Blues for Bird
Blues for Bird
by Martin Gray

Santa Monica Press, October 2001
ISBN: 1891661205

by Paul Blair

copyright © 2002 Paul Blair
first published in Jazz Notes

Imagine this, if you can: Someone sits down and writes an epic poem about a jazz saxophonist. It takes the poet eight years to finish (well over the seven he'd expected it would at the outset). Yep, it's actually been done. And the result is a truly remarkable reading experience entitled Blues for Bird by Canadian Martin Gray.

Charlie Parker was a heroic figure, Gray decided, thus meriting the full-blown epic treatment traditional in such cases. In this instance, that means twelve sequential "books" containing a total of no fewer than 5665 trimeter lines. Trimeter? It's a metric scheme involving a pattern of six syllables (three metric feet) per line (da-dum-da-dum-da-dum at its most elemental), with lines generally striding along in iambics. Was this the structure into which Tennyson set at least some of his verse? I'm assuming as much, since Gray is apparently one of the world's best-regarded Tennyson scholars.

Do you recall Leonard Bernstein once explaining that since many blues lyrics are expressed in something close to iambic pentameter, virtually any Shakespearean couplet could be sung as a blues? Few of us routinely express ourselves in so regular a fashion. Yet Gray makes the point that iambic is indeed the native English speaker's natural speech pulse. And since about one-third of this poem's narrative is made up of quotes by Bird -- or those of others speaking about him -- he's proven his point well in numerous places throughout the work. Consider this, for example, from Book I/ Section VII:

You could play a tune
and right away he'd play
a counter melody.
It came spontaneously"
said Trummy Young one time
while Gigi Gryce observed
that Parker could augment
anything at all.
"You'd hum a bar or two.
Moments later he
would give it back to you
so varied, so transformed
you could not recognize
what he had started with.
It seemed original.

The careful and/or compulsive among us might fret about the absence of three or four commas in this particular excerpt. But reader puzzlement over punctuation irregularities is likely to melt away just a few pages into the book, as are worries that the same verse scheme stretched over 251 pages will quickly prove tedious. Gray has avoided monotony by inserting catalectic lines (those containing one less syllable than standard) and hypercatalectic lines (with one extra syllable). He varies the metric pulse, too, in a number of other subtle ways -- just as any talented jazz player does -- that don't call attention to themselves unless one stops to analyze. And that you needn't do.

Instead, you enjoy the concentration of language that is the hallmark of poetry. This careful distillation process is apparent at many points throughout. (With space considerations in mind, I'm going to ignore the way Gray has laid out his writing on the printed page and render these passages in something closer to more conventional sentence form. Yet given the intensity of the phrasing and the way in which normal word order is regularly reversed, it's impossible to mistake these lines for reportage from the pages of Down Beat .)

Experimenting with
the ways and means of horns
Charlie found a note
could often be produced
by different fingerings.
It was unorthodox.
The pitch was just the same.
The subtlest difference lay
in quality and weight.
  (III / XXVI)

Or this, on a short-lived big band organized around Parker's talents:

Their band was due to start
at Newark in two weeks.
Lord Buckley got the boss
to listen to their sound.
He liked it when he heard
but was frightened by its size
and fearful of the cost.
"I like your band" he said
"but it is far too big.
If you can knock it down
to only four I'll buy."
After that the band
vanished as snow in spring.
Bob Newman made a tape
upon a poor machine,
the only souvenir
of Bird's great orchestra
existing for two weeks
but never played a gig.
  (VII / III)

To discover that one section of an epic poem concludes with a term like "gig" is a pleasurable jolt indeed. On the other hand, though, single words occasionally jump out as somehow inappropriate (bolding added -- ed.):

Jimmy Forrest said
that once he wrote a tune:
"Night Train' was its name.
Play your song' Bird urged
so we began to play
and when it came his turn
Bird played the hell from it
but when my turn approached
unable to go on
I said in compliment
After you're through with it
what is there left to play?'
Quickly Bird replied
That's one of the nicest things
that has been said to me.'"
  (I / XX)


In Greenwich Village on
a late November night
before The Open Door
Bird turned to Jack McLean.
  (XS / XVII)

Occasionally, too, unconventional word order and a sudden slide into passive voice (Alternate fingering / was worked on hard by Bird / to give a lustrous tone) hinder the narrative's smooth flow. But soon there'll be another anecdote that sounds just right in Gray's heightened retelling:

Budd Johnson reminisced:
"Bird would always treat
but if he'd got no cash
which often was the case
he'd treat us anyhow.
I saw one episode.
He'd ordered drinks for friends
at Birdland one wet night
and for his own dire thirst
three triple Grand Dads drank.
When asked to pay he said
"Give me a pen to write"
When told cash was required
with the barman in pursuit
he quickly found the door."
  (IX / XXIII)

And this terse summation as the end approaches:

"Do you drink?"the doctor asked
as he lay slumped in pain
in Nica's Park Lane suite.
He said with sidelong wink
"An aperitif at lunch
to give an appetite."
Charlie's joke had bombed.
The doctor, unamused
pressed him for the truth.
"Doctor"Charlie owned
"about a quart a day."
  (XI / XXII)

So what's the source of these stories? Gray acknowledges that he combed through every Bird bio and analysis he could find, giving particular weight to Reisner, Giddins, and especially Russell. Then he found imaginative ways to interweave literally hundreds of comments made by musicians and writers (including, you'll discover, several of your fellow JJA members) into the tale.

I enjoyed Blues for Bird far more than I expected I would at the outset. The technique that worked best for me was to read it rapidly, something I managed to accomplish only the third time through, without pausing to fret here and there over Gray's word choices and his overturning of language conventions. To do those things is, after all, any poet's right. In any event, I found this book an oddly exhilarating experience.

I'll conclude with just two more of Martin Gray's succinct and well-played choruses:

Max Roach likened Bird
to solar energy.
"We draw our warmth from him.
We're drawing on it still.
In all things musical
his ideas bounded out
and this inspired us all.
Bird had a playful means
that raised each instrument."
  (I / XVII)

When at a Paris gig
a fan gave Bird a rose.
On finishing his set
Charlie waved that flower
to all the audience.
kissed it, ate it up,
all petals, stem and thorns.
  (VII / XXX)

C o m m e n t s

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