicably I feel a rush of gratitude. Then reality tugs at me and more questions come. What’s going on here? Is this real? Am I being conned by someone very clever? Will he want my bank details? Will I be able to resist giving them to him?
Somehow, I collected my thoughts and say,
“I don’t know you.”
“I’m Charlie,” he says.
“Oh! Charlie who?”
“Parker,” he says.
And then, I say the most stupid thing.
“You mean like Parker as in the fountain pen or perhaps Richard Parker the tiger ... in The Life of Pi.”
He looks confused, as he has a right to be.
“No, Parker as in Bird,” he replies.
“You’re named after Charlie Parker ... Yardbird?” I say.
“No. I am Bird,” he says.
I know I’m wrestling with something tricky here and I’m several steps behind where I need to be. Somewhat hesitantly I say,
“But Bird is dead.”
He sits back opens his arms, gives me that lovely smile again and says, “Bird lives!”
He then let out a huge laugh that echoes round the Parcel Yard. He is in fits. His laugh is so infectious I can’t help but laugh too. Eventually we calm down and he says,
“Man, I love that joke. It gets me every time. When I first arrived they made that joke all the time but I guess it’s become my joke now.”
He pauses and then says, “I’m dead all right and now I’m what you might call an angel”.
I have this thought: I don’t think I’ve ever met an angel before. This thought runs parallel with another thought - I don’t think I believe in angels. And, then I can’t help wondering if he has wings and this gets mixed up with the idea of Bird having wings but I can’t possible ask him because it would be far too personal a thing to ask. In fact, it would be impolite. At the end of this train of thought, I think that I’m hallucinating. I must check up on the side-effects of those new drugs Dr Sharma has prescribed me. And then, I begin musing on the idea that I am having a new form of panic attack. Perhaps it could be called the jazz panic attack. I could write a paper and become famous - famous and mad all in one.
Eventually, I compose myself enough to ask,
“Why are you here talking to me, Charlie?”
“Well, good sir, it’s partly luck. You are here at this particular moment, the moment when I have to be here to mark Jacques’ death. But, it’s also to do with the master plan and none of us really understand that. The master plan just happens and we go along with it. I guess you are wondering who Jacques is.”
I nod feebly and he explains.
“Well, Jacques played trumpet and made this crazy horn with valves that were meant to do quarter tones and such. It didn’t work but Jacques is such a great musician, he kept trying to work his way around the problem horn and this is how he discovered free form jazz. He died in 1632 - murdered on a gig here in this place by some zealot who couldn’t stand his music. Jacques is a sentimental guy and comes here every year to mark the anniversary of his death. He couldn’t make it tonight so as a favour I came for him. I really like Jacques.”
I have this nagging thought that Charlie’s account of history doesn’t add up. I feel sure the trumpet valve didn’t get invented before the 19th Century and jazz before the 20th.
But I ask,” Why couldn’t he come?”
“He’s got a gig tonight,” says Charlie.
This takes me a while to digest ... 16th Century: birth of free form jazz, angels on gigs, some kind of jazzy after-life? I realise that I can’t possibly digest all this. But the history thing is bothering me and I can’t resist enquiring.
“Charlie, I have the impression that the trumpet valve wasn’t invented until the 19th Century and jazz till around the beginning of the 20th Century?”
“Man, don’t you believe that history rubbish. Jazz has always been around and people have always played it ... forever! It just got given a name around a century or so ago. As for the trumpet valve thing, after Jacques’ murder, brass players got so scared playing trumpets with valves the horn fell into disuse and got forgotten until some German guy reinvented it in the 19th Century. The moral of this story is ‘beware of zealots’. They’re bad news, man”.
Charlie’s reply throws me but in a flash, another crazy question pops into my mind and before I can stop myself I ask,
“Are you still playing, Charlie?”
And he says, “Sure man. I still play with Dizzy, Miles, Monk and my other worthy constituents. We do retro gigs which lots of people seem to enjoy but mostly I play with dear Jacques. We play free.”
I’m amazed and say, “But Charlie, you were the greatest bebop jazz musician ever. I thought you’d still be playing bebop”.
As soon as I say this I know it’s crazy. I’ve fallen into another person’s mad mad world. What can I be thinking of? But Charlie smiles ... what is it about his smile? My doubts seem to dribble away.
“The music moves on man. I’ve moved on. Free jazz is the way to go. The potential for beauty is limitless,” he says.
Sitting in the Yard I feel awed by Charlie Parker, the angel, and suddenly have a huge desire to hear his music.
“Wow Charlie, I’d really love to hear you and Jacques playing together.”
We sit quietly. I feel a lovely peaceful warmth flood up through me. I try to think but all I can come up with is that this feeling is the opposite of being anxious. Charlie smiles at me again then reaches over and touches my arm.
“You’ll hear us one day, man,” he says.
After a while, I say to myself you don’t know what’s happening here! I seem to be in the Yard with Bird ... Yardbird. I take a breath and think to myself, at least be polite and offer the man a drink.
“May I get you a drink, Charlie?”
“No thanks, man, I’ve given up. You have one though. Forget the one a day rule for once,” he says. “Good idea.”
And with this, I go to the bar and order another beer. When I return Charlie is gone. For some reason, I’m not surprised. At that moment it strikes me that my encounter with Charlie Parker falls outside of reason anyway. I sit, put my hands around the glass and stare into the beautiful brown liquid then hear Trevor say in his familiar, friendly, chastising tone, “Is that your second beer? You know Mary and Dr Sharma won’t be happy about that.”
I throw him a smile, thinking this won’t be half as good as Charlie’s smile, and say,
“Sit down Trevor. I’m going to tell you who my favourite jazz musician is.”