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Cindy PatuszynskiBird Lives! is a mystery that offers an entertaining peek at the jazz scene through the eyes of an insider.
Look at this," Natalie says, turning up the sound on the television.
We have the news on, just kicking back after an expensive dinner to celebrate her birthday and my first gig in over a year. The two nights at the Jazz Bakery linger sweetly in my mind.
I glance at the screen in time to see the anchor cut away to a reporter standing in front of a large crowd. She has on a raincoat and holds a microphone in one hand, brushing her hair out of her eyes with the other. She looks flustered, as if they've cut to her before she was ready. She stares at the camera and puts her hand to her ear.
"Yes, I can hear you now, Jim." She glances over her shoulder once, then looks back at the camera. "Well, as you can see, we're at the Santa Monica Civic, where jazz star Ty Rodman just finished performing to a sold-out crowd."
She falters for a moment as the crowd jostles her from behind. Some of them are waving and yelling, just wanting to get on TV. She turns her head again nervously, then back to the camera.
"Santa Monica police are confirming that Rodman is the victim of a stabbing, but we're not sure of the extent of his injuries at this time. I'm trying to get word from the police. As you can see, many of Rodman's fans are still here." She tries to keep her look serious, but a smile slips through as she's jostled again. "Somehow they've heard the news and are staying around although the concert was over some forty minutes ago. That's all we have at the moment. Jim, back to you in the studio."
"Thanksfor that report, Trish," Jim says. He shuffles some papers and glances at his coanchor, a perfectly made up blond. "Looks rough out there. Once again, we have unconfirmed reports of a stabbing at Santa Monica Civic involving jazz star Ty Rodman. We'll have more on this before the end of our newscast, right, Marion?"
"That's right, Jim," Marion says. "When we come back, Bob will have the latest weather. Stay with us, right here on Action News."
"Jazz star?" I look at Natalie as she hits the mute button. "Ty Rodman?"
"You know him, don't you?" she asks.
"I know who he is, maybe met him once, but I don't know him."
Ty Rodman and I don't travel in the same circles. He's one of a half-dozen sax players who've fused blues riffs with a rock beat and turned it into a fortune while breathing down Kenny G's neck.
"I wonder what happened," Natalie says.
"I'm sure Action News will tell us. Want a beer?"
"Sure," Natalie says.
I'm halfway to the kitchen when the phone rings.
"Evan? You busy?"
"Coop? No, just celebrating Natalie's birthday. What's up?"
"I need you to come down to Santa Monica Civic."
"Yeah, I just saw it on the news. What happened? Is Rodman okay?"
"He's not okay, he's dead. There's something here I need you to look at."
"Now." There's none of the usual bantering in Coop's voice. This is his Lieutenant Cooper, homicide detective, tone.
"Just get down here. In a minute," he yells at someone. I hear other voices. "I gotta go," he says to me. "Come to the stage entrance."
Before I can ask more, Coop hangs up. I put down the phone and glance at Natalie watching me. "Rodman's dead. Coop wants me to come down there to see something."
"Dead? Why does he want you?"
"I don't know. I guess I better find out."
I don't like it, but I go, not only because Danny Cooper is a homicide detective, but because he's also my oldest friend.
From Venice, the drive to Santa Monica Civic is short, but at Pico and Ocean Avenue the traffic is backed up and being diverted. A light rain peppers the streets. I creep up to the intersection, manage to convince a traffic cop I'm expected, and pull in near a fleet of police cars. The news has spread quickly. There's crime-scene tape around the side entrance and a sizable crowd of concertgoers pushing forward against the uniformed cops trying to maintain control.
I get through to the front and identify myself to one of the uniforms, who escorts me down a long corridor to Ty Rodman's dressing room. There's a placard on the door, and Rodman's name has a large X drawn through it with a black marker pen. Another uniform standing guard knocks and opens the door.
"He's here, Lieutenant." I get a glimpse of the dressing room through the open door. "Go ahead," the guard says.
Coop and his partner, Ivan Dixon, are squatting down over Ty Rodman's body, which is half covered with a coroner's blanket.
Coop stands up and looks at me. "Thanks for coming. Want a look?" He nods toward Rodman's body. Dixon re-covers it with the blanket, but not quickly enough to keep me from seeing the blood, shockingly bright against Rodman's trademark white suit.
"I'll pass," I say, glancing at Dixon. The police photographer is packing up his equipment, and other forensic technicians are slipping on latex gloves, ready to go to work. Another guy briefly points a video camera at me. I wonder about the rest of Rodman's band.
The dressing room is strewn with discarded clothes and beer bottles. Traces of white powder are smeared on the countertop in front of a large mirror bordered with oversize lightbulbs. I'm already staring before Coop speaks.
"That's what I wanted you to see," Coop says, pointing to the mirror. "What the fuck is this?"
The letters still look wet. They've dripped down in places. It could be paint or nail polish, but I know it's blood—two words scrawled across the top of the mirror:
I stare at it for a few moments, then look at Coop. He and Ivan Dixon are both watching my reaction.
"Charlie Parker, right?" Dixon says.
"Another one of your jazz people?" Coop asks.
"Yeah, Charlie Parker, saxophonist. They called him Bird."
"Who called him Bird?"
"Everybody. That was his nickname. Charlie Yardbird Parker."
Dixon and I glance at each other. Dixon is a jazz buff himself. He knew but wanted to be sure. Call your friend Evan Horne. He'll know. Thanks, Dixon.
I look at the words on the mirror again. "When Parker died, that started showing up all over Greenwich Village."
"Dare I ask? When was that?" Coop wants to know.
Coop nods and glances at the writing, then back to me. "So what does this Bird guy have to do with Ty Rodman?"
Good question. The only thing they had in common was that they both played alto saxophone. "I think it's the other way around. What does Rodman have to do with Bird?"
Coop ignores my question. He doesn't like this; he's out of his element. He scowls at the mirror. "Are we talking about a disgrunded jazz fan here?"
My eyes are drawn to a portable CD player sitting on the countertop. "Oh yeah, there's something else. According to the stage manager, this was playing when he came to get Rodman."
Coop presses the play button with a gloved finger. I recognize the tune immediately. It's Bird with trumpeter Red Rodney, recorded some time in the early fifties. One of Bird's own tunes. A blues called "Now's the Time."
Coop lets it play for a few seconds, then stops the CD and looks at me again, sees the expression on my face.
I look around. "Where's his horn?"
Coop nods. "Over there, what's left of it."
In one corner, half covered with what is probably one of Rodman's shirts, is the saxophone case. Coop pulls the shirt aside.
Nobody will play this horn again. It still gleams, but this alto saxophone has been smashed against the wall or the floor. Some of the keys are broken off, and there are large dents in the horn. It looks like it's been thrown back in the case.
Somebody yells for Coop, one of the uniforms. He turns to me. "Look, I'll be here all night, but I need to talk to you in the morning, okay?"
"I need to talk to you." There's an urgency in his voice that goes beyond the usual. "I'll call you."
I don't feel like arguing. "Okay."
Coop sees me look around the dressing room. I glance again at the two words on the mirror. It's hard to breathe in here. I just want to get away.
"What?" Coop says.
"Nothing right now, but ..."
Driving back to Venice, I keep seeing those words on the mirror: Bird Lives!
What I haven't told Coop is that today, March 12, is not only Natalie's birthday but also the anniversary of Charlie Parker's death.
For those who care, March 12 is one of those sacred dates in jazz history. Everyone in jazz knows the story. At age thirty-four, Charlie Parker collapsed in the home of the Baroness Pannonica Koenigswarter, a wealthy eccentric who lived in the Stanhope Hotel and drove to jazz clubs in a silver Rolls.
Her apartment had become a haven for jazz musicians like Bird and Thelonious Monk. There were even songs written about her: "Pannonica" by Monk and "Nica's Dream," by Horace Silver. But it was Bird's death that immortalized her forever. The Bird had flown, died while watching some jugglers on the Tommy Dorsey television show.
Once the news got out, the words Bird Lives! started showing up all over New York City, on walls, subway stations, fences, and the sides of buildings. Early graffiti. No one could believe it, but it was true. The most important saxophonist in jazz had been silenced.
Articles appeared in newspapers and all the jazz magazines. The legend and mystique grew, and since then, scores of stories and poems have been written about Bird. Like the poet Dylan Thomas, who died under similar circumstances a year earlier, Bird was a self-destructive legend, but what he did for jazz was incalculable.
I knew the general story, but most of this I had learned from Clint Eastwood's movie, which I'd watched with my professor friend Ace Buffington's commentary in my ear. Ace didn't approve of the movie, but this time he could help me.
Natalie is asleep when I get back; an open law book with notes scribbled in the margin lies nearby. I close the book, turn off the TV, and crawl into bed. Natalie mumbles something and wraps herself around me. I can't get the murder scene out of my mind.
What did Ty Rodman have to do with Bird?
Natalie is gone when I wake up, but she's left me a note. "Coop called, wants you to meet him at ten. Call you later," it says. She's marked the note with a string of question marks. I check my watch, grab a glass of juice, and jump in the shower.
When I get to Coop's favorite coffee shop, he's sporting dark stubble and bags under his eyes and working on a second or third cup of coffee in a back booth. His black Metro Team jacket is wrinkled. "Lt. Dan Cooper" is embroidered on the front. His gun pokes out from his belt holster.
"Wow, you look wonderful," I say, sliding into the booth.
"Don't start. I've had about three hours' sleep."
"I can tell." I signal the waitress for some more coffee. "So What's up?"
Coop takes a breath and watches me add cream and sugar to my coffee. "I need a favor from you," he says quietly.
"Sure, how could I refuse the Santa Monica Police? Hey, I didn't tell you, I may be recording soon. Guy approached me the other night at the Bakery." I watch Coop for a moment, waiting for his reaction, but there's none. "Coop? Try to control your enthusiasm." I can hardly get his attention.
"What? Oh, sorry, it's just this Rodman thing last night." He pushes his cup aside. "Tell me about this Bird guy—Charlie Parker was his name?"
"Yeah, I told you, Bird was a nickname. What's going on, Coop?"
"In a minute. The writing on the mirror. What does it mean again?"
I shrug. "I don't know if it means anything. To a lot of people, Parker was an idol. That Bird Lives phrase started cropping up after he died. People didn't want to believe he was gone, I guess. That was a little before my time. Yours too, if you remember."
Coop nods, and waves off the waitress approaching with a pot of coffee. "Do you think there's any connection between him and Ty Rodman?"
"Rodman wasn't even born when Bird died. Musically? No way. Bird was a pioneer in bebop. He and Dizzy and Monk changed the whole jazz scene. Rodman was a commercial success, but I wouldn't call him a major jazz talent, and don't get me started on that. The only thing Ty Rodman and Charlie Parker had in common was that they both played the same instrument."
"The date, March twelfth. That was the day Bird died in 1955."
"Shit," Coop says. He takes out a notebook and pen, flips through some pages, writes something down, then looks up at me again. "What about January fifth or January twenty-first?"
This time I stop the waitress by holding up my cup. She fills it, and to Coop's annoyance, I order some breakfast.
I add cream and sugar and think for a moment. "No, those dates don't ring a bell with me. Why?"
Coop looks around as if he's worried about somebody listening. "This doesn't go anywhere, okay?"
"Sure. What is it?" I've never seen Coop quite like this. Usually nothing flusters him. He takes his job very seriously, but his offbeat sense of humor is his anchor. It's not there now.
Coop flips through his notebook again. "On January fifth, in New York, a guitarist was found dead in his apartment. The neighbors called the police because the music was playing so loud that pounding on the door didn't do any good. The CD player was on repeat, playing"—he checks his notes again—"something called, `Better Git It in Your Soul.' "He looks up from his notebook and frowns. "What kind of song title is that?"
"Charles Mingus, bassist."
I shrug. "He worked with Bird, but he had his own band. Major composer. I don't know when he died. Maybe ten years ago or more. What's this all about?"
Coop ignores my question and presses on. "On January twenty-first, a piano player was found dead in his car. Thanks to an anonymous nine-one-one call, the tape player was still running. Cassette called Birth of the Cool."
"Miles Davis, the trumpeter." I think for a moment. "Maybe the piano player just dug Miles."
Coop closes the notebook and frowns at me. "Maybe, but I need to know for sure. There were no prints on the case or the tape." He leans back in the booth and rubs a hand over his face, through his short-cropped hair.
"What's all this got to do with Ty Rodman?" The waitress brings my breakfast, and I start in on French toast and bacon.
Coop watches me drench the toast with syrup. "How do you do that? You never gain a pound."
"I burn it up playing piano. So what about Rodman?"
"That's what we want to know." He puts his notebook away. "C'mon, hurry up. I can't tell you anymore, but I want you to look around Rodman's dressing room again."
"I won't know until you find it."
On the ride to Santa Monica Civic, Coop is silent, intent on driving, except for one question. "Can you find out about these dates, the ones I mentioned?"
"Yeah, I guess. I'll call Ace, but why?"
Coop doesn't answer, which means he'll tell me when he's ready. He pulls into the parking lot near the stage door, flashes his badge at a security guard, and we go inside.
There's some banging and voices coming from the stage area, probably a crew setting up for the next show. In Rodman's dressing room the blood stains have dried on the carpet, and the mirror has been cleaned. Coop shuts the door behind him and leans against it. "Take a look around, a careful look."
I stand in the middle of the room. "What am I looking for?"
"I don't know, maybe you'll see something we missed."
I've been in hundreds of dressing rooms, but this is different. It feels creepy being here when less than twenty-four hours ago, Ty Rodman was lying dead on the floor. I spend fifteen minutes going over every square inch of the room, but I don't see anything out of the ordinary. Except for the saxophone case lying open on the countertop, everything of Rodman's is gone, including his smashed horn.
Coop answers my questioning look. "Oh yeah, I'm supposed to pick that up. Couldn't get the horn back in the case."
There's nothing there either. The interior of the hard-fiber case is lined with a blue, velvetlike material that the alto saxophone would normally be nestled in. It looks like Rodman has taken it out to play, but no more notes will come out of his horn.
I turn back to Coop. "Can I touch the case?"
"Yeah, no prints on that."
I unsnap the inside compartment. There's a small package of Rico No. 6 saxophone reeds. I pick it up, but something else catches my eye. It's wedged in the corner. I reach in and pull it out.
"What have you got?" Coop moves closer to see what I have in my hand. It's white, about four inches long. Coop elbows me aside and carefully picks it up by the edge. He holds it up, and we both look at it for a moment.
"Bird feather," I say.
Coop drops me off back at the coffee shop to get my car. I get out and lean in the window. Coop is frowning at the feather, now tucked in a plastic bag on the dashboard. "You know, that might have just been Rodman's good luck charm or something."
Coop gives me a look. "Sure. You don't talk to anybody about this, understand."
I put up my hands in surrender. "Whatever you say."
"I'm serious," Coop says.
"I can tell."
"Good. Check out those dates for me as soon as you can." Then he's gone.
I drive back to my place, stopping only to pick up a newspaper. I scan the story on Rodman's murder and call Ace Buffington in Las Vegas. This is something I want out of the way as soon as possible. I get Ace's voice mail, leave a message.
While I wait for him to call back, I read the story carefully. There's obviously nothing about a feather, since I just found it, but neither the damage to Rodman's horn nor the writing on the mirror is mentioned either. Coop must have seen to that. There's a publicity photo of Rodman, dressed in a white suit, holding his horn in front of him, smiling at the camera, and a sidebar listing his records. Six CDs, all gold.
Ace calls back in half an hour, sputtering and muttering about the UNLV English Department.
"One meeting after another," he says. "They all think literary criticism stopped in 1950, and the chair spends more time in a bar than his office. Now what can I do for you? Are you coming to Las Vegas?"
"Not a chance. You and that town are trouble for me, but you can do me a favor for a change."
"Sure. I bet it's about Ty Rodman's murder."
"How'd you know?"
"It's all over the papers. He was scheduled to do a concert here next month, not that I'd go. Smooth jazz—isn't that what they call it now?—is not my thing."
"Nor mine. Listen, get out your jazz reference books and see if you can find anything significant about these dates: January fifth and January twenty-first. Oh yeah, and March twelfth."
"That was yesterday," Ace says.
"Boy, you Ph.D.s don't miss a thing, do you?"
"Okay, smart guy. I'll get right on this and call you back."
"Thanks, Ace. Just leave a message if I'm not here."
"Evan, you're not getting involved in anything, are you?"
"Not if I can help it."