Bird, the Musician. A mute personification of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. The only sounds that he makes come from his horn.
Bebop (Trumpet). A young optimist professor of Bebopism ... shades of Dizzy Gillespie.
Bigger (Drums). A driving, near violent force ... shades of Max Roach.
Cool (Bass). Wavers between practical and cynical ... madness of Monk and Mingus.
Trick (Piano). A good musician but a muddled thinker - often gives the illusion of being white ... Red Rodney with a different axe.
Face. Assumes several characters ... the nurturing mother ... a white socialite ... an earthy realist and a band singer.
Baron Cemetary. A voodoo version of death, lord of restless spirits, healing, and resurrection. Part El Pachuco and part Bojangles.
The Music of Charlie Parker
(The action of the play is the "Vamp"; that is, a staged accompaniment to the music. Thus, the music is a major element and requires either a live or recorded quintet. The actors wear the fashions of the |40s/50s, with the exception of the Barort who wears a faded doorman's livery and a dusty top hat. Bird is the only actor required to have an instrument on stage, and he must be able to finger it credibly.)
(The stage is divided into three areas. Up right, an elevated band-stand/balcony overlooks the other areas. Center stage is a lighted area that serves as both entrance and exit; this area is littered with travel trunks and instrument cases. Down left, a street lamp dominates, but it casts a square light pattern, often giving the illusion of an open grave.)
(As the curtain rises, Bebop, Cool, Bigger, and Trick are on the stand playing an updated version of "Parker's Mood." Bebop sings these revised lyrics.)
Six silver horses pulling an empty caisson saxophone shouting that Bird has flown. Flew to Kansas City ... Sorry that you couldn't fly, too. Sorry that you couldn't fly, too. But when you hear us jamming, remember that Charlie Parker jammed here, too ...
Charlie Parker jammed here, too.
(As Bebop sings, the lights find Bird, center stage, stretched out on the trunks. He could be asleep or dead. After a time, the lights find Baron and Face, who perform a stylized dance to the music. As the song fades, Bird stirs and picks up his axe.)
Bebop: "... come on in here, Charlie Parker. You can blow now, if you want to ..."
(Bird blows the final notes of Parker's Mood' and segues into the opening bars of "Yardbird's Vamp" ... The lights crossfade from Bird center stage, to the Baron who is leaning against the street lamp and looking in the grave.)
Baron: Round about midnight when sound was a bloody river and gentle mamas wore feathers and flame. In Kansas City, the old ones say that they found ash and eggshell, proof that the fated son Bird was both burned and born. He was sphinx and flower, sunrise and sunset. Now our midnights are black and void, waiting the light from this screaming comet's tail.
(As the Baron speaks, the lights and music crossfade from Bird to the bandstand. By the time the Baron ends his speech, Bird is silent, in darkness, and the band is playing softly. Bebop speaks quietly to the audience.)
Bebop: We ain't playing no tragic line | cause this ain't the first time Bird has failed to show ... Until he does ... like we gonna slur some high notes and falsefinger the implied passages. In his absence, how else could one vamp on Bird?
(The piano and Trick chime in.)
Trick: This rumor about Bird's death is another of his famous put-ons. I say he's in K.C., woodshedding with a laser and an elephant tusk. (The drums and Bigger challenge Trick)
Bigger. Naw ... I know my man's in the motherland or else he's ... Either way, I wouldn't trust Bird to be or stay dead ...
(The bass and Cool speak.)
Cool: Is the cat a genius? What can I tell you? Bird's cool ... most of the time.
(Cool plays a bass line similar to a heart beat and the lights pulsate as Bird plays breathy, pulsating phrases ... until the lights come up on the Baron.)
Baron: Why does a boy like that keep calling me? ... Me? Just say that I'm the wind.
(The Baron laughs drunkenly and moves toward Bird who is now playing snatches of an old blues:)
"Old death is a busy man, He serves both rich and poor. Old death is a little man, But can't nobody bar his door. Old death is a little man, But can't nobody bar his door."
(The repeated stanza is picked up by Face, who hums the "Baron's Blues" before speaking.)
Face: If you don't dig the blues, then none of this is logical ... |cause blues are at the bottom of this. This sound can turn a chick's neck into a saxophone and that saxophone into a woman's moan. Is he a genius? Was he a prodigy or just a hungry little boy gnawing a brass bone ...?
(The band plays "Pushcart." Lights, slides, dance, and music carry us back to the Kansas City of Bird's youth ... until we hold on Bird and his mother (Face), center stage. Bird wears an aversized child's coat. He is drawn toward the musicians on the bandstand. Face, wearing the mother's hat, pulls in the opposite direction. Finally, the Baron intervenes and stands between Face and Bird. Bird takes a position below the bandstand with his battered sax.)
Bebop: Look who's come to jam.
(The others barely acknowledge the unimpressive Bird as they begin to play "Countless Hours." From his position below the bandstand, Bird attempts to join the frolicking jam session. His sound rides above the group, and we can hear him play competently until they come to a tricky change. He So to follow but cannot make it. The group stops playing and glares down at Bird Bigger walks to the edge of the bandstand and hurls a cymbal at Bird's feet, as if it is a gauntlet. They begin to lecture the young musician on the art of "suiting."(1))
Bigger. My man, this is an act of war, like judo or archery. That thing in your hand is an axe, a precision instrument used for brain surgery, to incite riots and to seduce women. It's like your Johnson, if you don't know what to do with it, then keep it in your pants.
(The group resumes its playing. The musicians take turns musically hipping Bird There is a musical break when Bebop speaks.)
Bebop: Do not misunderstand this cutting. It is not personal. Like circumcision it is an examination by masters: a test of dreams, gifts, and omens. Like, any imposter can fondle his axe or play a blues chord. But what you gonna do when asked to create an original riff? How you gonna match what's under your wig with that axe in your hand? "If you don't know what to do with it ..."
(Bebop shrugs, blows spit from his horn, and resumes playing. Bird practices short, pretty solos until his horn breaks. His mother [Face] tries to console him, but he is busy making repairs, so she turns to the audience.)
Face: Is this my fault? The neighbors say I spoiled him ... telling him he can be anything he wants ... I expected him to choose law, medicine, or preaching ... This clarinet business ... I think hell get over it ... like he got over wanting to be a paperboy ... But he ain't spoiled ... Oh, I know he can play that big old tuba at school for free ... but the thing is ugly! It makes him look ugly ... Anyway, it's my money. I work every night, and if I want to buy my Charlie a pretty horn ... that ain't spoiling ... that's caring!
(She tries to touch Bird, but he has turned back to the stand. The saloon is there to comfort her. Bird takes a beautiful line that startles the band momentarily before he loses it. Bird has struck a responsive chord with Trick, who drops out and speaks plainly.)
Trick: This is one of the few things that cannot be faked or hyped. You've gotta stand up in this church of your elders, testily before their gods, and those gods will decide if you are a fit and proper sacrifice ...
Cool: You will be asked to predict the future and defend your reasoning in thirty-two bars or less. This shit is deep ... Look around. This is a saloon. That sound in your heart ... the one that you think you were born to play ... Both could die here in a room full of drunks ... "If you can't handle such things ..."
(The musicians complete the phrase in unison:)
"... keep it in your pants."
(They try to resume their playing, but Face screams at them like some avenging harpy.)
Face: He can't keep it inside. He's cursed just like y'all. Exposing yourselves in public ... making pain and suffering sound golden ... Look at him! A Selmer E-flat Alto is hit lit ... A woman don't stand a chance with none of you! (She flirts with Bird, who seems interested momentarily before turning his attention to the bandstand.) Least not for long! You're all faggots or freaks or ...
(The Baron moves from the shadows and silences her with a gesture so that he can hear the new line Bird is trying to play. She moves off into the shadows. Bird has a good idea but not the chops to follow through. When his sound grows unsteady, Bigger is ready to throw another cymbal ... But again we see the Baron restrain him with a gesture. The Baron stands aside as the band sounds on Bird)
Bebop: My man, you could stand some time in the woodshed.
(Bird's response is musical, playful, a question.)
Trick: To the woodshed! To go off alone, on a quest, to reshape one's imagination ...
Bebop: I was there when Pres came out of the shed and took us all to school.
(He mimes the animated style of Lester Young, and we hear Bird blow a few bars from "Lester Leaps In".)
Cool: A lotta cats go home to the shed ... Few come back.
(Finally, Bigger tosses the cymbal at Bird's feet.)
(The Baron follows the cymbal into a circle of light, center stage. He ignores Bird and speaks to the audience.)
Baron: This woodshedding is both dangerous and delicate. (As he speaks, lights, movement" and Bigger's drums conspire to create, the horror and holiness of woodshedding.) This is a mixture of witchcraft and self-inflicted brain surgery ... This is a personal melding of faith and vision ... is daring and deadly! A warrior's choice of unlikely weapons ... Struggle with a saxophone is like attacking a cannon with a spoon ... Round midnight in a sunlit woodshed, we made a deal, but now he keeps calling me!
(Bird's horn screams again as music, dance, lights, and props provide hints of the horrors of woodshedding. The musicians move to various tempos.)(2)
(The Baron and Face dance around Bird, who is stretched out on the trunks, again. The Baron stands over Bird.)
Baron: It requires alchemy to meld man and metal into a lyric. It takes blood oaths sworn to dark gods to keep the demons who guard such secrets at bay ... To witness the artist's birth is to see arteries' bursting in the brain and a personality shaped by terror. Those who come out of the woodshed return fearless, 'cause they don't ever expect to encounter anything that they haven't already been intimate with ... including me! Me? Just say I am a special wind, the breath inside a saxophone.
(The Baron gestures and the lights find Bigger on the stand.)
Bigger: When I was woodshedding, I lived in a basement. I pawned my drums and sold my blood to eat. Now I know you're wondering how a cat can woodshed without his axe? Well, I used to wonder, too. But one morning, after standing outside the clubs freezing, trying to memorize the lines of the rhythm section being played on the warm inside ... (He can still hear the drumming.)
This particular morning I'm trying to keep that rhythm in my head and wishing that I had my axe out of hock or something for my growling stomach besides the bottle of cheap rye in my back pocket ... It's three or four a.m. when I get back to my basement and find this African cat trashing the place. Like, I guess he was African. He was big, black, and funky. I didn't ask 'cause I was ready to broom. He looked serious and wasn't nothing in that dump worth fighting the cat over, you dig?
I don't know if I was wigged out on that rye or hungry or what. But I just sorta freeze while this cat continues to go through my shit. He keeps searching until he come up with two forks. Yeah! Regular old tin forks. He treats them like they're gold ...
(Secretively) Now, I don't usually tell nobody who schooled me. But this African used them forks to give me a percussion lesson. He taught me secrets about my heart beat, made the tides ebb and flow on my table top. He lectured on the effects of musical instruments on the human nervous system and wound up with a dissertation on drummers as a force against evil. He said that horn players like Joshua and Gabriel get all the hype, but the drummers are the driving force. (Bigger begins to drum on the railing.) ... Folks say they can tell my drumming anywhere. It has a kind of metallic quality like tin forks on a wooden table ... Can you dig it?
(The lights find Bird stirring, then favor Trick, who sounds like a jazz critic when he speaks.)
Trick. Most of you musicians are neurotic in proportion to your talent ... A jazzman is a unique creation. A master, able to compose as he plays. Nowhere else in art or sport is virtuosity such a sideman and the imagination such a force ...
Cool: (Disdainfully) Trick, you play the way you think ... like an ofay. How you going to dismiss virtuosity? Improvisation? They're products of the woodshed, a part of one's signature and style.
Trick: Jazz has no race or class or ...
Cool: This is |ho' house music ... repressed music ... music to incite revolt ... You get my meaning?
Bebop: He means it's about freedom
(Face accuses the band.)
Face: He called it |ho' house music.
Trick: It's nothing serious or vulgar. But a square might call it obscene.
Face: How can it be obscene? It is magic music. The rhythms, the earthiness, the sticky sweetness ... sound savored music to wet my pants ...
Bebop: Chicks with wet pants are common ... But playing, really playing is greater than any woman's promise ... We enter the woodshed with a hard-on ... (He cues the band and they begin to resume their playing positions.) If we're lucky, our dreams are answered ... Something terrifying is released into the blood, creating a flood so pure and truthful that all else is secondary ... Witness a sunbird hatched from a K.C. woodshed.
(The band starts to play "Free as the Bird," and the lights find Bird and the Baron center stage. Bird starts toward the bandstand, but the Baron stops him and speaks in a fatherly tone.)
Baron: Creatures created in woodsheds, near the woodpile, usually have strange habits, arid twisted views. Take notice. I am one of those creations ... the artist's skull and bones. .. Death with a sense of humor ... Our intimacy has ended ... Don't call me unless you mean it. (He laughs, bows, and stands aside so Bird can take the stand.)
Bird in Flight
(Bebop motions and Bird walks onto the bandstand playing "Free as the Bird." He gives a sonic lecture on the state of the art after Lester Young. He uses the alto sax like a precision cutting tool, and the other musicians try to respond; but when the "cutting" session is over, only Bird remains on the bandstand, preaching the new music. Bebop, Bigger, Trick, and Cool have all joined Face in the center stage light. They still play their instruments, but they are all looking up at the bandstand at Bird in flight.)
Trick: What is this Bebop shit anyway?
Bebop: It is a musical ditty bop, shifting from hot to hip ... Dorsey hates it, Goodman hates it, Miller hates it, Downbeat hates it: ... so it must be cool!
(They coolly exchange skin, palms passed across palms, and take the stand.)
Face: Did his mother name him Bird?
Bigger. I don't know. But, Bird's mama must be cool |cause she slipped him past all them ofays who talked up under her clothes.
Face: Who are you?
Face: Is that a name or a weather report?
Cool: Cool is an Ashanti word meaning to calm one's person. (Cynically) I forget the meaning of ofay.
Face: Why you want to bring up race? Music has no color ... does it? (Bigger and Cool do not answer; they laugh and join their companions on the bandstand. Bebop gives the sign, and they begin to play "This Love of Ours," but Bird does not join them immediately. He is scoring H from Trick. Face, center stage, sees and tries to investigate.) Is he an addict? (Her question attracts the Baron.)
Baron: He is using junk. Back in the shed, he swore this was what he wanted.
(On the stand, Bird enters late, but plays beautifully. His solo has the quality of the human voice pleading.)
Bigger. I am scared to drive him too hard, 'cause that's like playing in a furnace ... Some nights I expect to see blood gush from his horn.
Face: (Still speaking from center stage) And I expect him to come down off that stand and ravish me.
Bebop: As does every other chick in the house, but how do you pull the tail feathers off a bird in flight?
(The Face that responds has assumed a different persona ... a blacker Face.
Face: Sprinkle white powder on his tail ...
Bigger: You force him to roost in gin mills.
Cool: You use paper weights and leaded contracts ... Like I wonder if Beethoven's manager was German?
Trick: It isn't racial with Bird. He is on fire!
(The Baron and Face are dancing center stage as Cool responds to Trick)
Cool: You sound like Mr. Feather, or one of them critics, neither hip nor cool. You ignore the obvious ... like why doesn't he make Dorsey's gold?
Trick: You can't mix the social thing with music ...
Cool: You're so square, my man, that I'm gonna be uncool for once and hip you. He has a choice of weapons, either that axe or a machine gun. (Bird's horn screams some ancient war chant, and Cool scats for a few bars before continuing.) When they first heard the talking drums, they were anxious to break the code. Europe's best cryptographers tried, and they all failed. It was years before they dug that the drum had no dot-dash pattern; the drummers simply blew like the human voice. (A beat.) They own the music, but we make it. (The musicians put dark glasses on.) Now, my man, you can place the they and we of that statement anywhere you choose.
(Bebop tries to conciliate.)
Bebop: This is not Yardbird's suite, only the vamp. (He lapses into a Dizzy-type intro.) Hipsters and others, please dig on the bad boy of K.C. ... the crown prince of bebop, all reet, Charlie! ... Yardbird! ... Parker!
(Bird takes our breath away with a solo from "I Wish It Could Be Me." The lights shift downstage to the Baron.)
Baron: Most folks don't know when they summon the reaper. But if you think, just for an instant, "What do I care?" or "Why should I go on?" ... Before that surrender is fully formed, I am at your side, peering into your eyes. Trying to see if you really want to give up. That's all I am ... a way to quit. (Upstage, Bird plays a deathly passage. The Baron listens before continuing.)
Even the high-flying Bird looks down and thinks of falling, and for an instant he believes falling is possible, even attractive ... But that moment has alerted me, and from then on I pay close attention because such a moment will come again, and I will be there to catch the plunge. (He puffs on a giant cigar and watches as Bird plays on.)
Bebop: Most cats would give their left nut to be able to play like that. (He fingers his trumpet and begins to "chase" Bird.(3) Bebop is a very good musician, but he only chases Bird to a point before dropping out.) I may be able to cut him, but most of us are scared to pay the price. I don't think I could do it and live. Like I said, it takes either great courage or a blown wig to play like that. You dig? ... solid!
(Face comes onto the bandstand wearing her Bandsinger persona. She tries to seduce Bird, and he responds during the musical breaks. He even joins her in a risque step or two, but before Face can carry it further, he returns to his playing without a break in the tempo. Upset by her failure to take the place of his music, she turns to the mike and sings a few bars of "I Wish It Could Be Me," keeping tempo with the band. Finally, the music softens and she speaks.)
Face: He learned to play his mama before he could talk. After that, other chicks are easy ... simple instruments for erotic compositions. No different from his clarinet or horn, new tools for exploring his senses. He can play a woman like she's a horn of flesh ... can make her feel like she is the only instrument worth his attention. His fingers find buttons and valves in the rarest of places. But eventually we all discover that, no matter how we squeal, moan, and wail, we can't match the sound of that brass-assed horn. We understand the other women, but few are willing to be handmaiden to an axe. See how he fondles that horn!
(She sings a few more bars of "I Wish It Could Be Me" to his saxophone. She turns to Bird, but he isn't paying attention |cause the group is cooking. At the point where the bass should solo, Cool speaks.)
Cool: Our appetites define us; one can't eat in these places and blow Chopin. It takes a taste for grits and hoodoo to keep time up here. Them philharmonic cats can't hold a back beat if their life depends on it ... You see, lust and lovely pain and death all play on the bottom of this. (Cool's bass line lays in a bottom to the tune, and Trick begins to feed ideas on the piano. He introduces a "classical" line which Bird picks out and restructures three ways before stretching out.)
Trick: An honest critic would acknowledge that as genius, but it's hard to trick the tricksters, you dig? Entertainment and art are marbles in the same game. We all wish we could play like that. Even 'Bop envies his courage, but don't nobody know what it takes to five up there. Most of us don't want to cop to the truth. He is a tyrant and a junkle, but he can hear and play our dreams.
(Bird plays a chant that causes the lights to rise slowly on the Baron who is savoring his cigar under the lamp.)
Baron: I cannot rush these things, but you do hear him calling me ... don't you? (He moves upstage to Bird, who is seated on the trunks, center stage. He is taking his axe apart.) He called me in L.A. one time from over on Central Avenue ... He was near tears ... said he didn't mean all them things he'd promised in the woodshed. But I could see he wanted me ... All he needs is attention. (The Baron steps aside and Face enters with a serving tray and begins to attend Bird)
(The lights shift, and Bird is missed on the bandstand.)
Bebop: Anybody seen him?
(The musicians on the stand are relaxed; only Bebop seems concerned.)
Bigger: That cat's been acting wiggy ... We should start without him ...
Bebop: What's he doing?
Cool: The usual ... scarfing... (To Trick) Did he get his fixins?
Trick: (Angrily) Why you sounding on me?
Bebop: He'll show at the hippest time ... All reet let's do it. (He counts. They begin to play "First Steps" without Bird.)
(At center stage, the Baron is pouring Gordon's gin into a water glass, and Bird drinks it like a man dying of thirst. On the stand, the musicians speak during a break.)
Cool: About now he'll be killing the last of the gin ... In a few bars, he'll get on his Hoss ... not that he's a junkie, he don't need shit to play. He just likes a soft spot to land.
(At center stage, Bird has his necktie around his arm and is getting on his horse. As the needle makes its plunge, we hear Bebop's horn scream. The lights shift down left to the Baron.)
Baron: What would you feed a bird that was hatched in a smoldering woodpile, except junk?
(At center stage, Bird picks up his axe like a man going to work. On the stand, Face enters and whispers in Bebop's ear. He turns to the group.)
Bebop: He's gonna show.
(The lights favor Bird, the tempo of "First Steps" shifts, and we hear Bird play harsh discordant notes as he tries to take the bandstand, his path blocked by demons [dancers] who represent contributors to his insanity [racism, contracts, artistry, etc.] Unable to overcome them, his sound flutters and dies. Face's scream shifts our focus to the bandstand.)
Face: He's gone!
Cool: Bird was gone when he got here.
Bebop: True ... but where is he?
(The lights go up on the Baron, who savors the answer the way he savors his cigar.)
(The lights go up on center stage, as Tommy Dorsey "Muzak" plays in the background. We find Bird straitjacketed and wide-eyed. Face and the band members enter, examine Bird, and debate his sanity.)
Bigger: The cat has finally blown his wig.
Bebop: No ... Bird's just special.
Face; Yeah ... an artist.
Trick: Then why's he on this funny farm?
Cool: We don't flatter nobody by coming on like squares, you dig? Tommy Dorsey is a jazz artist, and he said, "This man set jazz back twenty years" ... Bird ain't special, he's vulnerable, and we ain't hip enough or brave enough to risk protecting him ... (To Bebop) Why'd you let them critics play the dozens with him?
Bebop: Why cut me?
Cool: |Cause you always dug hype, mostly your own. (He turns to Trick.) Why you keep feeding his monkey?
Trick: If I don't, he'll be doing cold turkey in Lexington ...
Cool: Bird ain't helpless. You ever hear him con them Southern sheriffs? He puts you down or he puts you on.
Bebop: He's too hip to be here. He doesn't belong ...
Bigger: You are a gas ... Why don't y'all want to admit that the cat is piggy. And even that's kind, |cause ofays don't use words like piggy when they lock you up. They've got him here because they found him naked, in a burning room, incoherent and violent. Charlie Parker is a psychopath! Face it! Bird is scary, and music is the only reason that we put up with his shit. He's dangerous, and if he couldn't play shit, we'd all be trying to keep him locked up in some dungeon.
Face: No, if he was tone deaf I'd still take care of hint. I'd ...
Bigger. Broads ... Y'all can't see or hear good. You think that if he depends on you, then you can control him ... So you pamper him and call him odd, different, special, an artist, when all you really mean is that you want control. But he ain't gonna let you. Can't nobody control Bird - not you, not his mama, not the cops, nobody ...
Trick: Anybody can handle a junkie ...
Cool: A junkie?...Bird ain't never simply what you call him. Like if they labeled Freud a dope fiend, then how could you keep Bird in Camarillo?
(Bird struggles harder with the straitjacket. Bebop returns to the bandstand and begins softly to blow the opening lines of "Swept Away." The other players drift back to the stand and pick up the tune. The Baron watches Bird struggle for a moment before he nods to Face, who begins slowly to free Bird from his restraints.)
Baron: Tws was not part of our deal! Me? ... I am the Baron Cemetery, gatekeeper of the night. If you spot me by day, come quietly, for I have come for you. The loa know darkness, but they cherish the light. And there are times when his flame is so bright that even I believe that he can burn forever.
Chasing the Bird
(Bird gets free of the jacket, finds his axe, and begins to blow along with the band. The group's energy comes alive. When the music ends, Face speaks.)
Face: He's back, bad as ever. He kept his chops up and now he's blowing like his life depends on it. But none of us are hip to what he needs to stay straight. We just vamping on his style.
Bigger: That's because there's a hint of truth in all the piggy things he keeps doing.
Cool: Yeah, sure, like pissing all over that night club and tossing his only saxophone out of a hotel window. That's normal?
Face: He's temperamental ...
Bigger. He conned a cop off his horse and rode it into a bar just like the cowboys ...
Face: So? He's fanciful!
Trick. He's using alcohol, pills, and heroin and still balling anything in a skirt ...
Face: I find him exciting and sexy ...
Bebop: Someone's got to school him ... There ain't no gold in rebellion.
Cool: He ain't no rebel; he just isn't cool.
Face: He sets the standard ... He's the hippest man ...
Cool: That's hype! ... Spending twenty-four hours with that cat is like spending time in an oven ... If you fly with Bird, you must stay mindful of that cat Icarus ... (A beat.) This vamp's on a Sunbird ... you dig?
Face: He needs to be where he's appreciated. (Trick goes to the mike and assumes the role of MC.)
Trick. (British accent) May I present Charlie Parker! (Offstage, Bird blows the opening of "Visa.")
(Swedish accent) May I present Charlie Parker! (Offstage, Bird blows the opening of "Little Benny.")
(French accent) May I present Charlie Parker!
(Bird walks on stage playing "April in Paris" as applause is heard. Cool has donned a beret and now approaches Bird, center stage, with an offer.)
Cool: Like Europe is where it's at, my man. These cats over here respect the art ... You'd have it made over here! (Face saunters past, Parisian style, with eyes for Bird.) It's all here, anything for the mind or the body. Ain't nothing back in the States but suicide ... vous dig?
(Bird nods, smiles, and begins to blow "Wingtips." The lights go up downstage on the Baron.)
Baron: He called me again from over there in Europe. He said he wanted me to walk with him |cross the bridge of bones, |cross the gray Atlantic. I told him that I was only familiar with the middle passage. He laughed and said he could dig it ... (He sings.) "Old death is a little man and he goes from door to door. Old death, he just a little man but can't nobody bar his door ..."
(We hear applause as on the bandstand Bebop makes one of his classic introductions.)
Bebop: All reet ... welcome to Birdland, the jazz corner of the world. (More applause as Bird takes the stand, and we witness Bird the artist playing "Pied Piper." Bebop fills a break with announcements to the audience.) Before we broom, we want to extend Seasons Greetings from the Charlie Parker Quintet. We invite you to join us here at Birdland next Friday, when we're gonna jam into 1950.
(Bird begins to blow "White Christmas" in a manner that forces us to rehear the song. The lights dim and come up on the Baron.)
Baron: You would think that anybody who could play like that would be declared a national treasure, courted by kings and queens, waited on hand and foot. You'd think that Death would have to wade through money and medicine to get at so rare a Bird, think President Truman would erect a plaque to honor his homeboy ... Instead they give him a cage in Birdland as a monument ... can you imagine? ... An honored place in a gin mill for a man with peptic ulcers and sclerosis of the liver.
(On the bandstand, Bebop is conversing with the audience again.)
Bebop; This ain't no weary, weeping vamp ... Like the horns have to growl as well as howl ... Bird has all the true love that money can buy.
(At center stage, Face responds as if she has been accused.)
Face: Money, Bird never has any.
Bigger. (Resting on the bandstand) Then where is the gold? Who's striking it rich? A cat like this should be able to support ten habits with the needles attached to doctors. Who is getting schooled, and who is selling the tail feathers from the legendary Sunbird?
(The lights favor Face.)
Face: The man is shy. He just pretends to be hip and cynical ... It has trapped him so, he can't ask for what is his. Some call it pride, he calls it cool. Whatever it is, it won't let him show that he has eyes for the gold and glory heaped on cats who can't carry his mouthpiece.
(On the bandstand, Trick tells a story.)
Trick: Oh we can see that he has eyes. That's one of the things that makes him act so gone ... Like the other day, he conned Billy Shaw into taking us to this rib joint ... Bird is always hungry. So, since Shaw is paying, Bird's trying to scarf half the menu ... Me and Billy are watching this eating demonstration, when the next thing we know, Bird is up kicking the jukebox to death. I mean, he knocked the damn thing out! Well, while Shaw is busy trying to keep the "house" from becoming a drag, Bird calmly goes back to downing ribs. Shaw is out twenty bucks for the management, and begging Bird to say what upset him. Bird won't say nothing, but he does manage to down Billy's ribs before we split ... Me? I waited |til later ... We were about to take the stand before I sounded him. I said, "Like man, why'd you slay the box?" He says, "Shit, Trick, the tune was mine wasn't it?"
(At center stage, Bird begins to blow "Now's the Time.") Hear that song? Well, that song didn't rate a quarternote from the godmakers over at Downbeat. Yet every jukebox in the Apple is playing a version of that tune called "The Hucklebuck." Somebody is making grand theft gold. and they paid Bird fifty dollars for the song.
(Bird begins to blow a taunting line of "Chariot" as the lights favor the Baron.)
Baron. He's right. Now is the time to see who's ready to do the Hucklebuck.
(The lights favor the bandstand, as Bigger speaks.)
Bigger: I said, "Bird, you either conform or die." And he said, "Either way with me. It's death either way."
Baron: Now y'all know I work at night. Ain't nobody ever seen me in daylight and lived ... Only problem is I never get to see the sunrise ... One night he played a chant that made the sun rise ... (Laughs.) The sun shining at midnight. I was grateful to the boy |cause I got to see something I don't usually see ... We understand each other, and I always knew it was gonna be hard to come when he called!
Cool: He cons his way into the morgue and hums to the shrouded corpses. Afterwards, his solos sound real ghostly, and I am almost ready to believe he can raise the dead. ("Chariot" ends.)
Bebop: Bird invented bebop to save swing from becoming a drag. But he has a hoodoo sense of humor ... He reminds ofays that the Charleston was once an African ancestor dance. He is what he has to be in order to be ...
(The lights favor the Baron.)
Baron: Now Louis came upriver from New Orleans, the hoodoo capital of the nation, so Satchmo understood the fixin' and being fixed, but Bird's mama didn't initiate him to the old ways. He didn't understand how his urges first rode on currents felt in the Nile's ripple. He hears voices, and reads signs, but the music is all that he has to feed on. He is without priest or custom. And none will teach him the taboos. Ne needs dancers to give shape to his chants. He wants the people to see how nourishing their music can be. Finally, Basheer brings him good news from eastern gods, but, too late. The loa thirst for libation, and they are offering me good whiskey and betting on when I will bring him down beneath the water ... I admire the boy ... Once |round about midnight, in that steaming woodshed, he played so sweetly that he even moved Baron Cemetery.
(The Baron takes a bottle from his pocket and drinks, then starts upstage toward Bird, as the lights favor Bebop.)
Bebop: This is a simple vamp, a comment on his comment, 'cause everything he plays sounds right.
(Bebop puts his horn to his lips and the group begins to play "Countless Hours." Bird is playing center stage, and the Baron stands in the shadows drinking. Face is pacing around the squarely lit area. But the lights still favor the bandstand.)
Bigger: Bird carries this tempo into the streets. It's like living in hell!
Cool: Bird believes in flying low, but drugs and liquor make wicked fuel.
(At center stage, Bird tries to walk and play, but the Baron blocks his path at every turn. Down left, Face turns, and each time her character changes in much the same way that an impressionist changes character.)
Mama Face: Hush! I think I hear him calling me ... the way he used to call me from his crib.
(Bird plays an accented wail and turns to elude the Baron.)
White Face: I want everything quiet when he plays! I want to hear him when he calls me.
(The Baron is in pursuit of Bird,the rhythm section is muffled and Bird is only blowing phrases.)
Black Face: I think I hear a Sunbird shrieking and squeaking from a golden horn, urging us to encage the eagle of our spirits ... His cry comes from the vein. Bloods mingling and transforming sound into a deep blue smile at a Hottentot ass. A thousand darksongs in every bar. The old ones have sent us counsel, but we must be still and listen!
(Bird begins to play "Parker's Mood," and the Baron stalks him in earnest as Bebop approaches the mike and begins to sing in "king's fashion" the following lyrics:)
"Put silver harness on an empty casson. Let saxophones shout that Yardbird has flown, flown to Kansas City. Sorry that we couldn't fly, too. Sorry that we couldn't fly, too. But when you dig us jammin' Remember Charlie Parker jammed here, too."
Shadow of Selmer E-Flat Alto
(Bebop begins to scat to the tune of "Parker's Mood. " At center stage, Bird can be heard, but he stands in the darkness. The shadow of a Selmer E-flat alto is cast across the square lighted area where Face scats a few bars of "Parker's Mood. The Baron stands in dappled light. As he speaks, we can hear both Bebop and Face scatting in the background.)
Baron: Notice! I am not a warning fixed to a poison bottle, Black men cannot swallow such endings. Their denial is relentless. So round about midnight, when sound is a liquid river, I watch them sit in woodsheds and tediously recreate themselves. They see me in their mirrors and call out taunts, |cause they've discovered a relationship between music and the eternal river ... Does a sound, once born, ever die, or does it run and hide in some future horn? I have seen men turn into birds ...
(The Baron gestures, and the lights make Bird seem to be standing inflames. The lights make each character appear to be standing near or in the flames.)
Bigger: Bird lives.
Face: They come as dolphins. (The flames grow higher as Bird blows a classic Eric Dolplhy line.)
Trick: Bird soar!
Face: They move like spirited trains. (The flames increase, and Bird blows a Coltrane line.)
Cool: Every goodbye ain't done.
Face: As Pharaoh and Sun Ra! (Bird blows a Pharaoh Sanders line.)
(The Baron walks drunkenly through the flames; the other musicians have nearly dropped out. All we hear is the Baron's speech, accented ty Bird's sax ... The Baron reasons with the audience.)
Baron: My work keeps me busy, much too busy to administer autopsies, eulogies, or testimonials. But something must be said for free men who would fly ... Oh, we could say Charlie Parker, dead of heroin addiction, sclerosis of the liver, peptic ulcers, heart ... take your pick. Estimated age, 54. but, if justice is a balanced scale, then something more must be said for these angry angels ... Oh, we could say, Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, dead of oppression, stress, exploitation, hunger, racism ... take your pick! Real age, 35! But something more must be said so that something can be done to save those who would show us our best face ... (Bird's sax accents, imitates, and mocks the Baron.) We could say it was the cold ashes of passion, fear, or yearning ... take your pick. But something must be said for this man who gave us a new way of seeing the sunrise.
It does not matter that the creator of an obscene art form called Bebop died while watching television ... because more must be said so that more will be remembered of freeman who took wings, this soldier in the struggle ... this girdle for the spirit. He took an alto saxophone and made us one with eagles ... He took his very breath and changed time for all times ... So when they come to you and say, "Yardbird has flown," look them in the eye and say, "Somewhere a phoenix is burning and somewhere a Sunbird is rising."
(The musicians begin to play "Yardbird's Vamp." The intensity is maintained until the flames seem totally to engulf Bird. The music continues as the Baron cackles and raises his bottle to drink. The music is so compelling, like the sound of sunrise, 'til finally he reaches into the flames and pulls out a small golden dove. He presents the tiny bird to Face, who clutches it to her breast. The flames and music fade, but Bird cannot be seen as the Baron leans on the lamp post, and we fade to black.)
(1) Also known as cutting, the test of a jazzman's skill. (2) The director, cast, and composer conspire to create a woodshed that sheds light on both the artist's struggle and the community's struggle in a graceful, "Birdlike" manner. (3) Chasing is a type of musical call-and-response.
Robert Earl Price is an AtnM|lanta-based lQjposuplaywright The nvisic f or Yardbird's Vanp is by Fuasi Abdul- Khaliq. The play promiered on Aprd 18, 1990, at 7 Stages Perlorming Arts Center in At- lanbl All rights are reserved by Robert Ead Prios, 1 9 Calie Street NW, Aganta, GA 30314.
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|Title Annotation:||Section 2: Drama; play|
|Author:||Price, Robert Earl|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 1993|
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