Blues for Bird
Playing the Word: Jazz Poems
With its large print, line drawings, and glossary of terms in the back, Martin Gray’s Blues for Bird looks like a children’s book. But this Tennyson scholar’s contribution to the chorus of Charlie Parker biographies is written entirely in trimeter.
Gray pulls together “everything on Parker that has been published” and his introduction predicts that avid Parker fans will enjoy his incorporation of the parts of much-loved biographies. And they probably will, if they don’t mind such lyrical speedbumps as “Bird died age thirty-four / yet more than fifty looked” and “the music that Bird makes / resolves in all our ears / in gratified response.”
Gray is surefooted in his collection of stories, but his regular beat and journalistic style contrasts with the unpredictability of his chosen subject. With Gray’s pen, the novelty of an epic in verse results in a dull still life with little perspective. With so much to tell, the subject would be better served with sparkling prose instead. The persistence of trimeter form throughout the nearly 300-page book is impressive, but too often sacrifices sense to shoehorn the stories into strict, short lines.
It’s as if Gray is aware of this deficit, so he settles for reporting how others have described Parker’s music. He tells us that the poet Philip Larkin, for instance, described the music as “cut glass.” In one instance, Gray kicks the reader out of his own book altogether:
In his book Cool Blues
Mark Miller commented
so well on tunes they played
I can do nothing more
than mention where you find
a full description of
every note they played.
Read every page between
Gray is a fan’s fan of Parker and willingly steps aside and uses his lines to frame vignettes of memories from Bird’s ex-wives, friends, associates and critics. And this is the strength of the book. Through these testimonials, we get vivid flashes of “Yardbird”—details that finally draw us close to the subject, and we see him picking out shirts or making sandwiches. We see not just the performances or drug addiction, but also dedicated practice and artistry.
The book is generous in scope, and the scholarly Gray is able to show Parker as part of a historic artistic continuum. The reader also can enjoy details about an individual musician’s technique, about the evolution of bop or the origin of a certain song or term: “…’out of the world’ was gone / while ‘flip your wig’ / replaced the stale term ‘blow your top’ / [volcanoes were extinct].”
If only the poet had taken some inspiration from these playful phrases.
As poetry books go, Dan Jaffe’s Playing the Word: Jazz Poems is a looker. Produced by Kansas City’s BkMk press, the poems are set at the center of generous white space and accessorized by portraits by Herman Leonard. The carefully set poems prove worth the fancy digs. As with many books of poetry devoted to jazz, Jaffe gives us an intro linking the two art forms. And as with many jazz books, there are a lot of names dropped in the process, remembrances of performances heightened by memory and celebrations of the jazz listener at home with his records.
Jaffe succeeds in charming us past the second reading, much like the musical performances he emulates, especially in “Walking With Mingus” and “Listening.” His rhyme is particularly effective, coming in right at the best times, a far more succinct linking of jazz and poetry than any prose introduction can manage. His language is surprising and fresh and his wordplay delightful: “Joe Donassi dreamed he wore Sinatra’s shoes / shining like bottles behind the register…he could pass for a young Old Blue Eyes.”
One of the great strengths of this book is its universality. Jaffe places his subjects as part of a scene that does not distinguish between those alive and dead for a sense of immediacy any reader—even one that hasn’t discovered jazz—can enjoy. In “Up There,” he writes: “This one Bird makes such music / you’re Dizzy in the leaves…a Monk’s devotion / for the sky’s applause.”
In “Play On,” he places jazz greats in the spiritual realm: “…nights empty even of stars / you may hear their voices / on the wind, their melodies / woven in the currents of the river…We know Monk runs deep, / that Bird lives in pure sound…” The book is ambitious in this way, reaching far past the first-person impulse. At one point, he ponders, “So how did Herman Leonard / find what he found?” and attempts to answer that question for all of us.
Jaffe keeps readers on their feet, experimenting confidently with many line lengths and rhythms. “Jazz Joint, NYC” is an example of his formal style:
It’s hard to find an empty chair
through streaks of smoke that
the air. In a blue-lit mirror, a match
lights up a face sketched in despair.
The book haunts the spaces of insular jazz iconography and captures the freedom and fatalism of jazz music and culture: “...music / keeps you going / through the killer days, / how what comes out of a horn’s better / than anything on your plate.” The poems mimic how the musicians pull hope out of thin air then watch it disappear just as quickly. Jaffe doesn’t necessarily give us a brand-new take on jazz greats, but his clear-eyed, unsentimental portraits of Charlie Parker are some of the best parts of the book. In “Yardbird” we are reminded of how well the moniker fits: “next to the window well / he keeps peckin’ /driving his beak / at the hardstuff / of the world.”
A few entries, such as “For Langston Hughes” and “Too Late Blues” are rough reads (“She’s just inches away from my hand / and light years from my heart”) but those are infrequent dull spots in an otherwise swinging book.