Daily Archives: June 18, 2011

BIRD, JO JONES, AND THAT CYMBAL

Here, once again, is the story of a teenaged Charlie Parker, brilliant but incomplete, getting humiliated in public by drummer Jo Jones:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jun/17/charlie-parker-cymbal-thrown

The tale is always told as a defining moment in the history of jazz: a youth on his own self-defined quest, being mocked and deflated by one of the aging masters — someone whom he ultimately surpasses.  It is thus a narrative of payback, of the underdog becoming the sun-god.

But every time I read it, especially since it is substantiated by Ross Russell, a notable fictionalizer, I wonder if it ever happened.  Or if it happened this way.  I met and spoke with and heard Papa Jo in his later years, and I have no trouble imagining him as a man intolerant of mediocrity, a man who spoke his mind, a man who would even be contemptuous of what he considered incompetence.

But drummers know and value and love their equipment.  They spend hours selecting the right cymbals, the right sticks.  Cymbals may be metal but they break, they bend, they become unplayable.

So I propose that what we have here is myth, inflating and uncontrolled.  Perhaps Jo made loud gonging sounds on his cymbal; perhaps his derision was palpable.  But I can’t see him throwing a cymbal, the cymbal sailing through the air, landing at the poor humiliated altoist’s feet.  You can, if you like.

UPDATE as of March 2017: all of the above might well be emotionally correct, but I must stand corrected.  I’ve learned from several sources including the very revered and reliable Dan Morgenstern that the incident of Jo, Bird, and the cymbal did happen, as witnessed by string bassist Gene Ramey.  Why am I letting this post stand, then?  Call it perversity, or call it this: anyone has the right to be wrong, and let wrongness stand as an expression of feeling, unaffected by those annoying facts.

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