It’s Charlie Parker’s 101stbirthday. In his honor, an excerpt from a new book (©2021 Doug Goodkin) written for a young adult audience, with the dual purpose of getting them acquainted with remarkable American artists and thinking about the many routes to social justice.
Charlie Parker never once voted in an election. Yet he cast many ballots for the dignity and genius of his fellow African-Americans, not through the levers of the voting machine, but using the keypad of his alto saxophone. Nicknamed Bird, each note was a flight into freedom, soaring high above those who tried to hold him down but couldn’t.
One of his lessons was perseverance. When he was young, a jazz drummer threw a cymbal at his feet for not playing well in a jam session. Charlie could have walked out with his head down never to return. Instead, he went home and began practicing for 11 to 15 hours a day— for four years! As he went on to become one of the most important players in the entire history of jazz, he showed that tenacity paid off, be it in music or the fight for social justice.
Charlie was an astute observer of people and was well aware of the many facets of racism. One day, a white man who liked Charlie’s music took his date to hear him. When she entered the club, she exclaimed out loud, “Why, they’re all colored in here!” Charlie sent the waiter off to buy some chocolate and vanilla cookies, mix them in a bowl and bring them to the table and then bet a friend $14 that the woman would only eat the vanilla cookies.
He won the bet.
Another time, he got a job at a place called The Plantation Club in St. Louis, where black musicians played for the enjoyment of white patrons. (The name of the club should have alerted him that this would not be a happy experience!). When he arrived at the job, the club owner insisted that he and his band could not come through the front door. During the break, he and his band were in a back room and he went to each in turn, pointed to their glass and asked if they had drunk water from it. When each said yes, he took their glass and threw it on the floor, shattering each one. The club owner came back and demanded to know what he was doing.
Charlie looked him in the eye and said, “Since my band can’t even walk through your front door, I know you don’t want your patrons drinking from the same glass that we did. So I saved you the trouble and broke all the glasses myself.” It was a strong lesson in the absurdity of segregation, but the club owner, like so many white folks holding on to their privilege, wasn’t ready to learn it. He fired them on the spot.
Charlie Parker and his fellow musicians in the 1940’s and 50’s were part of a new generation of jazz musicians who met white culture on their own terms. They weren’t interested in playing just for entertainment or dancing, but worked hard to bring the music to a new level. They played fast and furious, creating art that was, in the words of Stanley Crouch, “as tough as they knew the world to be and that was as compassionate as they wished it could become.” To understand what they were saying, you really had to listen.
So though everyone should indeed vote in all elections, Charlie Parker’s music reminds us that there are many ways to change the world. Sometimes it’s enough just to listen.