Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching And Jazz”

At the second Dial [Records] session, in July [1946], Parker had a mental breakdown triggered by his abuse of inferior-quality narcotics and perhaps the tensions caused by public attacks on his music. The crisis was cruelly captured by the microphones as Parker attempted to play “Lover Man” while reeling around the studio. He considered the release of that record humiliating and a personal betrayal by producer Ross Russell. Yet we dare not dismiss this most controversial of all jazz recordings. Opinions have finally settled on Free Jazz and Ascension, but “Lover Man” can still get an argument going – does it appeal only to the voyeur in us, or is it musically valid? Why did so many musicians memorize the solo down to the last painful misstep? Undoubtedly, Parker commands attention, eve in this state, climaxing faltering phrases with an emotionally devastating arpeggio at measure twenty-four. – Gary Giddins, Visions Of Jazz, p. 275

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No jazzman, not even Miles Davis, struggled harder to escape the entertainer’s role than Charlie Parker. The pathos of his life lies in the ironic reversal through which his struggles to escape what in Armstrong is basically a make-believe role of clown – which the irreverent poetry and triumphant sound of his trumpet makes even the squarest of squares aware of – resulted in Parker’s becoming something far more “primitive”: a sacrificial figure whose struggles against personal chaos, onstage and off, served as entertainment for a ravenous, sensation-starved, culturally disoriented public which has only the slightest notion of its real significance. While he slowly died (like a man dismembering himself with a dull razor on a spotlighted stage) from the ceaseless conflict from which issued both his art and his destruction, his public reacted as though he were doing much the same thing as those saxophonists who hoot and honk and roll on the floor. In the end he had no private life and his most tragic moments were drained of human significance. – Ralph Ellison, “On Bird, Bird-Watching And Jazz”, in The Collected Essays Of Ralph Ellison: Revised And Expanded, John F. Callahan, ed., pp. 260-261

"In attempting to escape the role, at once sub- and super-human, in which he found himself, he sought to outrage his public into an awareness of his most human pain. Instead he made himself notorious, and in the end he became unsure whether his fans came to enjoy his art or to be entertained by the "world's greatest junky," the "supreme hipster." " Ralph Ellison

“In attempting to escape the role, at once sub- and super-human, in which he found himself, he sought to outrage his public into an awareness of his most human pain. Instead he made himself notorious, and in the end he became unsure whether his fans came to enjoy his art or to be entertained by the “world’s greatest junky,” the “supreme hipster.” ” Ralph Ellison

Jazz is difficult. The music itself places unbelievable demands even on the casual listener. Whether trying out something by Ornette Coleman or Cecil Taylor, or settling in for World War II-era swing, or perhaps a popular tune by Duke Ellington, one can hardly just sit and listen. From the most basic element, the rhythms, up through harmonies that are too often opaque to melodies that seem to appear and disappear like images out of a fog, it takes discipline just to relax and understand what hits your ears.

It becomes so much more complicated when reading too many jazz critics. Often fans who immerse themselves in the music like Baptist are the river, critics are vociferous in their demands both upon readers and musicians. They too often write using musicological terms they really don’t understand, but pretend to do because it’s part of being a jazz critic. The result is both the music and the ever-growing literature about it, its practitioners, and its various sub-genres have a cultic, gnostic quality about it. Venturing in to jazz leaves many wondering when the dark room, robed figures, and ceremonies will occur. The music invites you in. Writers about the music, however, are guardians at the gate, ensuring this music that is both their mainstay and first and perhaps only real love remains pure, unsullied by the messiness of a world that seems neither to appreciate the intricacies of the art nor wish to use the common vocabulary to express their understanding of the music.

Which is why the few essays Ralph Ellison wrote about jazz and musicians – including Charlie Christian, Mahalia Jackson, Jimmy Rushing, and Charlie Parker – are such a treat. Ellison was many things, but most of all he refused to deny the humanity both of the music and those who performed it. He understood the music as a racial phenomenon in a country then undergoing agonizing changes regarding the racial status quo. He was not a reductionist, however, or essentialist. The music was racial because it was birthed by African-Americans, raised by and among African-Americans, and its most important and innovative performers were African-American. It was only because of the equivocal status of the black man as entertainer in a society of white supremacy that left Ellison far more clear-eyed than many critics, at the time and since, not only about the music, but the musicians and the audience as well.

A review of a posthumous collection of essays about alto saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker, Ellison pulls no punches in his view that the book is inadequate to its subject precisely because, as Giddins would write decades later, the book itself is little more than offers to sit and stare at the antics of a drug-addled clown rather than a serious musician of incredible gifts. The musical revolution Parker and others sparked could not have been accomplished without intimate understanding of music in all its intricacies, followed by hours and hours of practice, trying and trying to get to the place the musicians keep hearing in their heads. Ellison wishes the book were not another recounting of the too-worn ground of Parker’s life outside the music around which everything else swirled and whirled.

And who is the Parker revealed in this book? Ellison’s description is justly famous:

Bird was a most gifted innovator and evidently a most ingratiating and difficult man – one whose friends had no need for an enemy, and whose enemies had no difficulty in justifying their hate. According to his witnesses, he stretched the limits of human contradiction beyond belief. He was lovable and hateful, considerate and callous; he stole from friends and benefactors and borrowed without conscience, often without repaying, and yet was generous to absurdity. He could be most kind to younger musicians or utterly crushing in his contempt for their ineptitude. He was passive and yet quick to pull a knife and pick a fight. He knew the difficulties which are often the lot of jazz musicians, but as a leader he tried to con his sidemen out of their wages. He evidently loved the idea of having a family and being a good father and provider, but found it as difficult as being a good son to his devoted mother. He was given to extremes of sadism and masochism, capable of the most staggering excesses and most exacting physical discipline and assertion of will. Indeed, one gets the image of such a character as Stavrogin in Dostoevsky’s The Possessed, who while many things to many people seemed essentially devoid of a human center – except, and an important exception indeed, Parker was an artist who found  his moments of sustained and meaningful integration through the reed and keys of the alto saxophone. It is the recordings of his flights of music which remain, and it is these which form the true substance of his myth.(Ellison, pp. 263-264)

The book Ellison is reviewing sets to one side the most important thing Charlie Parker brought to this world, preferring a kind of forensic voyeurism that in the end celebrates what should be decried, and makes of Parker the one things he never wished to be: just another black entertainer performing for whites on those white’s terms. Ellison neither denies nor downplays the person Parker was; on the contrary, for Ellison it is precisely this that made him the artist he was. The book Ellison considers is little more than those fans who, as Giddins notes, memorized Parker’s most tortured recording precisely because it was so tortured (and please note, Giddins joins in the musical autopsy, insisting “Lover Man” has merit not only despite but precisely because of all the pathologies that flow through each phrase). Giddins is little more than a late-coming white hipster, denying a fascination with Parker’s human excesses while reveling in them as some kind of well-spring of his art.

Ellison, on the other hand, uses the apocryphal nature of the origin of Parker’s nickname “Bird” as a starting point for understanding who Parker was. Rather than celebrate the mythic legend (which Ellison reminds readers was originally a word used to describe the life of a saint) of the tragic, tortured artist, Ellison looks to birds, particularly the mockingbird, to understand just who Parker was and what his music was about. At once mocking and celebratory, imitative and inventive, incredibly fast yet often too clear both in intent and completeness, Parker was the mockingbird sine qua non, taking even the most popular songs and transforming them into barely recognizable works that might at best nod at the original harmonies while moving beyond them. He often used the higher chord intervals – ninths, in particular – as the source of his melodic inventions, while playing with harmonic modulation to prevent even the most basic blues, which were in his music blood from years of woodshopping around Kansas City’s notorious nightclubs, from growing stale. Only someone with an expansive mind, a demanding desire to play something no one has ever heard (including the musician), and willing to push through hours of practicing and jamming could ever have done even a small part of what Parker achieved. That Parker did so, all the while living an often vagrant, piecemeal life filled with drugs and booze, women and his wife and child, destroying the vessel through which he offered the world himself in a musical tone as bitter and sharp as he was is nothing short of a miracle.

Ellison recognizes this without dwelling gratuitously on the gory details of the worst of Parker’s too-often-celebrated personal pathologies. He keeps the “Bird” front and center because the real myth of Charlie Parker isn’t his overindulgence. It is, rather, the song that will ensure this bird lives forever. Ellison isn’t a bird-watcher (how Ellison refers to the voyeuristic celebrants of Parker’s dysfunction). He is, rather, an ornithologist. In that regard, his review of what must have been a most unfortunate volume offers readers an opportunity to return to Parker and his music free from the necessity of keeping Parker’s life in front of his art. Ellison offers the opportunity even for the uninitiated to hear Parker’s pain and pleasure, his deep devotion to music and his appalling disregard for himself, others, and even his songs through the music. Rather than settle for simple answers or join a cult, Ellison wants us to join together and listen, again, and remember Parker’s singular genius, a genius that couldn’t flinch in the face of drugs, racism, disregard, misunderstandings, confusion, love, and even impending death.

Mockingbirds don’t flinch, but lead predators on a merry chase, after all, refusing to settle on a song, sometimes bringing lovers to tears, but never surrendering their identity as mockingbirds.

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