Birds Are Musicians

‘Music opened the door, and behind it, I found an animal like me’

M. Murphy
Published in
9 min readSep 4, 2020

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An arty photograph of a shirtless man with his outstretched arm, which has a red-and-blue parrot perched near the elbow.
Photo: Kamay/Pexels

Alfonso pressed a CD into my hand and gave me a mission: Memorize the name of every musician and song on the album. In a few days, he planned to play a random 15-second section, and I would pass his quiz if I could identify the tune and its players by ear.

For a jazz aficionado, I suspect this task would have been trivially easy. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one. My mother had decided I would play the trumpet, hoping that the limited three buttons would give my clumsy hands more of an opportunity. After a few years of embarrassing progress on classical pieces, I deemed myself ready to move onto a trickier genre with which I had even less familiarity. I joined my high school’s jazz class, putting my ineptitude on a collision course with an eccentric music teacher.

Alfonso wore the bright, tight-fitting garb that typifies European men in the American imagination. In addition to being a talented musician, Alfonso claimed to be a yoga master — at random intervals, he would attempt to persuade us to do sun salutations. He had a thick Portuguese accent, through which he spoke a version of English that corresponded best to the last century’s era of jazz (he insisted on calling everyone a “cat”). From the perspective of my Zoomer upbringing, this quiz assignment felt similarly dated: I didn’t own a CD player. Instead, I had to sit in my parents’ car and use the built-in one.

To my uneducated ear, the first track sounded like elevator music. The second and third were a little too interesting for an elevator — maybe a coffee shop would better suit. After dancing back and forth for ten bars, the fourth track leaped out and grabbed me: The trumpet blasted an F note like a starting gun, and then they were off. They played at a tremendous pace, floating in the mid-range for moments, suddenly soaring towards high notes, before dive-bombing back, interspersing crisper chirps with trills and whining calls. Hard bop: Only fit for an elevator ride if plummeting.

Freddie Hubbard led on trumpet. (Wayne Shorter on sax, Art Davis on bass, Elvin Jones on drums, McCoy Tyner on piano… Did I miss anyone?) One need only listen for a moment to understand why the great man’s career declined prematurely. His…

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