Charlie “Bird” Parker was one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. His advanced technique and utterly unique sound left a lasting effect on the way the saxophone is played, and he was a leader in the development of bebop, which revolutionized jazz with its wild tempos and improvisation. Miles Davis once said, “you can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.”
But Parker’s life was rife with scandal. He was addicted to heroin for most of his adult life, a notorious womanizer, and died at the age of 34 in a hotel room in New York City.In the nearly six decades since his death, the public has been captivated by stories of his life and glimpses into his world of fame, fortune, and failure. Ladies Swing the Blues, book and lyrics by Thomas W. Jones II and original music by William Knowles, which is receiving its world premiere at MetroStage through March 17, takes an exciting look at the life and death of Parker, creating a jazz fable that you can’t help but tap your feet to.
tW: Ladies Swing the Blues takes place on the day after jazz musician Charlie Parker has died, and centers around the mysteries, the suppositions, the rumors that permeated Parker’s death. It also tackles the jazz mythologies that were woven into the fabric of that world at the time. What inspired you to write a play about Charlie Parker?
William Knowles: Tom was the bearer of the main idea, and the play actually started with Pannonica de Koenigswarter [the British Baroness and well-known jazz patron who financially supported Parker, Thelonious Monk and many others].
Thomas W. Jones II: My daughter is a Barnes and Noble fanatic. Last year we were doing one of our Barnes and Noble treks and I picked up The Baroness of Jazz. I called William on the spot and said, “Man, I see the next play.”
I remember as a kid when Monk died there were all these stories circulating around New York that Pannonica had made Monk crawl around naked for three days before he died, begging for food. What a cruel mistress! When reading the book I realized that there was this whole mythology around her that had been created, but she never pooh-poohed anything because she just didn’t feed into the world of gossip. She didn’t give a major interview until the mid ‘80s, which was when the stories became just so prevalent that she said, “okay, let me put some of this to rest, let me at least give you my side.”
Pannonica became a vehicle into a fascinating time. I wanted to find out what would happen if you assembled the four seminal jazz divas [Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughn] and put them together in Birdland the night after Parker died. The play is less about what is true or not true and more about the folklore and mythology that surrounds many of these kinds of jazz artists. It’s a tonal poem told in the key of jazz.
tW: Parker was a great sax player, and well known for that, but there’s a darker side to Parker’s brilliance. How did you reconcile that?
WK: For me, writing this play became a way of looking at a fellow who is primarily misunderstood.
I knew a bass player who played with Charlie Parker, and I asked him, “What was he like? What was the gig like?” He was a cat that was always brilliant once he was there, but his using drugs would get in the way of playing music. But writing this play made me see Parker differently; I found compassion. He fucks up, but there were reasons behind that: he got in a car accident when he was a kid, and got hooked on morphine and heroin; he lost his daughter when she was very young, and then would self medicate to get away from the pain.
Before writing this play it was fairly easy to sit where I was and say the demands of the job are easy. But my background is different, and I haven’t been through the same kinds of things he did. He used drugs to get away from something. It’s not illogical. If I lost my kid, I’d go nuts. So this allowed me to see his life in a different way.
tW: The two of you have collaborated on seven projects together, many of which are based in history. How do you allow them to live in contemporary America?
TWJII: We know the vocabulary that we’re working with for these historic musical icons, and we had a song list before we even went in to write the play. We knew there were certain pieces from Billie, Ella, Sarah and Peggy Lee’s cannon of work that just had to be included. But we left space so we could get ourselves in there.
WK: Tom is an intelligent writer. He not only gives us the vehicle to write in the style of the time, but he also gives us a way to insert ourselves into the process with original music.
TWJII: The arrangements – even the traditional stuff – are really William’s. Part of what we’re trying to do is create a symmetry where the audience doesn’t know what is from that period and what’s original. We’ve been very successful at that.
tW: Is there anything you think the audience should know before going into the play? Anything they should keep in mind as they watch your musical?
TWJII: I’m hoping that what we’ve constructed has a kind of resonance that wherever you are on the food chain, something about it speaks to you. My daughter sees things that I just don’t see because she’s looking at what’s important to her. Embrace whatever assumptions you bring, because you’re going to find your way into the piece through whatever’s important to you.
WK: It should be a swinging time. Come out and play with us.
This interview has been edited for space considerations.