Mingus and Parker: Gratitude

Jayn Pettingill | November 16th, 2018

Birdland, 1955, New York City.

It was a night that would probably remain in anyone’s memory if they had been there. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff was and he paints a picture of a stage that became, for that night anyway, a theater of warring “..dissonances, musical and personal.”  The combatants were certainly worthy of one another; the figureheads of modern jazz assembled together on an intimate bandstand: Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus.  

Mingus ended up excusing himself from the stage by announcing to the audience that he was leaving the bandstand, and “…disassociating himself from what had been going on.”  While Hentoff doesn’t fully explain what it was that these modern minds were in disagreement over, Parker died not too long after this engagement. Mingus, through an encounter with Parker later that evening,  encapsulated his thoughts and feelings about Bird in his song “Reincarnation of a Love Bird.” Mingus said that this work is “mainly about [his] misunderstanding of Bird.”  Born from a disagreement, this piece emerged from deep reflection and a heartfelt expression of love: an opus of reconciliation at a quick New York pace.

The melody is sinewy, clever, like a film noir best seller and yet encoded in its wide ranging theme there is a longing. With a Dexterian height to “Reincarnation“– it is a long and tall melodic shape– a sense of mourning saturates each nimble eighth note phrase: Charlie Parker was all of 34 when he left the world. It’s as if the melody encircles Parker’s life: an urban salute at the start and a nod to the Be-Bop anthem “Salt Peanuts;” meetings of unexpected whole and half steps; a diminished scale leads us to a romantic bridge, a suggestion of the grandeur of the man’s music and what could have been. It is a proper and suitable tribute to a musician equally known for deft, animated ballad playing as for his blazing creativity at the hottest of tempos.

Mingus was clearly struck by the potency of that night at Birdland. A later encounter with Parker yielded a point of reflection for the bassist.

“Bird came back later that night.” Mingus told [Hentoff] …. “And he kissed me on the cheek. He said, ‘I know you love me.’  

He tells Hentoff that the tune sums up his “feeling about Bird.” The composition renders a compassionate reading of a complex man. It was born through a deepening of Mingus’s awareness that things are not always as they may seem.  Mingus tells Hentoff that “I never thought that he might not have thought he was as great as everybody said he was.” This is a very different reckoning of the master musician Charlie Parker.  While Mingus speaks to the encouragement Parker gave him to pursue music and his composing, was Parker alone in the world, seeking similar affirmation? The complexities of this thought range too far and wide to unravel here. Yet, as Mingus offered, reflection and gratitude for the music and its makers could be just the thing. “Reincarnation of a Love Bird” offers just that.

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