Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Lullaby of Birdland

An Israeli expat tells Charlie Parker about the shofar

Yoram Kaniuk
March 29, 2006

Wounded in Israel’s war of Independence, Yoram Kaniuk ran away to bohemia. Gandy, a friend Kaniuk made in Paris, helped get him set up in Greenwich Village, and before long he was bumping into James Agee, Willem de Kooning, Marlon Brando, Stanley Kubrick…

An apartment on Fifth Avenue and 10th needed a painter. I went along and said I had house-painting experience from Paris. In accordance with Gandy’s instructions I said I’d painted the home of Baron de Rothschild, because in fact I’d seen, through a friend, the walls of the Rothschild palace and I’d thought about Lincoln’s words, that if the Lord had money He’d surely live there. I painted the apartment. I tried my luck with the lady of the house and she said I was insolent and although she didn’t discipline me, she rejected my advances and laughed a bitter selfish laugh when I looked at her. In the evenings Gandy and me would go to Birdland to listen to jazz. Jazz was never really popular in America. Years later George Shearing who wrote “Lullaby of Birdland” told me that he was flying to someplace or other and the pilot recognized him. They landed somewhere. The passengers got off for some fresh air. The pilot asked Shearing if he’d do something for him. The blind Shearing sat down in the cockpit and asked someone to take his guide dog for a short walk. The pilot took the dog and the passengers fled because they didn’t want to fly with a blind pilot. I tried unsuccessfully to fathom out how Gandy managed to make a living and hinted that my money was running out and he talked to somebody at Birdland and the guy, I no longer remember who he was, sent us to Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. I met Charlie Parker, I heard him play. He was the world’s first black cowboy. I later saw how he collected pistols of the kind you see in westerns, Hopalong Cassidy was his hero. He made a religion out of roasting chickens, loved model railroads and dreamed of driving a gold-plated Cadillac. In the midst of the filth all around I saw a primeval shyness in him. He was a huge and intimidating sentimentalist and the first time I heard him I felt I was seeing God die. When he spoke a song and his high forehead sweated, the music looked for itself in the hands playing over the saxophone, and I heard the echo of Negro funerals from the place where jazz was born to rejoice and laugh because another black had died. I also heard how my grandfather used to pray. I told Charlie Parker about the Rabbi of Ladi. I explained that during Napoleon’s siege of Moscow there was a relentless debate among the Jews on whether Napoleon’s victory would be good or bad for the Jews. Rabbi Israel of Konitz wanted Napoleon to win while the Rabbi of Ladi did not. It was decided that they both should go to the synagogue at the same time and whichever one of them was first to blow the shofar would win. The Rabbi of Konitz arrived together with the Rabbi of Ladi but was the first to start blowing the shofar and then the Rabbi of Ladi snatched the notes from the Rabbi of Konitz’s shofar and so, from a distance of nine hundred kilometers determined Napoleon’s fate at Moscow. Bird said that any jazz musician who doesn’t make a lady out of jazz like that Dave Brubeck knows how to snatch notes from a shofar. Outside everybody was playing the numbers and losing pots of money to the black professionals all dressed up to the nines in their colored suits and magnificent neckties. Bird liked to see Jimmy Slide beating Napoleon at Moscow with his tap dancing.

One night some time later we were walking down Fifth Avenue. By the Olivetti store, on a concrete pedestal, was a typewriter. Opposite we could see big buildings and the lights burning and the asses of women bent over polishing the floors in the neon light. The avenue was empty. We put some paper into the machine and Bird dictated a letter to me. A cop came and complained that there were no crimes being committed there. That’s how it had been every night for a year now, and his wife was laughing at him because every bastard at the station house had a few crooks hanging on him like medals on his chest and their wives were making fun of his wife whose husband had no crooks. Minton’s Playhouse was on 118th Street, not far from the Savoy Ballroom and the Apollo. Late at night they let musicians play there whose licenses had been revoked because of drugs. Many, many people loved to hear them. Ordinary people from off the street. Whites. Blacks. Hookers. Pimps. And police officers. I got a job washing dishes and waiting tables under the baton of a Negro called Andy. They liked having a white boy washing dishes for them. I was young and they dressed me in black clothes so I’d look white in black. They bought the clothes at the pawnshop on the corner and for two months I lived in a room over the club. I had a half-Japanese half-black girlfriend who lived opposite and worked at dressing voodoo dolls. She’d lay me down on my stomach and walk barefoot over my back, bending her toes, and I felt ashamed at seeing her become a kind of slave. She was beautiful, but like Flora she waited for me to command her. Billie Holiday sang “Yo” for me—that’s what they called me—”Yo’s Blues”. But I’m not telling about myself. Jazz flowed into me. The sad humor of the musicians. Billie Holiday took notes that sang as if they were weaving a sad carpet and she’d take me walking and I talked and she listened or maybe she didn’t, and said she didn’t understand that crap. We kissed. She said she’d been kissed better. I was there and she wanted to kiss somebody and I was nearest and I talked like someone making a fool of himself. She was lost and looked like a bird that had been hit. They called her Lady Day because when she was a waitress she used to bend over to take the money and they saw her breasts and they’d say: Lady. She was a vanquished queen who demanded that her realm remain in the gutter. I met her years later at Tony Scott’s, the clarinet player. She sang “Mayn Yiddishe Mame” for me. Nobody has sung it like her. She published her autobiography that opened with the words: ‘When I was born my mother was thirteen, my father was eighteen and I was four.’

Bird liked me and there was Max Roach and they tap danced, and there was Ben Webster who pawned his sax every week and Bird and I made him redeem it and then they’d play together. Crazy Bud Powell would join them. His head was screwed up from the beatings he’d gotten because of the color of his skin. He’d get up onto the piano and crow “Cock-a-doodle-doo” and then play and everybody would cry over how his notes hit you in the gut. Bertrand Tavernier’s movie, Round Midnight, with Dexter Gordon, who also joined in, was made after Bud Powell. He went to Europe, climbed trees, came back, went again, and wanted love but there wasn’t any. I remember dragging him home, but I can’t remember where.

Lady Day came to kiss me and hate me because I wasn’t cruel and didn’t hit her or shout or take her money, I was too innocent for her, too clean, not a pimp, I talked to her about Milton’s poems and poets I liked and painting, she liked it but it didn’t really interest her. She sang, a flower doesn’t explain itself, fire doesn’t explain itself and love doesn’t explain itself. She loved like she talked, she thought I was buttering her up and she wasn’t interested in what I said about Rembrandt or Vermeer, who back then I was trying to figure out where the light in his paintings came from, what was the magic of that man’s trickery, and didn’t really want to respond. She thought she was unworthy of words like that. For her I was a phony from a world she wanted to live in but she’d missed the boat. And sometimes at four or five in the morning we’d go to a small club, where a fat black man called Slim Gaillard played. Slim would wait for Bird and Lady and told me that I was white trash, but sweet. He played with his huge hands crossed; he had fingers like frankfurters and his fingernails touched the keys and for a whole hour he sang one song that nobody has ever deciphered – Cement Mixer, Put-i Put-i – and I fell into the joy of three or four months of snatched painting, new colors, I started mixing oil and enamel paints, I learnt to paint jazz, think jazz, feel the beat, the bebop. I’d think of a contrabass and feel the rhythm coursing through me.

Minton’s was one long party. People hardly ate there. They liked to laugh, cry and drink. My dishwashing consisted mainly of glasses. They wanted me to circulate around the tables so that the patrons could see a white waiter from Jerusalem, because Tel Aviv didn’t mean anything to them. The hookers sat with their arms around each other and ordered Bacardi or Scotch and milk and flirted with me. They said I was what was left for Bird between the notes. The cops were mainly drunk. The musicians went wild competing with one another. The whites in the audience sat mesmerized and everybody looked at them as if they were earls doing them the honor of visiting a Harlem whorehouse. I served them and when they remembered they even paid. Luckily an ancient black woman across the street made me a meal a day in return for me telling her about Jerusalem and the Jordan River and there was a kind of lusterless gold in this deceit. The musicians called themselves by noble titles, they loved monarchy, pomp, dressing elegantly: Lady, Lester Young was Prez, Ellington was Duke, Basie was Count and Nat Cole was King. They greeted each other the way they’d seen in movies about English royalty. A message was sent to the world through me: here, in the asshole of the world, the real flowers bloom, and a white sack of manure from the Holy Land with Jesus, Moses and Abraham in his pocket. And they are his personal friends and he makes them beautiful. They complimented me. Their kindness was unconditional except for the fact that they decided that I devotedly serve them with drinks. They appreciated that more than I realized since I thought they were doing me a great honor. They didn’t want to see my paintings and drawings, except for Bird who came up to look at them. Gandy would appear, the hookers asked me to be their lover, but the music and atmosphere were riveting but the women weren’t even though they were sad. The Japanese found somebody else and left. After the girls stopped laughing in the club and were dragged outside by husky pimps, they crawled back inside bruised and then they were called “queens” and had drinks bought for them and only the cops and the tough detectives would mess with them. I used to eat with the musicians at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack where we had chicken and cabbage salad or a steak that they held in tongs and seared over a flamethrower and one day I said I was going to write because I thought painting was contemptible and Ben Webster asked me what I’d write and I said a book that would be entitled “The Future of God” but I wasn’t at all sure that He had a future.