Chasin’ The Bird

Salt peanuts, salt peanuts.

— Dizzy Gillespie

Dave Chisholm‘s graphic novel about Charlie Parker’s time in Southern California is the first book I’ve read released during the COVID-19 pandemic. It acknowledges that timing in the foreword by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Jabbar—the long-time Angeleno—wonders whether much has changed between Jim Crow in Parker’s 1940s America and last year’s Black Lives Matter summer of anguish. My gut reaction is to say, very much yes, even through the book’s lens where Bird must stay at an all-black hotel and permission to book an integrated band is seen as a great gift or concession. But a character in the story—a white one, no less—extols us never to trust LA cops, and 2020’s refrain of “defund the police” rings in my ears, and I question my gut’s optimism.

Despite growing up in a lifelong jazz musician’s home, I am not knowledgeable in the greats. My appreciation for jazz records comes via hip-hop connections: Guru’s Jazzmatazz, Q-Tip and Ali Shaheed Mohammed’s frequent bebop sampling, and Madlib’s Shades of Blue. My dad is a founding member of the Blackbyrds and, yet, I didn’t give much of a listen to Donald Byrd until J Dilla and Erykah Badu gave me an entryway I was willing to take. Even then, my explorations have been solely into the music with very little understanding of the people or those moments in time that made these tunes possible.

Chasin’ the Bird provided a new kind of door for me. The first chorus is told in Dizzy Gillespie’s voice, and he gives form to what it was like being a jazz cat in 1947. The book makes that Los Angeles and that club real for me. He name-checks a few songs, Salt Peanuts and Koko, and visualizes what it might have felt like to hear Bird blow his horn in person for the first time. I immediately went to my preferred music streamer and pulled up a Charlie Parker playlist. My toe began tapping. My eyes closed for a while, and then I opened them again, hoping to have been transported. I wanted to be looking around the darkened smoky room, searching for someone else’s eyes with which to lock. I’d shake my head as if to say, can you believe this? We’d chuckle together. I’d wipe my brow and return my attention to the stage, enraptured.

The story continues from there, taking on the perspectives of several others who encountered Bird during his time in my beloved city. Ultimately, the goal is to unravel the mystery of what happened to the man in Los Angeles, especially during his six-month-long disappearance from the scene. What we don’t get is the man himself in his own words. While Parker casts such a long shadow over the music of his time and what followed, he didn’t make it past his 35th year. He never gave himself the chance to tell his own story.

And while that’s a loss that this story can’t fill, it hits all my other sweet spots. It’s an LA story. It’s noir. It’s moody and sexy and a puzzle. The art sings. There are pages—the outro most intentionally so—that I’d swear I could hear. And the words are just as mesmerizing as the visuals and the jazz.

In Coltrane’s section, the illustrated Bird says to him:

The Universe we live in don’t waste nothin’. Everything has existed eternally. Every piece of energy is recycled. Every piece of motherfucking matter. You know what else is eternal?

Fuckin’ soul.

My soul stirred.

I highly recommend.

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