Ornithology

“Scoo-ba-do dee, da do dup dee da
Scoo-ba-do dee, da dee do daa”

Charlie Parker was bestowed the moniker ‘Bird’ when he was still and obscure, fresh-faced alto player, bussing tables and blowing his horn in Kansas City. Like most music history, the origin of the nickname is steeped in mythology and apocrypha; no-one really knows where it came from. Ornithology, literally the study of birds, was one of his first groundbreaking bebop recordings that revolutionized the Jazz idiom. Overnight, Charlie Parker became the most famous jazz musician behind Louis Armstrong, and musical prodigies have been diligently studying Bird ever since. But what can scientists learn from the Jazz giants? from bird-watching? It transpires, that a better question is: what can’t scientists learn?

The quest for scientific knowledge has been described as ‘rigorous improvisation’. Fueled by creativity, science is a collective, drawing from a community of researchers working sometimes together, sometimes in opposition, but always with a common goal.  Sound familiar? Scientific quests capture the imagination, and new discoveries can be as jaw-droppingly spectacular as any Thelonious Monk small combo set, rocking into the wee hours. It is clear to all in observance that everything is being crafted on the spot, seemingly pulled from the ether, yet there is not a note out of place. If only researchers acted with such impunity!

Jazz also has much wisdom to impart on modern society. A microcosm of race relations, industrialization, corporate interests, and freedom in its purest form, jazz could be considered the american dream, incarnate. As an example, I would like to draw a parallel between the perceptions and treatment of black youth and early bebop musicians*. Both carry an heir of defiance that speaks to a peoples. When bebop was first codified, as the Nazi’s still controlled most of continental Europe, its exponents were vilified and condescended. The focus is always on the negatives: ‘bebop lacks commercial value’, ‘you can’t dance to it’, ‘sounds like Chinese music’**. People in positions of power use ‘youth’ as a similar catch-all term for the unsavory elements of society. Again, the focus is always on the negatives: ‘black youth commit all the crime’, ‘bunch of drug addicts’, disrespectful to authority’***.

What sort of attitude is that? Seriously. Jazz is the quintessential American art form. It stands for everything the United States purports to hold dear: freedom, creativity, unity… Indeed, the Nazi’s banned jazz, labeling it “Nigger-Jew music”. That’s a five-star review if ever I’ve heard one. Adolf Hitler was all too aware of the music’s power to transcend racial and ethnic boundaries and highlight the cultural sophistication of marginalized peoples. For some reason, modern society lacks that insight. Simply because we don’t understand young people, particularly young people of color, does not mean that we should denigrate them. These are two curious instances of unfamiliarity breeding contempt. Maybe we should view this as a positive; the only way is up? Familiarity assuages contempt? Or perhaps wishful thinking? Too early to say.

Nevertheless, it is no coincidence that Jazz originated in the most multicultural city in the US, New Orleans. Jazz captured the spirit of a nation, in the dizzying heights of the roaring twenties, and offered a beacon of hope to those that did not feel a part of the society to which they belong. Jazz is a celebratory music, filled with optimism (but matched with equal part realism). Even the tragically premature death of bebop’s father, following years of drug addiction and mental illness, was not enough to dampen spirits. People took to the streets, and reminded those grieving that art is immortal and the positive message of Jazz eternal. All across the country, graffiti etched on every available surface defiantly proclaimed: ‘Bird Lives’.

Jazz has a lot to teach us,  if only we care to listen.

 

*of course the analogy is somewhat stretched, given the fact that most early bebop musicians were also black youth.

**real quote! Even the stupendously brilliant Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway fell foul of such derogatory slurs. Nobody likes change I guess.

***another real quote! If I was in those shoes, I’m pretty sure I would lack any semblance of respect for authority too. Respect is earned. From what I can tell, young people from marginalized backgrounds exhibit extreme tact and restraint in the face of such appalling treatment. If you think they are disrespectful, maybe ask the question: why?

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