The Jazzman, his Wife and the Persian Poet

The Jazzman, his Wife and the Persian Poet (2014)

with financial support of the ANN STOOKEY FUND for NEW MUSIC (www.annstookeyfund.org).
first performance: November 8-2014, Park Avenue Christian Church, New York City

Cantori New York (mixed chorus), Maryann Plunkett (narrator), Thomas Bergeron en Paul Murphy (trumpet), Kris Saebo (double bass), Jared Soldiviero (percussion), Jason Wirth (piano).
conductor: Mark Shapiro

From 1950 until his death in 1955 the legendary jazz musician, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker lived together with Beverly Dolores Berg, better known as Chan Parker, in New York. Although not legally married, he always thought of Chan as his wife.

In a number of interviews and in her autobiography, MY LIFE IN E-FLAT, Chan Parker has drawn a frank and vivid picture of the turbulent, complex but above all loving relationship with Bird. Verbatim quotes from these sources form the text of the narrator, who plays the role of Chan Parker.

The text of the chorus comes from the RUBAIYAT, a volume of poems by the Persian poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), in a translation by Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883). Allegedly, Bird’s favourite poem was a quatrain (‘Bird of Time’) from this collection. Hence the role of Omar Khayyam as Bird’s alter ego.

The chorus plays the same role as the chorus in a Greek drama. It acts as commentator, putting Bird’s moods and emotions, described in Chan Parker’s story, in a wider perspective; the down-to-earth words of Chan Parker annotated by the elevated reflections of Omar Khayyam.

There are no references to Charlie Parker’s music. Instead, the composition zooms in on the man

himself, his character and the relationship he had with the woman he so dearly loved. Consequently there is no saxophone in the instrumental line-up.

The composition is divided into 12 parts which are bound together by the instrumental ensemble.

 

Libretto: The Jazzman, his Wife and the Persian Poet

A
Chan: From 1950 until his death in 1955 I lived together with Bird in New York.
Although we were not married he always thought of me as his wife.
I loved him dearly!
Chorus: and Thou beside me singing

B
Chan: He was, he was irresistible . I mean, men, women, nobody would say ‘no’ to Bird.
Chorus: and Thou
Chan: He had a life force, an incredilble life force and he dominated everything…above all music.
Chorus: beside me
Chan: He knew, he knew how to meet somebody and if he didn’t like them, with a smile, he could put them down, you know.
Chorus: …and Thou
Chan: He was different from any of the men I had known. He soon became my confidant and best friend.
Chorus: singing
Chan: I simply couldn’t resist.
Chorus: in the Wilderness
Chan: It was tough to be a mixed couple. But, you know, it never bothered me.
Chorus: Oh,
Chan: People would look funny at us on the street and Bird carried himself so proudly and I knew he was there by my side and I carried myself that way. So it never really, I never allowed it to touch me.
Chorus: Wilderness
Chan: In fact I hesitated to live with Bird, because of my daughter Kim, who was five at the time. And being brought up by a white woman and a black man in those days, and I worried about that.
Chorus: were
Chan: I suppose a child doesn’t see colour. Kim used to hate school. But the first morning Bird took her by the hand to school she had no problems anymore.
Chorus: Paradise
Chan: From that moment on she adored him.
In his sleep his fingers moved on my arm as if he were dreaming I was his horn.

C
Chorus: Oh, the brave Music of a distant Horn.

D
Chan: I knew how unsettled he was, how unsettled as far as everyday living was concerned, how unable to forgive the hurts of the world. And although I wanted with all my heart to believe in his moral reform, I knew there would be backslides.
Chorus: Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before
I swore – but was I sober when I swore? –
And then and then came Spring, and Rose-in-hand
My threadbare Penitence apieces tore.

E
Chorus: Yon rising Moon that looks for us…
How oft hereafter will she wax and wane?
How oft hereafter rising look for us
and for One in vain?

F
Chan: Bird was very private. We never had visitors at home. My friends sometimes, but not the cats.
It wasn’t a tempestuous life with Bird, because he was my protector. And he always had me on a pedestal away from it all. He used to say, “That’s dirty outside. You don’t want to know about it”. And it never entered our house.
Nobody knows Bird as a father and a family man. He was very childlike himself. He loved toys and magic games and bringing presents to the kids, bringing me ice cream, things like that. He liked television westerns.
Bird had old-fashioned ideas, but he wasn’t a religious person at all, not in the sense of believing in a supreme being or going to church. And he had an incredible sense of humour, very dry. He would leave me little notes like ‘was by your house, you weren’t’.
With me he was always extremely considerate and always overflowing with imagination. He often spelled his name the same way he heard me pronounce it :”Bhurd”, or he would write an entire page in reverse, so that you had to hold it up to a mirror to read what he had written. He often expressed himself in an old-fashioned kind of English on purpose.
He never read, never. The only book I ever saw him read was a book on yoga. He had knowledge of very obscure things. He had a very retentive memory, but I don’t know where he picked up some of it. He had little bits of obscure knowledge which always could amaze me.

G
Chorus: The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam. Babylon, Mah, Naishapur, Parwin, Bahram, Zal, Ramazan, Jamshyd, Kaikobad, Rustum, Mahmud.

H
Chan: Our daughter Pree was always ill. And no doctor could find out why. She went into a coma and was taken to hospital and died, you know? Bird wasn’t in New York. He was in L.A. He sent me telegrams. And it was very hard on him.
Chorus: …and in that inverted Bowl they call the Sky
Chan: Getting those telegrams was horrific. I was in shock!
Every hour another telegram and I…you know, it was horrible for me. Horrible! I’m sure Bird didn’t realize it. I’m sure he was going through his horror. And, yeah, it was terrible! Pree’s death devastated him.
Chorus: lift not your Hands to It for Help – for it
As impotently moves as you and I.
Chan: Bird had a preoccupation with death, perhaps stemming from his father’s murder. Death was a lover whom Bird wooed constantly.
Chorus: Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before…
Chan: It was ever present in Pree.
Chorus: we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust…
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and sans End.
Oh, Threats of Hell and Hopes.
One Thing at least is certain, this Life flies.
Chan: In a macabre way, he even tried to connect it with me, when he told me, I had the ‘stench of death’ about me.
Chorus: We are no other than a moving Row of magic Shadow-Shapes
Chan: Through all Bird’s violence, his courtship of death turned upon himself.
Chorus: That come and go round with the Lantern of the Sun
Held in Midnight by the Master of the Show;
One Thing is certain and the Rest is Lies!
What I fear most is deafening Silence!

I
Chan: 
Well, Pree died a year and a week before Bird.
And it changed our relationship, because at the funeral I wouldn’t leave the grave, you know? I just wanted to go in there with her. And Bird took my arm and I said: “No”.
So, I kind of withdrew from Bird in a way.
Chorus: Help me quench the Fire of my Anguish hidden deep inside and let me gently creep to silent Sleep.

J
Chan: Charlie’s Tavern was a musician’s hangout, everybody went there. And after Bird died, a pigeon flew in and stayed there a week.
It wouldn’t leave.
Which, of course, freaked all the musicians out. A lot of people thought it was Bird.
Chorus: Come fill the Cup and in the Fire of Spring
Chan: Bird is a friendly ghost. If I need something, I say: “OK, Bird, what are we going to do
now?” And it happens. Truly does!
Chorus: Your Winter Garment of Repentance fling:
The Bird of Time has but a little Way
To flutter – and the Bird is on the Wing.

K
Chan: I wonder who is to blame for the death of Bird. Certainly Bird himself, and me. But I also accuse the critics who didn’t understand his music and the public that rejected it. I accuse the club owners, the record executives and the agents, bookers and managers who had exploited him. And…I accuse all the unfeeling doctors and all the cab drivers who wouldn’t pick him up, because he was black!

Chan Parker (1925-1999)
Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) translation: Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883)

Excerpts from ‘to Bird with Love…Chan Parker’ (CODA Magazine issue 181, Dec.1981: p.4-7.Print) appear courtesy of CODA Magazine
Excerpts from ‘My Life in E-flat’ appear courtesy of University of South Carolina Press
Many thanks to Kim Parker and Garth Woods for their permission to use their mother’s words

Ann Stookey Fund · Jacques Bank “The Jazzman, His Wife and the Persian Poet”