When a trumpet player throws his lungs into a tune, he’s not just playing, he is breathing out the music. Miles Davis once said: Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there. Parker lived by this. Play what’s not there. Find the invisible string that ties the notes together and play that.
He often wondered if it was similar to an actor going off script; improvising entire monologues of dialogue. Parker wouldn’t admit it to the band but a part of him sought that provocation—the chaos in an oscillation when a note should be tabular, a defiance against the melody. At times that could be a simple technique of flutter tonguing at an indiscreet moment – rolling back the tip of his tongue to produce a growling tone, then changing his lip tension; loosening the valves and sliding between the notes to create a glissando. Always with his back to the audience.
But it was more than an act of defiance – it was a simmering rage that cooked in the marrow of his bones. A hatred that ran so deep that he often wondered if one day he would simply wake up on fire, flames licking the walls of his apartment. Spontaneous riffing. Spontaneous combustion. Why not. Maybe it would happen on stage one night while squeezing his lungs dry – a technique he called chaining that involved a little circular breathing while splitting a tone. Davis did all of it. He was once quoted as saying: “Anybody can play. The note is only 20 percent. The attitude of the motherfucker who plays it is 80 percent.” That might’ve been true, but for Parker, playing a trumpet was like slaying a dragon. It was a rite of passage.
‘Turn the fuck around Parker!’ Pete yelled at him.
Parker gave him a sly grin, his lips tight, tongue busy in a valve tremolo. He blew a ta-ka ta-ka ta-ka into Pete’s flush face – a laugh in B major – causing Pete to dial up the tempo an inch, his sticks blurring like a ceiling fan as he knocked out a series of flams, eyes fixed in a concentrated scowl. Parker bowed his body and fell into the quiescent melody of Johan’s keys. But his mouth felt elastic. Simmer down, he told himself, simmer down you fucker. He pulled back and let Tom take his bass solo. Tom worked his upright bass as if he were in a violent dance – one hand on the enormous hips of his old girl and the other caressing her neck. Parker took the moment to empty his trumpet of spit and wipe his mouthpiece with a rag.
Later Johan would thank him for giving Tom the space, for having the self-control, as he always did after each show. A rehearsed line of gratitude that was concurrent with the subtext: This is not your band. It was like a paint splattered neon sign really. And that was OK, because it certainly was not Parker’s band—he’d been a recurring guest ever since their last trumpet player ran off to London with his then pregnant girlfriend.
At least he quit for love, Parker had thought at the time. A life without love is like a tree without fruit. He had heard that quote somewhere. It was a hallmark kind of quote that rang true nonetheless, as many of them did, like revised Chinese proverbs. Moreover, it was true because a tree without fruit, or its leaves, was a skeleton and a skeleton was just a stand in for death. And death was finality. It was why he blew into a piece of yellow brass every night, why he made it sing and growl so damn well. Because music was the fruit—a strange fruit, but at least it was life and it was all he had.
After the show at Café Rösterei Parker joined his band mates for an after gig beer and Johan paid him his share. Johan was as tall as a fence and although softly spoken, he had a towering, intimidating presence.
‘You gotta start facing the audience man,’ Johan said.
Parker gave a non-committal nod. ‘Yeah, I know man, I know, it’s just—’
‘I’m serious Parker. You’re the trumpet player. A trumpet player in a jazz quartet is like a lead guitarist in a rock band,’ Johan said, rolling a Djarum Blacks tailor cigarette. ‘You’re a great player. So show people your face and let them see that with your eyes.’ His voice was resolutely sober, but not altogether grave.
Parker considered his tone, his brow tightly knit as if he were studying a freshly minted coin. Why do they need to see my eyes? he thought, he had poor orphan eyes. ‘Sure thing Johan, no problem,’ he said.
He had to respect the man, he was just looking out for his band. They could’ve been brothers in a different time, but unlike Johan – who was born in Wales to a Welsh father and a German mother and who spoke fluent German and made regular trips to see them – both of Parker’s parents were American and he had no German ancestry to speak of. His mother had some Croatian roots and his father came from Irish stock, but no German, not even a little Austrian or Dutch, and his German was semi-functional at best: Aber nicht so gut. Besides, Germany was not fond of granting dual citizenship. They would take each case as it came, but even if one of his parents had been German, like Johan, the German authorities would likely require him to choose either America or Germany as his residence. Therefore, Parker had to endure the “visa dance” as he called it, and this involved bouncing between different types of visas.
When he had first arrived in Berlin he immediately applied for an artist visa, but the strict nature of the visa meant that he could only make an income as an artist—even a bar job was out of the question unless they paid in cash. In those first few months Parker had tried his hands at a solo project – a comely little mobile set-up featuring a BeatBuddy Mini Drum Machine, a loop pedal, a little 25 key mini-keyboard and a portable amplifier. He sang, rapped a little, but mostly played his trumpet to his own backing tracks. He called the project Parker Z. The Z stood for zoetrope, a nod to his fledging filmmaking days in college over a lifetime ago. But apart from the odd paying gig and a little street busking, which was tentative at the best of times, he had struggled to make a living. Consequently, he changed his visa type and landed a job teaching music at a Gymnasium school in Mitte.
Parker shared a cigarette with Johan then went to the restroom of the bar and gave his hands and face a good wash. He checked himself in the mirror. For some reason his eyes appeared more bloodshot and jaundice than usual, like a starving African child who was slowly fading away from famine, gaunt and afraid. He wiped his hands on his jeans, as there were no hand-towels, and studied himself in the mirror. What he saw was an exhausted thirty-nine-year-old man in a crumpled blue dress shirt, a lumpy Pork Pie felt hat – that hid his itching scalp beneath – and an old black leather jacket that looked just as fatigued as him. He studied his reflection and wondered, what’s become of you? What’s next? His life was full of intangible things.
Even his girl Dulli had become intangible. It was as if he was dating an echo of her; daily text updates, bursts of emails, short audio clips, the odd Instagram photo … all echoes from a twenty-three-year-old German girl travelling through South East Asia, and it made him wonder: Where was his place now in her life if it wasn’t physical? And the glaring truth: What did an age gap of sixteen years really mean for her? He hadn’t been selfish about her trip either. It was her rite of passage and he’d even encouraged her to go without him. Even so, regardless of his best intentions, the night before she left he buried his face into the hull of her back and wept. He just couldn’t shake the feeling that she was going to leave him. Because all good things must come to an end. Of course they did. But she hadn’t left him, it hadn’t ended—she was just travelling. She had been more than benevolent – she had shown him unconditional love in the face of his own clamorous storms, and now it was her turn to give a little back to herself. He couldn’t blame her for that. Some of the hard days might break me, she had warned him. I’m scared I will break. But sometimes things just happen that way. Sometimes the stars do not always align, sometimes they expand, implode or point to other uncertainties … like jobs and visas, music and bands.
Parker left the bar – his trumpet case in one hand, a smoke in the other – walked down to the bottom of the sloping cobbled street and regarded the Spree river, which had, courtesy of the declining sun, become a gleaming copper snake. Soon the apartment buildings of Neukölln would inhale the last of the sunlight and the river would turn grey. Then his thoughts would zoom pitifully, turning back to the past, back to Dulli and the ghosts he had brought with him; the hungry wraiths he had offered up to her as his true self, and he would wander.
by Jakob Ryce