Charlier Parker made some incredible music–music I’ve taken to slowly, but which I enjoy more with each passing year.  Right now I’m listening to “Jazz at Massey Hall,” a live recording made in 1953 during a concert in Toronto, where Parker was joined by Dizzie Gillespie, Max Roach, Bud Powell, and Charles Mingus.  They’re five of the all-time great names in jazz, and were arguably each the preeminent master of his instrument when these tracks were laid down.

The concert at Massey Hall was the first time the five ever played together, and to all appearances the quintet and the concert were not going to be a success.  Gillespie and Parker had personality differences, the motivation of agents and producers which brought the musicians together was purely monetary, and the concert was accidentally scheduled for the same night as the world heavyweight boxing championship, taking place across the street.

But the music was superb.  The first time I heard the album, I thought “How does this work?  There was all this conflict, but they’re playing so well together!”  The sound is not clean.  It’s often pushy and rough,  at the the edge of acceptability in rhythm and tone, and the recording is worse: shifting levels, obvious 1950’s cut-and-paste tape editing, poor microphone placement.  Yet the music is such that it’s a must-hear record.  Outside of (or perhaps stemming from) the struggle to orchestrate and capture the event, there’s something in the intensity of the sound, of the artistic sensibilities conveyed, that redeem the record’s flaws.

This is what I hear in the Massey Hall recording.  In some ways it’s also the nature of bop jazz: a music so raw, so blazingly virtuosic and insistent that it runs along the edge of what the instruments can do.  The scream in the ultimate register of Gillespie’s trumpet, the squawk when Parker chops off an insane run, seem fitting expressions of musicians trying to reach beyond their temporal bounds.  And sometimes they seem frustrated by the limitations.  But without that struggle, without the strain and even occasional badness, what would bop be?

*  *  *  *

I don’t like struggle, or limitation.  In almost anything.  But last weekend at Mass, as Father Durban was preaching on epiphany, he described singleness as a call to “the remarkable tension of celibate life,” and something about his choice of words stuck.  It was as though the lens I’d been using to view my singleness had been flipped, and triggered the realization, finally, of the need and purpose for my sexual desire in a fruitful, sexually abstinent life.  Sitting in the pew, I failed in a valiant effort to discretely rifle my pockets for a notebook and pencil.  There were too many thoughts happening at once to remember them all.  There was something about the phrase “remarkable tension.”

I’d always understood that (of course) sexuality was a necessary and beautiful component of a single person’s search for romantic relationship and subsequent transition to a non-single life.  Sex as a motivation toward marriage.  All well and good.  But when contemplating the continued presence of sexual desire in a single, celibate life, a life not necessarily ending in marriage, I got hung up.  It just seemed like meanness on God’s part–a state which left folks frustrated, lonely, physically unrequited.

At least, a state which left me frustrated, lonely and physically unrequited…  In recent months it’s become something I thought must be a product of sin.  That somehow The Fall had doomed single people to always want something more.

But wanting something more: why had I felt that was a bad thing?

Sitting in the pew, it all came washing over me in a sudden rush: my understanding of celibacy and of abstinence were another instance of knowing the words with my mind, but not knowing what they meant with my heart or body.  That I had understood in my head that we, men and women, married or single, will always want more.  That our desires for love, physical and spiritual, will eventually destroy human relationships or ourselves if we fasten upon people or things as a final good.

But here was the knowledge sinking into my bones that the tension of desire could be good in and of itself.  I’ve known this for years as a musician, as a dancer, as a writer, as a climber, yes, even as a mathematician.  Without pull, I am unproductive.  And to embrace rather than begrudge the tension of celibacy allows it to bear fruit.  It’s a fruitfulness which becomes sterile if there is no desire.  But such fruitfulness requires the act of holding desire in check, and looking into the mirror of self-denial to find both the image of how God desires to possess us, and how we can take hold of our physical desires and wrestle them back toward desire of Him.

*  *  *  *

Two nights ago I finished reading Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisted,” a Christmas gift from Esther.  And there in the final pages, inside of three marriages dissolved, two friendships broken, a great house laid waste and a final, beautiful romance ended, was the same message.  Waiting there, too, was the promise of an even more beautiful beatific love yet to be consummated, but coming, surely.

I can’t believe PBS made that book into a mini-series.  Ok, I can.  The Chronicles of Narnia, after all, became movies.  But did they see what I saw?  “Of course they didn’t!” says a voice from the back gallery.  “They’re not you.”  But for that matter, would I have seen this, reading the same book six months earlier?  Probably not…  Timing.  So much is timing, and God always meets us where we are, takes us where we need to go.

And, sometimes, He brings Charlie Parker and Evelyn Waugh along for the ride.

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