A Charlie Parker Story
(This is an E-mail I recently received. It‘s so well written and the point so well made I felt it should be published.)
A cupola years ago I ran across your forward motion article and then lost it. Today I was at some guitar site and your name came up as a link with some theory stuff. I’m glad I found you again. I downloaded your FM material and the article about finding your own voice, and it struck a chord (no pun intended). So I’ll tell you my Charlie Parker story and one of life’s little lessons about listening to your teachers.
In the winter of 1955 I was stationed in Pusan, Korea working as a stevedore. My boss played tenor sax and he used to sit with the Korean dance bands that came on post to entertain the troops. They played mostly Glenn Miller stuff (which I quickly learned to love, and still do). Anyway, this was my intro into dance band music and jazz. I started buying records at the PX and I ran across some Earl Bostic and I decided I wanted to learn to play sax. When I got back to the states the next year I bought my self a sax, and luckily I was sent to Camp Leroy Johnson in New Orleans. Where else better to learn Jazz? So I proceeded to teach my self with help with some others on post. Then, through a turn of lucky events, the post commander decided he wanted a marching band for the Saturday parades. There I was Johnny on the spot with my brand new saxophone. The marches were easy to learn and I just followed along since I couldn’t read music that good. And I was in. From longshoreman to the US Army band. The guy leading the thing took me on the condition that I would find myself a sax teacher off post to improve my skills. He suggested the Claiborne school of music, which was an all black school in a black neighborhood. Now this was 1957. So here comes whitey walkin down the street with his axe, and their eyes doubled in size – like they couldn’t believe it. “What’s that honky doin in this part of town?” Well I didn’t care. By this time I discovered Charlie Yardbird and he was my hero, and I wished he was my daddy and I don’t give a damn about your southern bullshit views that white people don’t mix with coloreds. Hell I’ve been living with these people for the last two years and I don’t see what your goddamn problem is. So I walked in the front door of that school and there was a big band practicing a chart- and they came to a screeching halt when they saw me, and the guy leading said he be with me in a few minutes, he knew I was coming. Needless to say there was some mumbling and the I guess eventually things got explained – and I was in.
A few months later another teacher was suggested, and I found Don Lasday. Now he was a graduate of the Schillinger school in Boston. He played clarinet with the NO symphony and a local hotel dance band. But he was into this Marcel Mule crap. And he played this record, Iberts “Concerto de Camera”.
“This is what I want you sound like”
And I’m thinking, “man I want to play like the Bird, I don’t want to play like no Mule”.
But I stayed anyway and did some Schillinger theory lessons and tried to get that Mule sound. Traded in my Conn for a Selmer. Still didn’t get it.
Then I decided to reenlist because I wanted to go to France. And I went – but I was back at my old job as a longshoreman.
Did a tour in Lebanon for that stupid little war in 58. Back to France and I hit the music stores and picked up – of all things the Marcel Mule record- and I listened. And I really listened and I got the message. Such incredible beauty. I got back to New Orleans early sixty and went looking for Don Lasday- but he was sick. He died of a brain tumor in 61. And I cried. I wanted to tell him that I finally understood what he was talking about, but it was too late. I wasted all that time thinking I was going to be like Charlie Parker. How incredibly stupid I was. Nobody plays like Charlie Parker. You can’t be someone else – you can only be yourself. The way he played was from his experience – from his life – from his blues. And I’m not him, so how could I play like him?
But, if I had listened to my teacher, if I had paid attention to what he was saying – if I had only learned to play saxophone according to his book – instead of wanting to be like someone else. If only….
Well eventually I gave it up, became a hippie, then went to grad school and became a family therapist. Spent thirty years of listening to other peoples problems. Recently retired and I decided to take up sax again. I’ve got my Marcel Mule lesson books. I’m gonna learn how to play like the Mule. Such a beautiful sweet sound.
I guess when your young and you think you know everything – at least more than your teachers, you really miss a gift that you could give to yourself – and that is self discovery. I guess its all right to have heroes, people you admire for what they can do, and what you can’t do. But I wanted to be someone else other than who I was. I wanted to play at a level way beyond my capabilities at the moment, and I wanted to do it without all of the hard work that it takes just to be ordinary.
Obviously your teachers will tell you things that you don’t think is important. Or to do things that you don’t want to do. For me, life’s hardest lesson was learning to do the things I didn’t want to do – and doing it anyway. It truly is a gift too be simple and too be free.
Thanks for the lessons on forward motion.
El Paso, Tx