Bird on White

(written 1992; unpublished, unperformed)


two alto sax players, BIRD and WHITE
A waiter

Scene One

WHITE’s apartment. Modest furnishings. Posters of BIRD and of
himself on the walls. WHITE is playing his alto. Stops. Sighs.
Look of frustration. Goes to the window, looks out.

WHITE: Grey again…

(Starts to play. Hears a knock. Goes to the door and opens it.
BIRD appears. Big smile.)

BIRD: Hello, Charlie.

WHITE: Charlie! Why, it’s been ages. I thought you disappeared.
Where have you been?

BIRD: In the hospital.

WHITE: So that’s it . . . I did hear something . . . (looks at his arms) You clean?

BIRD: Clean as a whistle. Well . . . (smiles) a slightly dirty one,
maybe. How about you?

WHITE: Haven’t had any in a year.

BIRD: Good for you. Been working?

WHITE: Got three gigs going at the moment.

BIRD: Fantastic. Look, Chuck, you know anyone I could work for?

WHITE: You’re not playing anywhere?

BIRD: No. Hell no, I ain’t playing. I ain’t working, I ain’t
playing, I ain’t doing shit. After all the money I done made for
the motherfuckers in this town, you’d think they’d . . .

WHITE: Calm down, Charlie. I don’t know of anything at the
moment, but…let me think about it awhile. I’m sure we can . . .

BIRD: I ain’t got time to lose, Chuck. I’ll take anything. Put me
in front of three blind mice and a monkey, I can make it sound
good. You know I can.

WHITE: I know you can, Charlie, but . . . all right, I’ll see what I
can do.

BIRD: Great. I got to go. Can you loan me thirty dollars?

WHITE: I don’t . . . (hesitates, reaches for his wallet, opens it,
looks in, takes out some bills)

BIRD: Thanks, Chuck, you’re a sweetheart. (starts to leave)

WHITE: Wait, why do you have to go so soon? What’s the big hurry?

BIRD: I got to see someone.

WHITE: Sit down a minute. You look a little out of breath.
Besides, I want you to hear me . . .

BIRD: (impatient) Hear you what?

WHITE: Play a little . . .

BIRD: Chuck, really, I . . .

WHITE: Just for a minute.

BIRD: All right. (sits) Go ahead, play.

WHITE: I’ve been working out on the changes to “Cherokee”. See
what you think. (Plays. Bird grows calmer, listening. When W. is
finished he nods.)

BIRD: That ain’t bad, man, but it’s way too square. You running
them changes like they was yard-lines on a football field. What
you got to do is hit a bunch of notes of the next change before
you light on it, that way you got something that really swings.
Look. (Takes the saxophone) Like this. (Plays)

WHITE: My God . . . it’s just like (excited) Bach, you know, with all
those notes that sound wrong when you play it real slow, but in
tempo it’s like, there’s not a wrong note in sight.

BIRD: You got it, professor.

WHITE: Charlie, you know, I’d appreciate it if you could . . .

BIRD: (handing him back the saxophone) Man, that’s a fucked-up
mouthpiece you got.

WHITE: It’s the only one I can use, Charlie. Look, if you
could . . .

BIRD: Do what?

WHITE: Come by more often, you know, show me . . .

BIRD: Show you what? Hell, you can listen to me any time. All you
got to do is find me a gig.

WHITE: I will, I will. But when I hear you on the bandstand
sometimes it just all goes by too fast. I can’t hear . . .

BIRD: Slow it down, then, later, in your head. (Rising, agitated)
Look, Chuck, I got to run.

WHITE: All right, all right. Stop by and see me after my brunch
gig. I’m at the Golden Lion.

BIRD: Later. (leaves)

WHITE: (shakes his head) Slow it down, later, in my head.

(Sighs, shakes his head again, goes to the phone, dials.)

Hello, Max? Yeah, it’s Chuck White. Listen, I want to ask a
favor, it might sound a little peculiar, but . . . how would you like
to have Bird instead of me for this gig? . . . No, of course I want
the job, but he’s the best there is and he needs the work . . . Well,
sure, he’s still using, but it seems to be a little bit better
under control. I can tell you his playing is still tops.
Absolutely incredible . . . Well, could you just try him out for
awhile? And if he doesn’t work out I’ll be available . . . Okay,
thanks, Max, we’ll talk later, then, goodbye.

Scene Two

Restaurant, deserted except for Bird and White, seated at a
table. Saxophone case on floor in front of them. Deserted
bandstand behind, with banner over it saying THE GOLDEN LION in
gothic letters, and JAZZ AT BRUNCH in jazzier letters underneath.
Bird is eating.

WHITE: It’s set.

BIRD: (mouth full of food) Man, you’re beautiful.

WHITE: Eight o’clock tonight.

BIRD: Dynamite.

WHITE: I just want to hear you play.

BIRD: Nothing to stop you. Can you loan me fifty bucks?

WHITE: Till when?

BIRD: Till I get paid.

WHITE: You’re paid for tonight.

BIRD: Tomorrow, then.

WHITE: (sighs, takes out his wallet) Okay, but . . . I don’t know how
you . . . better not ask, I guess.

BIRD: Well, you know, I ain’t been working in so long, naturally
I got things to take care of. Chuck, one more thing. Can I borrow
your horn?

WHITE: Where’s yours?

BIRD: Got my mouthpiece. Rest of it’s in the pawnshop.

WHITE: Well . . . I won’t be playing tonight, so I guess you can. I
need it tomorrow, though.

BIRD: No sweat.

WHITE: (morosely) I might as well let you have it. I sure can’t

BIRD: What do you mean, man? You play good.

WHITE: You think so?. . . You can afford to say that, Charlie. It
doesn’t cost you a thing, does it? You know you’re so far beyond
me, it’s easy for you to toss me a crumb (aside) when you need

BIRD: No, you see, man, it’s like this: I listen to everybody.
(Laughs) I know people be saying Bird don’t listen to nobody, but
that ain’t true, I do listen. Not to what you say, motherfucker,
but to what you play. I don’t listen when people be talking shit
to me, that’s true, and when they be talking sense, sometimes I
don’t even listen then. (Laughs) Especially not then. But if you
play I’ll listen. Don’t matter what, don’t matter how much.
Because everybody got a little tune in them that ain’t nobody
else’s. A heavenly little tune. (Impish smile) Only I know how
to make it mine. (Laughs) Mine, mine, mine.

WHITE: Just when I think you’re an angel, Charlie, you turn into
a fiend.

BIRD: (laughing) Don’t mind me. I just feel good. Sometimes I get
to feeling too good, though. Like that time I was in the cab with
that rich white bitch and Miles. Miles was by his little old
self, and me, I had my chicken, and my wine, and her. I was just
enjoying myself. You know – little bite o’ chicken, little sip o’
wine, little lick o’ pussy – like that. Don’t know why he seemed
so upset. Hey, Miles, if it bothers you, don’t look. Where am I
supposed to look? he says. Man, I thought he would kill me.

WHITE: (laughing in spite of himself) Jesus, Charlie . . .

BIRD: Yeah, we okay now, though. Ain’t seen him in ages. Seem
like I never see none of my old boys any more.

WHITE: I remember when we were all in L.A. You used to get pretty
drunk back then.

BIRD: Yeah, I was drinking black Russians. Funny name for a
drink, ain’t it? Wonder where it came from. You know there’s a
Russian poet, real famous, only don’t nobody ever mention that he
was a black man. Least that’s what they say. Somebody mentioned
it to me, though, so I guess it ain’t no big secret. (Sighs) Oh
my, the niggers do be whining, don’t they? White man says: look,
don’t feel bad, why, (hearty Anglo-Saxon voice) we see some of
your blood in our very best people. Brother says: how come you
never mention it, then? White man says: I just did. Brother says:
you sure done took your time, motherfucker. (Laughs. British
Ungrateful buggers. (normal accent) Seriously, sometimes
I do get so sick of my (clears throat. British accent) ah, fellow
colonials of African descent. All these young cats ever talk
about is black this, black that. Don’t play white, talk white,
dress white, think white or fuck white. What’s the matter, I say,
afraid it’ll rub off? Naw, Bird, it ain’t that. We just want to
keep the music black. I say hey, I listen to Mozart, that don’t
keep me from swinging, does it? Uh uh, Bird. Naw. You right,
Bird. Sure don’t. We worship your ass, Bird. (Laughs, sighs) Oy vay.

WHITE: So you listen to Mozart, too?

BIRD: Hell yeah, man, I told you: I listen to everybody. You know
the clarinet concerto? Hoo boy, that shit sends me to the stars.
Got to get me some strings like that to play over. Not like last
time, all that fucking Hollywood syrup. No. Clean. What’s the
word? Diaphanous. Yeah. Hell of a word.

WHITE: (laughs) You’re amazing.

BIRD: (rising. British accent) And now, old chap, if you don’t
mind, I shall avail myself of the facilities of this charming
little establishment.

(Goes to the back. W. watches him, smiling.)

WHITE: Amazing. He does. He hears everything.

(A waiter enters, picks up some glasses, leaves. W. looks at his


(Looks towards the back)


(Rises, goes to the back, calls)

Charlie! It’s time to go.

(Paces, stops cold)

I should have known.

(Goes to the door, pounds on it)

Charlie, come out!

(Sound of flushing. Bird appears, swaying, glassy-eyed)

BIRD: Quit pounding, Chuck. Sound like a damn drum.

WHITE: It’s ten to eight. You’re going to be late for your gig.

BIRD: Won’t be the first time.

WHITE: Look, I know Max. He’ll fire you in a minute. Are you
going, or shall I go for you?

BIRD: (trying to sit) I’m going, man. Just let me put my
mouthpiece on your raggedy old . . . (sits unsteadily, fumbles with
the saxophone case, tries to open it, drops it)

WHITE: Careful, Charlie, that’s a good horn.

(B. opens the case, drops it, horn falls out, he fumbles, falls
off his chair)


BIRD: Damn, man, what’s wrong with me? I ain’t never been too
fucked-up to play. Help me up, Chuck, shit.

(W. lifts him into the chair, where he collapses, starts to cry.)

WHITE: Charlie, Charlie. (Holds his shoulders.) Easy. (Pause)
You going to be sick? (Face in his hands, B. nods) Help you to
the bathroom? (B. shakes his head) Take your time.

(Pause. B. takes his hands from his face)

BIRD: Okay, help me up. Slow.

(W. does so, leads him to the back. Pause. Sounds of vomiting,
flushing. Pause. They return. W. helps B. to his chair.)

WHITE: I’ll go call Max, tell him you can start tomorrow, not
tonight, that it was my mistake. But I have to leave right away.
(B. nods) You be all right? (B. nods) I’ll have the waiter get
you a cab. (B. nods faintly) And Charlie . . .

BIRD: What?

WHITE: Don’t worry about the money.

BIRD: What money?

WHITE: The money I loaned you.

BIRD: Oh. (Pause) Thanks.

(W. goes to the back, phones. B. picks up his mouthpiece from the
table, stares at it. Puts it in his mouth, blows. Takes it out of
his mouth, spits.)

Feathers. Taste like fucking feathers.

(The waiter appears, begins clearing the table. B. looks at him

You play horn?

(The waiter shakes his head.)

Ain’t got one? Here, I’ll lend you mine.

(Offers him the mouthpiece. The waiter shakes his head, leaves.
B. puts the mouthpiece in his mouth, hums the tune of “Bye, bye,
blackbird” through it. Puts it down, folds his arms on the table,
lays his head on them, begins singing softly:)

Kyrie eleison . . .

(Falls asleep. White returns, looks at Bird, shakes his head,
puts his saxophone back in its case, shuts it, picks it up and
starts to leave. Goes a few paces, stops, looks at him again,

WHITE: Bye bye. Not a blackbird, though. What is he? Rainbow
bird, I guess. Flying over a dead white sky.

(Pause. Look of exhaustion.)

I need a fix.

(Leaves. A marvelous saxophone is heard playing over syrupy