Charlie Parker/Martin Willitts



How to Play Jazz


Charlie Parker waits for the music

to undress. A tease, she wants to be coaxed.

Charlie fingers the buttons of the sax

playing on its spine, goosebumps

of ecstatic notes, climaxes,

and he’s just getting started. This is

the warm-up, a mere snack of what’s in store.

She croons, buttery in his touch.

Her mood switches on and off

like a lighthouse in a storm, waves

and waves, drenching her shores.


And Charlie still has not began

her up and down scales. She pulsates

like a hotel neon light. She rubs

against the thighs of music stands.

She mews and squeaks

when he finds the center of her navel

like it was a whirlpool.

The band is waiting for its entry

but at this moment it’s still a solo.


After hours, she’s drenched,

and he is just getting started.



32 Bars in Ko-Ko by Charlie Parker


In the 32 bar be-bop, music can get riptides,

music can get the hives, streets get greased,


in solos, you can lose your mind, lose track

of time, lose your shirt, but don’t lose your place,


statements are made, fisticuffs are thrown,

someone mistake a surrender flag for a red cape,


in jazz, all notes that weren’t there before,

are hunted down, dragged across boundaries,


in be-bop, you look to the sky for inspiration,

for it sure ain’t on the music sheet,


you can pray all you want, but there’s no favorites,

you’re on your own, you either do or you don’t,


Charlie found all these notes not in any structure,

even God did not know these notes had existed,


Charlie had seen them as freckles on a woman’s back,

traced the scale like it was a ladder,


you can’t buy short cuts like that, even if you did,

you wouldn’t know what to do with it,


it’s handling both ends of lightning,

or trying to outrun on oncoming freight train,


when other solos come in like switchblades,

cowards run, musicians just stare like you’re crazy,


Charlie had a look like he’d seen it all, fire, brimstone,

cops on the take, and it was notes to place in music,


he’d look at a women’s nipple and he see a mouthpiece

to blow a monsoon, or as a bloodshot sun,


he knew the undercurrent and upper-cut was the same

when soloing, but he wanted new vibes, new territory,


he wanted what no one else had, like a sharecropper

get title to the land he coaxed for decades,


so here’s 32 bars, night clubs with hot sauce jazz,

the dangerous and deranged from a sax’s lip like a kiss.




Charlie “The Bird” Parker in Birdland


“If Charlie Parker were a gunslinger, there’d be a whole lot of Dead Copycats.” --- Charlie Mingus

                “Bird named it, Bird made it, Bird heard it, /Then played it.” --- Lyrics to Birdland


His alto sax would hide among pelicans

on a wharf, readying to flight into a compost sky.

Charlie hung back at a vacant train depot,

still, caught in the prison yard of sheet music.

His mind was elsewhere — in transient flight.

His notes were six bullets in the back of white copycats.

He might sell his saxophones for some heroin,

but he’d mainline Bebop. The fix was in —

like a rigged prizefight. Starlings turned into addicts.

Mumble-jumble scat singing from cowbirds.

Night was pure jazz fusion.


He turned to a Pullman, recognizing his father’s melodic face.

There was a need, more of a rush than a collapse

into nothingness, tied off with a rubber tube,

slap a vein into a subway tunnel for the drug —

more like a drag of feet up a bandstand

when playing just didn’t feel right. You just gotta feel it.

Anything less was a pelican bill without no live fish.

The Pullman tugged a sleeping compartment curtain,

tightening night, empty of bird sounds.

Charlie felt his throat constrict to the size of a reed opening,

the valves of his heart becoming saxophone valves.

It was deadness of silence he could not fill.


Charlie could play 15 hours in a single day,

but his shoes never spoke

about the absence in the room.

Heroin was a siren, throwing caution into the wind.

New York City was a land of birds playing harmonics

for dancers knowing secret rhythms. You just had to see it.

In a back alley, crap shooters rattled their bones.

If you ain’t got a feeling for all twelve keys,

you ain’t got nothing. His sax had a deadeye.

It was a train jumping tracks into the constellations.

You ain’t got sounds that I haven’t imagined and played.


His notes were crackles on telephone lines, in winter,

where isolation is a landlord nailing a board

across a door after one too many missed payments.

His sadness was chromatic scales, staircases on fire escapes,

where often some person would light a cigarette

and its end would be the blue moon. You ain’t got no feeling,

if you ain’t feeling it. He cashed in his return ticket for a hit —

but where he was going, it weren’t no train ride.


Those train tracks on his arms, they were no fun.

He was lost where he was. Was it his turn to solo?

Did he lose track of time. Music rests confused with being done.

He was not sure anymore.

Not since the last time he blew his sax so hard,

crows flew out and became the starless night.


Where was he? He was in the hallway,

didn’t remember being there, stark naked,

not even a sax to cover his black body.

Or was it his black mood. He weren’t sure no more.

He did not remember disembarking from the train,

did not recall totting his baggage of endless touring. 


Heroin was snow — dangerous frostbite —

gunning for musicians stealing notes from him,

rambling I need a phone, I need to call it in,

I need white-mercury. He tried to light his mattress.


It got him dried out in a mental ward.

Pigeons wore white lab coats. What you got?

addiction. Was it New York City; or drugs?

He wasn’t sure. Blackouts more frequent

than migration from night club to night club

in a haphazard departure. Where was the getaway?

Where were the destination and arrival?

Where were the magpies —

those women, like black piano keys? Not every raven

can remove their coat, shake loose snowflakes

of ascending notes. Perhaps one more concert;

then call it a night, flap and perch on a trestle,

tense on the up-beat, lay down some serious righteous —

fire-blasts Jazz, a woman turning up

the radiator of her heart. Yah, man, just like that.


Can you feel it —

flashes of steam heat from subway grates,

cold chills, night-sweats, passion. You either with it,

or it is with you. Which is it?

His blood was bad, infused meteor showers.


The car horns was Dizzy Gillespie blowing out his cheeks,

from his bent 45 degree trumpet, ‘sounds of surprise’,

immensely high notes, slurred and smeared, lathered,

green spaces where there had been asphalt. The grumble

of subways was Charlie Mingus on double bass,

third-streams of thumping, on-stage eruptions,

beseeching Bud Powell out of electroshock treatments.

Conversations around Charlie, winging it,

was Thelonious Monk’s dissonant harmonies on piano.

Pigeons tapping on ledges of tenements,

was Kenny Clarke, time-keeping combination

of snare drum or hi-hat and bass drum,

embellished downy quarter notes,

riding on the cymbal, with "ding-ding-da-ding" pattern.

With hep-cats like this in the band,

one did not need repose,

did not need encouragement to experiment

on the limits of sound.

It was stand aside and let things go,

let’s see where it goes,

Fifty-Second Street syncopated pacing.


Rivers of pain, swing music death,

wearing a pork-pie hat, feather brush touches

from an invisible drummer,

flashbacks, dollar-hustling,

blotto memories of what could have been,

damaged phonics of sound

looking for a place to crash. 

Eight bars of bebop,

scat singing. If you ain’t got it,

you’re never gonna get it. Your soul can’t pay for it.


It was pitch-black there —

out of the glare of spotlights.

He had to wear sunglasses. Sounds abundant

in the deli, or from spires on steeples, or scratched

graffiti — where he was not stigmatized and withheld,

where some things just cannot be silenced.

Music is one of those statements,

especially if it swung, had back-beat, loose as a chair.


He could not play for the stodgy —

only ones on the same page need to inquire.

Jazz phrases stimulating, then and only then.

Wind was not motionless.

Tides of music were fistfuls of tossed dice.


The linguistics of phraseology

was running with the wrong crowd.

Hooded eyes, seeing what others could not.

Expressed desires not withheld, shotgun splatters

of notes — expendable for some, necessary

to others. Dispatches from long distances,

plugged in by an operator at the switchboard of music.


You are either connected; or you are not.

Wail out, wheel among birds, become star-dust.


Charlie felt night intensify —

the kind of gunplay you expect from a downer.

The interior of music was not smallness.

Everything was amplified; or it was

something not worth writing home about.


It only made him redouble his efforts.

Anything else was compromise

and he couldn’t do it —

not, and still be a musician.

It was against his second nature.

He rented apartment space in the risk —

so why would paying the rent be so strange?


And he did not have enough money

for ways to ease the pain. He could always

pawn his sax, drool at it near the For-Sale sign

on display — like it was going to perform

without him. Then again, it might do that.


But his sax was an appendage.

He needed that fix too.

He was all jazzed-up.


To know him was to know a smoking gun.

He was alive with his sax and dead without it.

Night shift, or graveyard shift; did it matter?

Which word is truer? Which is nothing more

than smokescreen? a woman screaming

while making love.


He was on overtime, as far as death was concerned;

and death chased him, seeking an autograph.

Charlie might not respond to death’s requests.

He might hammer nails on death’s coffin.

Waiting between sets, just gave more time for composing,

things no one else heard.

Jaded call-backs, sets going past last-call,

going crazy numbness — it was mercy.


Longevity was music.

Make notes stretch out wings on stone buildings.

Make women give birth without being pregnant.

Make men stretch out life sentences.

Be sketchy. Be stoned until becoming Flint.

Strike sparks. Saturate the moon.

Be jellyfish among stars. Be bad apple

Be beaten by night clubs.

It is all the same thing.


Man, I’ve a need that needs to be scratched.

Smash the notes into sour mash.


Day was beginning to place its fingers

on finger valves and throw billows of notes

into the isolated so they would feel resolve.

No turning back. This was a one-way ride.

Miles between cities; times of no lover;

no lines of heroin; no faltering money.

Jazz without feeling

was isolation with no room or board.


A day without jazz was jaundice.


Have you heard about my baby?

She done went away. If you see her,

tell her I love her so.

But do not give her my address,

because after she done seen me with my other babe.


His fingers were itchy.

It had been a while since he played last.

Itchy fingers always found their way

into another pot to get caught in.

He was jammed-up. Every word was restless.

His sax grew legs and hitchhiked.

He was hopped-up, electric, amplified.

His blood was gasoline

and he was playing with fire.

His music was chimney smoke.


Man, I just got in and I am still out.


He was just waking up, not from sleep,

but waking up to possibilities,

as if they were carved into the script of nightmares.

His java-colored skin was jumping and jiving.

His words were jaywalking.

How could you dance without music?

Angels hid in slang.

Solos were from the bums being rushed.

He needed to score soon.


Man, if you do not understand what I am blowing,

then you belong in a morgue.


His wife and mistress independently searched for him —

in every dive, every jazz club, every pool hall,

every abandoned archway to a cellar

where you knocked on a door with a slat

and identified yourself before entering

a hidden derringer.


He had already fled the coop.


Put salt on his tail feathers; it won’t work.

His pulses were not connected to your rhythm.

He was playing with inflammatory things.

Try to catch him in migration; can’t do it.

He was heedless to where he was going.

There were no off-ramps, nothing on a map.

Try skeet shooting; he is too fast for you.

You cannot discipline what cannot be capture.

Try finessing a bird with sunflower seeds;

it won’t work on him to try and change him.

He is among flocks heading for wintering.


Man, anything else is scrunched-up music notations

and unpaid bills. He packed his sax lovingly,

kissing his fingers for luck, felt iron railing,

looking down into nests of laundry hanging out,

waiting for the next gig, nervous as a man

stranded at a station, his ticket done run out,

nothing entering or exiting, blackbirds

in the middle of a jazz rest stop, waiting

for the music to begin.


Yah man, definitely like that.


Yah, definitely like that.





Reprinted from “Late All Night Sessions with Charlie “the Bird” Parker and the Members of Birdland, in Take-Three” (A Kind Of a Hurricane Press, 2015).

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