Friday, January 17, 2020

Bird Lives: A letter from the librettist

Dear Charlie Parker,

Getting to know and writing a libretto about you was quite the challenge. One that I had to “conquer” before music could be scored to a story creating an opera about you. Indeed, I had to find you in that haystack of myth, truth, and folklore. The young man growing up in segregated Kansas City, MO in the twenties and thirties before making New York City your home and birthing the jazz revolution, bebop. Daniel Schnyder, the composer, wanted the story to show your dream of creating a large-scale orchestral composition. This was something we understood you wanted to do while you were alive.

But stories about you also ignited old stories told by my grandmother, recounting over and over how you were responsible for my uncle’s drug addiction and ultimate death. Marcus, my mother’s twin brother, was a jazz musician who idolized you so much he not only played the alto saxophone, he also copied your heroin use. Heroin was supposed to free your mind, allowing music to take you places that freed your inhibition. Fourteen years your junior, my uncle Marcus also shared a birthday with you, August 29. I hear the two of you hung out and jammed together when you came to Cleveland, OH. Marcus, only in his late teens then, like many musicians, thought your extraordinary musical skills were enhanced by heroin. But for my uncle, the music, the drugs, and his obsession with you ultimately led to prison and an early death. To my grandmother, you were the devil incarnate who made her life hell.

Even as a youngster, you would stand in the alleys and yards between the clubs in Kansas City—too young to go inside—and listen to the music you were dying to perfect. A self-taught saxophonist, you learned to play in every key.

Photo: Charlie Parker's Yardbird, Madison Opera, 2017 © James Gill

So while I started this adventure looking for that addict, that devil who led my uncle astray, I began to find that you were a young man hell-bent on finding that place where you could excel. How you would practice your saxophone every day, sometimes 15 hours straight, looking for perfection. Even as a youngster, you would stand in the alleys and yards between the clubs in Kansas City—too young to go inside—and listen to the music you were dying to perfect. A self-taught saxophonist, you learned to play in every key. Yardbird became your nickname! By the time it was all said and done, you were affectionately and respectfully Bird!

Indeed, you had quite a story to tell, but there was little of it in your own words. In the few recorded interviews that remain, I got to hear a soft-spoken, articulate man. Dizzy Gillespie spoke of your great sense of humor, while your wife Chan said you always treated people with great respect. I had to uncover—and tell—your story through the lives of the people who knew you best: your mother Addie, Dizzy Gillespie, three of your four wives (Rebecca, Doris, and Chan) and your British-born patroness, Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter (Nica for short), in whose hotel suite you died on March 12, 1955, at the age of 34. Indeed, you broke the hearts of all the women you loved, especially your mother’s. Her words helped me shape the opera. In her testament, full of raw rage and unrelenting grief, I got a glimpse of a mother’s undying love and pain.

Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2017 © Todd Rosenberg

While I wanted the opera to be about your real life, I did not want it to be a typical biography. I searched for those private stories that helped us understand you as son, husband, musician, and man. I went to the places where you worked and played: from Minton’s Playhouse to Jimmy’s Chicken Shack (now Tsion Cafe), where the 19-year-old you washed dishes so you could hear Art Tatum play piano. I stood on the corner of 139th street, where Don Walls’ Chili House once stood on Seventh Avenue, the place where you expanded your knowledge of harmony and chord substitutions while playing with guitarist Bill “Biddy” Fleet. You also played Harlem’s Apollo Theater, where this opera made its New York debut in 2016 and where your name is now displayed on their Walk of Fame.

Sometimes I stand on your name in front of the Apollo and think about your journey and ours. Sometimes when I think of you I imagine you sitting with my uncle Marcus in heaven. My grandmother Lucille is sitting with your mother Addie. They are watching their only sons, Charlie and Marcus, blow their saxophones loud and free in unison. And on August 29, 2020, we will all celebrate your birthdays; you 100 and Marcus 86!! That makes me smile.

Bridgette A. Wimberly

Seattle Opera’s Charlie Parker's Yardbird plays February 22–March 7 at McCaw Hall.
Tickets and info: