I hate to admit this but when I first heard Charlie Parker, I didn’t get him. Maybe it was the poor quality of the recordings. They didn’t have the richness of sound to which I’d become accustomed. Or perhaps I just couldn’t keep up with the speed and fury of the music. I sense that now from my students when I play them Bird for the first time.
When I was their age, I did most of my jazz listening in the car. KBCA FM or cassette tapes I dubbed off the radio at home or off LPs from the library or the few I could afford to buy.
Mostly I made short trips around town—to the junior college where I played student in a few classes or the part time jobs from which I sketched an income. A few times a month I made the 50 mile drive up the PCH or U.S. 101 to Camarillo State Hospital where my older brother lived. Autism and schizophrenia had institutionalized him for most of his life but my parents had always made frequent visits and taken him on overnights at least once a month. When I’d gotten my drivers license in 1975, I began sharing that responsibility.
I’d pack a few tapes for each trip.
Camarillo State Hospital was a sprawling island of Spanish-style buildings in a sea of vegetable fields. Lettuce, cabbage, broccoli in rows that stretched to the jagged horizon. The smell of fertilizer was overwhelming. People shuffling along the grounds in faded robes would hold their noses against the stench while they talked to themselves.
My brother lived in the hospital’s developmental center. Camarillo also had buildings that housed the mentally ill, others where drunks and addicts detoxed and tried to rehabilitate. Usually, the residents kept to their own areas but occasionally someone strayed.
One afternoon, parking my car next to Building 8, a man stepped out from behind a tree. He wore a robe that looked burnt and sunshades that slid down his nose as he bopped his head to the beat of Dexter Gordan’s Fried Bananas still going on my car stereo.
He asked me for a cigarette and when I told him I didn’t smoke, he asked for a dollar. His hair jutted off his head in about five directions and he smelled of rancid oil and tar. Had a toothbrush behind his ear. I gave him 50 cents and he said, “Thanks, jazz man.” And disappeared around the side of the building.
Three weeks after that, as I pulled into the same parking spot, there he was, reciting a slightly delirious rendition of the Carole King song: “When the jazz man’s testifying a faded man can see. He can sky like a foaming angel or climb up in the trees….”
I handed him a dollar before he could ask and thought that would get rid of him, but he followed me inside. Seemed to think he owed me his company now. He said, “I talked to Charlie Parker. When he was here back in 1946. He ain’t have too much to say but he said it to me. Do you know about Charlie Parker.”
I kept walking. This guy didn’t seem old enough to have been in this place for more than thirty years.
He followed me up the stairs to the long empty hallway. It was always like that—like the building was deserted. The floors shined, the walls were dull and dusty. The windows framed in rust.
“This building used to be for junkies,” he said, and pointed to a closed door we were passing, said that was where he’d first met Bird. Just standing there, looking around, thinking. "We had a few words a few times. About how relaxing it was there. About how Bird liked picking lettuce and playing easy in the hospital band. Man,” the guy said, and this stopped me: “Bird went out and wrote a song about it— about what we talked about.”
He asked me if I’d ever heard that song.
I shook my head.
“I never heard it either,” the guy said “Don’t even know what it’s called. But would you find me a copy? Could you please? I’ll pay you for it,” he said, and showed me the dollar I’d just given him.
I didn’t think much about it after that—until the next time I was at the library going through the jazz bins. I came to the P’s and found it pretty much dominated by the recordings of Charlie Parker. I snagged them all and read the tune selection on the back of each plastic-covered jacket. Ko-Ko, Out of Nowhere, Moose the Mooch, Now’s the Time, Groovin High, Cool Blues Klact-ovesede-tene. Nothing that fit that dude’s description. I moved on through the bins, ended up with a dozen or so LPs—a variety of things known and unknown—to check out at the circulation desk.
When I got home, I played through each side of each album. One after another, impatiently, my nervous hand lifting the stylus off of what I didn’t like or understand, studying the album covers.
I came to a compilation with a blank gray cover, laminated in clear streaks. On the library sticker it said, Saxophone Serenade. Taped to the back was a paper line-up of tunes. Wardell Gray, Clifford Jordan, Booker Earvin, Lester Young, Charlie Parker. Parker’s first tune on that compilation was, “Relaxing at Camarillo.”
I listened and tried to imagine the place where Parker stayed, picking lettuce and playing in the hospital band—the place where my brother now lived—those long deserted hallways and all the chaos and loud confusion that went on behind the locked doors, but for me “Relaxing at Camarillo” seemed like just another frantic tune in a hurry to be over.
I listened to the tape on the way up to Camarillo the next time and imagined the dude and me listening to it together. Sitting in my car, looking up at the Spanish roofs and the trees and the dusty hills thinking about the chance meeting he'd had with Bird, and all their conversations that were now, somehow, in this melody and in all the improvisation flowing from it. I imagined the tears welling up in the man’s eyes as he remembered his brief friendship with this tragic genius and I felt as if I’d been with them that day, taking about how relaxing the place was.
I rewound the tape a second time as I slowed my car and navigated the narrow road that fed the parking lot, thinking I’d just let the guy hear it from outside and see how long it would take him to figure out what it was.
But the guy never showed up that day. Or the next time I was up there—or the time after that.
I always looked out for him—even after the place was closed and then turned into a state university and my brother and his unit were moved 100 miles away to Costa Mesa, I still expected to see that guy every time I got out of my car.