Charlie Parker did a good deal of drifting through the darkness in his life, and I'm sure in his clearer moments it must have also frustrated him to no end. He was constantly fading in and out of relationships, groups, cities, even sanity. The only constant in his personal life was his great, pulsating love affair with heroin.
But lord knows I am not lecturing Parker. I would call him a genius, but that would be far too nondescript to do him justice. He changed everything. After he died, graffiti appeared throughout Harlem screaming, "Bird Lives!" And though those are strong words, they only tell half the story. Yes, Parker lives after death because he changed the way that future generations play and listen. But he is bigger than even that; he found life before his birth, too, because every single player who played the alto before Parker's time is now judged posthumously by what Parker did afterwards.
Johnny Hodges, the glassy-smooth lead alto in Duke Ellington's orchestras, was a god before Parker came along. But now Hodges, seen through the lens of Parker's brilliance, is just another man. How can I worship at the foot of Hodges after I've heard Parker solo on "Stella by Starlight," where he stands in the middle of a lavish string orchestra and delivers the most crisp and beautiful solo, visiting the present from 1952 with something so logical and inscrutable that it makes you realize that the pyramids were constructed by men. Men like Charlie Parker, men who ordered the universe in ways that bring archeologists and musicologists to tears.
Of course, only the dead are talked about with such abject fawning. But in trying to reach Parker's grave, I am sidestepping a hundred headstones of people whom time has forgotten. Granted, Lincoln Cemetery was the segregated black cemetery, and these bones are of people from the early, brutal days of Kansas City and the corrupt Pendergast machine, people who were willfully ignored and disremembered. But Parker came out of that, and had a talent that white America would let him develop, if only because it didn't value jazz enough to take it away.
But out of all these graves, I wonder how many people killed themselves like Parker. Parker was shooting heroin from the age of 15 on. He went in and out of mental hospitals. He collapsed after sessions, pawned his horns, fixed some more, and followed tremendous stretches of frenetic energy and productivity with crushing spells of depression and helplessness. When he died of a heart attack at the age of 35, it may have technically been a death by natural causes, but it was suicide any way you cut it.
So just as Parker annihilated all the other conceptions of jazz before and after, he also destroyed the promise of jazz as self-empowerment. When he careened out of control, he destroyed all the grace and restraint that Ellington, Hodges, and Gillespie stood for. To them, jazz was vindication, proof night after night after night that there was no higher dignity in white or black America than to be a jazz musician in a tuxedo, playing emotional, erudite music that would live forever on magnetic tape. All Parker managed to prove, it seems, is that he wanted to die.
I've come to the cemetery on a kind of pilgrimage, the kind that lost people often take to get some kind of guidance. And although the approaching nightfall may be a practical nuisance, I instinctively feel that I need to see this grave in the dark. Here in Lincoln Cemetery, this darkness forcefully reminds me of the darkness that clouded Parker's mind and drove him to self-annihilation. And, as with any pilgrimage, I honor others only to save myself; by meditating on Parker's extraordinary will to die, I might find an answer or two to help me continue living my own ordinary life.
Technically, I think I understand what Parker did with his music. I've studied it and made sense of what I hear in his recordings. Before he came along, soloing meant riffing around a song's melody, leaning on the theme like a crutch. But Parker, egged on by his own skills and a host of upcoming players, cast off the melody and went straight at the structure of a solo, its chords. He changed music by making the chords the main dish. As shadows of chords were suggested in rapid-fire succession by the speeding rhythm section, Parker would wash each chord in blinding light, playing it inside and out in the span of a second. Bird's solos are the musical equivalent of flash photography. Out of the darkness of night come bright, precise shapes of unending variety.
When I finally find Parker's gravestone, I'm immediately disappointed. There's a tenor saxophone engraved on the stone, instead of the alto that Bird always played. Someone made the mistake because the tenor is the smooth, throaty saxophone that is every movie producer's or advertising executive's first thought of jazz. Here, carved in the bland granite above the words "Bird" and "Charles Parker," with a small dove flying aimlessly above the bell of the horn, the tenor is a misplaced cliché, and it angers me. It angers me because, quite contrary to what I expected, I am standing at the legendary Charlie Parker's grave and I feel nothing except a lot of cold and a little fear; I am for some reason as uninspired by this plot of earth as the stonemason who etched a tenor in the gravestone.
I stand there for maybe five minutes. Darkness is now everywhere. I can barely see the stone itself. There is no light shining down from heaven to provide me with any answers at the foot of Charlie Parker's grave.
Back in my car, I'm driving down East Truman Road, crossing under the 435 into Centropolis, Missouri, listening to a CD of Parker playing "Relaxin' at Camarillo," which he wrote to commemorate the mental hospital in California where he was sequestered following a massive nervous breakdown. It's pitch black, the street lamps are all burned out, and I can't see a thing. The dull whump of the road beneath the wheels and a flinty, speeding alto sax solo are the only things I can hear.
Charlie Parker offers no answers, because he himself was lost in the dark. Who knows how he got his talents, or why, but judging by his slow suicide, they offered him little solace. I may not have those talents, but every bone in my body wants to live.
Back in Kansas City, the buzzing lights of a strip mall warm my heart. I try one last time to think a deep thought about my pilgrimage, but when I think of Lincoln Cemetery, I have an unavoidable urge to hum the theme from The Addams Family.
Next McDonald's I see, I'm going to stop and get a Happy Meal.