When I was fifteen I became obsessed with Jazz music. I had taught myself to play piano a few years earlier, and I finally had the faculty and rudiments of theory to begin appreciating jazz on a deeper level as both a listener and a fledgling student. While most of my peers were listening to whatever forgettable bubble-gum spewed from the Top 40 circa the late 90s, I was lost in my own world of post World War 2 era Bebop. I loved the frenetic tempos, soaring horns, the endlessly complex lines weaving snake-like through dense harmonic changes. I loved the combative one-upmanship of the soloists, the “oh yeah you can play that, well check out this phrase” attitude. If you know anything about that era in Jazz, you know it starts and ends with the king, the legend: Charlie Parker. Or simply, Bird.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Charlie Parker occupies the same place in music history as giants like Bach, Beethoven, Louis Armstrong. He changed the way music was played forever after his short sojourn on earth. His fleet playing was oft imitated but never replicated. I also loved his compositions. Even with his ability to play anything that
popped into his mind, he always wrote very memorable, singable melodies. One of my favorites was the song Billie’s Bounce. This was the leitmotif of my Bebop studies, the song I kept coming back to and practicing obsessively. It was my vehicle for improvisation. I would spend long stretches of time walking a bass line in my left hand and working out phrases in my right hand over the bass line.
Thinking back to half a life ago and this song still bring up a host of crystalline memories. Getting my driver’s license, having a tape player in the car where I would listen to Bird’s solos over and over until I could sing along with every note. In my mind it’s always a sunny day, somewhat incongruous considering it was the Willamette Valley. I think I wore out that tape. Another memory is of deciding I needed the family piano in the basement, where my room was, so that I could play later into the night without keeping my parents up. I enlisted the help of friends to help me get the piano down the basement stairs. Even though it was small, the hallway was so narrow that I’m amazed it fit (I don’t think it’s a good idea to put a piano down on it’s side though). This was the age where I started to become a night owl, and having the piano downstairs really helped my late-night musings. It was in those late hours I think I played at my most inspired. Although I knew little about the jazz world, I knew for sure that both Jazz and everything else that was fun in life happened late at night.
One of the most important things I learned in my discovery of jazz was that you’re never “done” with a song. Songs are templates for your improvisation and musicality, in a way that’s different than playing classical. With studying classical, at some point you finish your song and move on to the next, ideally retaining each in your repertoire. In my tidy world of being a good student and going through the Syllabus program, both grades and songs were benchmarks to be achieved and completed, only to move on to the next set. I find jazz to be so much more nebulous a discipline. One only hopes that from year to year your solos become hipper, more coherent, and ultimately closer to conveying your own style, finding your voice. It’s been 16 years or so since I first learned Billie’s Bounce, and I still play it regularly, hopefully much better than in my teenage years. In fact, I think I’ll go play it right now…
Billie’s Bounce on YouTube
I used to work at a clinic that was frequented by the used condom wrappers of humanity. You know the type, torn and scummy and spending most of their time in the gutters. Because I’m a non-judgmental person, it never bothered me, except for the time when I had to get rid of the dirty men’s underwear someone had wedged into the mail slot overnight. Or the time when a woman puked on the hood of my Honda Civic parked out front, a puke so saturated with whatever drugs she’d been taking that it ate right through the candy-apple red paint, leaving corroded shape that in certain lights looks just like the Virgin Mary.
It never bothered me much. But dealing with the condom wrappers of humanity really ate into a lot of the employees. Especially my manager.
He would spend his days practicing all of the slang words he could think of: freak, boof, e-tard, perma-fried whore skank kimchi towelhead beaner. One day as a form of protest I told him that he should just call me a Block Hopping, Shemale Watermelon. I even drew a picture.
But I didn’t call him a wop, even though he earned it.
He was Italian in the way that a Hawaiian pizza is Italian.
That is, he wasn’t very.
But he paraded his Italian-ness like a Hawaiian pizza, big chunks of ham and pineapple and a whiff of garlic. Lots of cheese. I guess the same way I parade my trans-genderedness, if you want to really pick a fight. But do you? I’m pretty tough. I can hide razor blades in my hair.
Anyway, one day the little Honda Civic with the BVM on its hood broke down. The clinic had just closed and I had spent the last twenty minutes kicking Magic Marker, a regular, out of the office. He was harmless but exhausting, and it was raining and I had no cash on me.
Who steps in but Mr. Italian-American Hero?
Now, being someone who’s still got a perfectly intact hyphen, I understand hyphenates. I’ve actually got several intact hyphens. I’m Puerto Rican American (no hyphen in English, but one in Spanish: puertorriqueño-americano). I’m Guatemalan-American, I’m pre-op transgender. I’ve been known to be obsessive-compulsive, but I’m non-diagnosed. I’m often hot-to-trot, when I’m not feeling like a stick-in-the-mud. And I understand how important those little hyphens are. You’re not one thing or the other, you’re both. And you’re not beige, you’re café-au-lait.
So I get it. But I was skeptical about Mr. Italian-American and the ride home.
He was big Springsteen fan.
Being someone who came of age in the Outkast and Ludacris era (I lost one hyphen to the track “Humble Mumble”), I always lumped Springsteen into the same pasty white category as Simon and Garfunkel, or Crosby, Stills and Nash. Yawn. Why don’t you just set the table with a big old bowl of mashed potatoes?
So, Born in the U.S.A. and all that. I mean, really, do I have to listen to it to know what it’s about? Flag waving, shotguns and rednecks.
But I was desperate for a ride. And he had a truck. With a cassette player. And guess what was playing?
When we got to the song “American Land” my heart froze in my chest. Did he even understand what he was listening to?
What is this land America? So many travel there
I’m going now while I’m still young, my darling meet me there
Wish me luck my lovely I’ll send for you when I can
And we’ll make our home in the American land
This sounded like a letter my grandfather could have sent home to his amor. The song went on, reporting on the experience of an immigrant in a way that I recognized from my grandfathers stories.
I won’t say I was happy to be forced to change my view of this slab of provolone. I tried to watch his face as he mouthed the words. Did he even understand what he was saying? He seemed to.
When I got home I Googled Bruce Springsteen, just to check up. Turns out his mother was Italian-American. Birth name Zirilli.
A little more Googling led me to this:
Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
But the part that we don’t hear as much struck me even more:
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
MOTHER OF EXILES. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome.
Hey, I’m no poet. The only thing I slam is my two-inch nails in the car door, and that’s by accident. But it sounds to me like Bruce, maybe our most American singer ever, and Lady Liberty, are in agreement.
I know I’m not the only one whose very hyphenated person is at odds with our currently elected leader, but it seems to me that if Bruce and good old copper tits are in agreement, there’s really nothing to argue with. If Mr. Hawaiian pizza can understand, what’s keeping Middle America?