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Poetic License: The night Charlie Parker played tenor at Montmartre Café in Greenwich Village
September 12, 2017

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Like I knew when it was happening

that sixty years after

I could still tell you about it

and you still wouldn't really believe me:

It's one 'clock in the morning

and I wander into Montmartre

looking for Tom and Rod

so that we can go over to the White Horse,

play chess and drink 'arf n arf',

the half-stout, half- lager house special they serve

that's ten times stronger

than the watered down rotgut

they are serving here in Montmartre

because the place is backed

and being run by the local dons

who can't run anything strictly legit,

even when they are trying to cash in

on the bohemian craze

and the success of the coffee houses

like Rienzi's and Pandora's Box

and the jazz places like Vanguard

who pack in tourists every night

coming to look at us locals

dressed like bums

with our long hair, jeans and sandals,

our uniforms of art and protest,

nursing the cappuccino or the stein of beer

while we carry on our business

of bullshitting each other

up and down

the Kierkegaard, Sartre and Zen Buddhist block,

Rienzi's, Pandora's and the Van are making money

like no one was supposed to,

including Tom's place,

which is the Caf Figaro,

but the guys running the Montmartre

don't like the locals

because they dress "sloppy,"

can nurse a drink all night

and try to smoke joints disguised as cigarettes,

which they call "bombers",

so they stop letting the locals sit at tables,

institute (would you believe)

a dress code

and now every night

there are fewer tourists to stare

at the handful of better dressed locals

who have bothered

to try to make it past Ruffino

the bouncer maitre d' at the door,

who is also my childhood buddy

and who tells me,

"it's slower than Ernie Lombardi tonight,

but something's happening with the jazz guys

in the front."

Tom and Rod wave at me,

bursting with excitement like kids

watching the neighbor's wife undress

with the shade up, and I know

it's not a chess move

but something real cool

and unusual coming down.

Tom points to the musicians, a jazz quartet

Montmartre hired on the cheap,

and they are moving an extra chair onto the stand

and the tenor sax player is handing

his horn and strap to a fat guy in a rumpled suit

who looks just like and is

CHARLIE PARKER! YARDBIRD!

Here at Montmartre!

And he is going to blow tenor, not alto!

He warms up for a minute with runs and arpeggios

that any sax player would die for

but as a former tenor man,

I can tell his tone

is no threat to Byas or the Hawk

and he will thin the tenor into an alto

with his first blow.

The other musicians wait in reverence,

as if they are standing before St. Peter

waiting to be admitted to heaven,

the leader and the Bird nod at each other

and off they fly into Ornithology,

with the Bird trying to trying to teach everyone

just how high the moon was,

is, and will ever be

and how high he is now.

He zigs and zags through ins and outs of chords

in quantum leaps of invention,

he follows a two-note "mop mop"

with a five-hundred-notes-a- minute-run-lasting-for-what-almost-seems-all-of-jazz-eternity,

leaving us breathless from listening,

segueing back to the melody

and to the other musicians

who have been happy just to listen,

keep the beat and play the chords

but now with encouraging nods from Bird

they try their own tentative solos

which get more confident as they go along

for now they can tell everybody,

agents, other musicians, their children

and their children's children

sixty years after, just like I'm doing now

that they played with Charlie Parker

Bird grabs the tenor again

and the room bursts into one great haze

of waitresses pushing drinks,

tourists not knowing just where they're at

or what they're listening to,

management and stoned locals wondering

what's the big deal with this Fatso

and when can we close up,

but Tom and Rod and I and just a few others

inhaling and savoring

this hippest

of puffy fat black dying junkie miracle

glowing and blowing at the center of the haze

like Orpheus unbound,

know as we gaze at each other

in the coolest of surmises

that we are living in a moment

like no other in jazz and human history

and which most of you won't believe

even sixty years after:

Charlie Parker playing

a borrowed tenor sax for free

in Montmartre Caf in Greenwich Village,

a few weeks before he died.

(This poem was first performed at Big Arts in 2004, then featured on NPR's Morning Edition in 2005.

Since 2007, I have had the pleasure of performing it with the David Amram Jazz Quartet at the Cornelia Street

Caf in Greenwich Village on Labor Day as part of NYC's Labor Day celebration.)

To hear original broadcast go to:

www.npr.org/2005/03/11/4529124/remembering-bird-a-poem-for-charlie-parker

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