Call It Music

Some days I catch a rhythm, almost a song  
in my own breath. I’m alone here  
in Brooklyn Heights, late morning, the sky  
above the St. George Hotel clear, clear  
for New York, that is. The radio playing  
“Bird Flight,” Parker in his California  
tragic voice fifty years ago, his faltering  
“Lover Man” just before he crashed into chaos.  
I would guess that outside the recording studio  
in Burbank the sun was high above the jacarandas,  
it was late March, the worst of yesterday’s rain  
had come and gone, the sky washed blue. Bird  
could have seen for miles if he’d looked, but what  
he saw was so foreign he clenched his eyes,  
shook his head, and barked like a dog—just once—  
and then Howard McGhee took his arm and assured him  
he’d be OK. I know this because Howard told me  
years later that he thought Bird could  
lie down in the hotel room they shared, sleep  
for an hour or more, and waken as himself.  
The perfect sunlight angles into my little room  
above Willow Street. I listen to my breath  
come and go and try to catch its curious taste,  
part milk, part iron, part blood, as it passes  
from me into the world. This is not me,  
this is automatic, this entering and exiting,  
my body’s essential occupation without which  
I am a thing. The whole process has a name,  
a word I don’t know, an elegant word not  
in English or Yiddish or Spanish, a word  
that means nothing to me. Howard truly believed  
what he said that day when he steered  
Parker into a cab and drove the silent miles  
beside him while the bright world  
unfurled around them: filling stations, stands  
of fruits and vegetables, a kiosk selling trinkets  
from Mexico and the Philippines. It was all  
so actual and Western, it was a new creation  
coming into being, like the music of Charlie Parker  
someone later called “glad,” though that day  
I would have said silent, “the silent music  
of Charlie Parker.” Howard said nothing.  
He paid the driver and helped Bird up two flights  
to their room, got his boots off, and went out  
to let him sleep as the afternoon entered  
the history of darkness. I’m not judging  
Howard, he did better than I could have  
now or then. Then I was 19, working  
on the loading docks at Railway Express,  
coming day by day into the damaged body  
of a man while I sang into the filthy air  
the Yiddish drinking songs my Zadie taught me  
before his breath failed. Now Howard is gone,  
eleven long years gone, the sweet voice silenced.  
“The subtle bridge between Eldridge and Navarro,”  
they later wrote, all that rising passion  
a footnote to others. I remember in '85  
walking the halls of Cass Tech, the high school  
where he taught after his performing days,  
when suddenly he took my left hand in his  
two hands to tell me it all worked out  
for the best. Maybe he’d gotten religion,  
maybe he knew how little time was left,  
maybe that day he was just worn down  
by my questions about Parker. To him Bird  
was truly Charlie Parker, a man, a silent note  
going out forever on the breath of genius  
which now I hear soaring above my own breath  
as this bright morning fades into afternoon.  
Music, I’ll call it music. It’s what we need  
as the sun staggers behind the low gray clouds  
blowing relentlessly in from that nameless ocean,  
the calm and endless one I’ve still to cross.
Other works by Philip Levine ...