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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus

Birdland
A speculative essay by William Fiennes












Reflections of green pixelled phrases hover in the thick panes of Malcolm Collier’s spectacles whenever he leans close to his computer screen. I noticed this when we sat together in the study of Malcolm’s comfortable home, Fo’c’sle, just outside Letchworth, one evening earlier this year. Malcolm is a burly man in his late forties and there is a gap between his two front teeth that suggests a single ebony semi-tone on a piano keyboard.

Malcolm works for a small consultancy firm in Letchworth itself. He has been with the company for nearly ten years and he likes it there; he likes the firm’s "employee-oriented ethos". Speak to others at the office and one soon gets the impression of an extremely reliable and hard-working colleague. Malcolm is said to be "solid as a rock"; he is someone "you’d trust with your own private accounts". He always wears a suit on dress-down Fridays.

Few of Malcolm’s fellow consultants, however, know of his other life. For although Malcolm is committed to his work, his heart’s energy is directed elsewhere. This ordinary man, no different from you and me – a tax payer, a husband, a father, a 12 handicap on a good day, – this man has, for over twenty years, been in the grip of an extraordinary passion. Malcolm is a jazz ornithologist.

His wife, Ivy, brought us tea on a tray. The teapot was coddled in a novelty cosy designed to look like a tuxedo with a black bow tie. Ivy is a petite, compact woman: a sinew of vigour. Her ginger hair is as keenly-clipped and buoyant as prize topiary. Her upper lip, even when expressionless, does not quite cover her teeth, in a way that suggests she had a hare lip when she was young but has since had it corrected by surgery. Ivy sat with us in the study while I asked Malcolm to explain just how it had all started.

"I grew up with jazz," he said. "My dad loved jazz so much. I think he preferred jazz to my mother, actually. When he came home from work I’d sit with him in the front room where the coal fire’d be smoking. He’d play Bix Beiderbecke records over and over again. He had a whole set, all the seventy-eights. Then the divorce came through and Beiderbecke was my father’s biggest consolation. We started to call him Bix Bye-bye-derbecke, that was a joke we had, after my mother left. Soon I was saving up to buy my own records. All the Dixie bands. Armstrong, Fats, Billie, Jelly-Roll."

"I love Jelly-Roll," said Ivy, smiling, revealing even more of her neat, polished teeth.

"And then of course I’d always been interested in birds," Malcolm continued, shifting earnestly in his armchair. "Even as a really young kid I’d loved hearing the woodpeckers, you know, that machine-gun ratatatat they make. I waited for the swifts to arrive at the end of May and all summer I watched them feeding on the insects in the evenings. It still gives me a bit of a thrill, the way they screech and swoop and dart into the nests to feed the chicks. It’s tremendous, really."

Of course, these interests are not in themselves remarkable. Many young men enjoy Dixieland jazz, and many carry their fathers’ binoculars on long, damp walks around nature reserves. What is so singular about the case of Malcolm Collier is the intersection, the inspired splicing, of these commonplace enthusiasms. As Malcolm spoke, some gladness I cannot quite explain came over his face, something like the sparkling of late sunlight on the sea. His eyes loomed brightly behind his thick spectacles. Wrinkles appeared like the prints of crows’ feet at the corners of his eyes. Laughter lines curved like parentheses on his broad face.

"It was an August afternoon," Malcolm continued. "I was sixteen. I’d been listening to Armstrong. But it was such a lovely day. I decided to walk down to the lake by the quarry where a couple of times I’d seen a heron at the edge of the water. There was a game I had, I’d try to get as near it as possible without it hearing me and flying away. Though at the same time, I remember this, part of me wanted it to fly. I wanted to see the slow, grand motion of its wings and its vast grey shadow, its shadow sliding across the surface of the water."

I noticed that Ivy had closed her eyes. And what Malcolm was describing did indeed have the vivid glow of a dream.

"Anyway," he went on, "I’d got quite close when suddenly, it was very distinct, the heron let out a call. Now herons don’t have a song like smaller birds. They don’t even have the sort of quack you might associate with waterfowl. The call of a heron is actually a growl, something a small dog might make, or like a long, low cough. And right then, I was crouching in the rushes, I realised something. It had the force of revelation. You see, I’d heard that sound before, that very day. The heron’s call was exactly the same sound, and I mean exactly, as the little growl you can hear Louis Armstrong make just before the last chorus of Let’s Do It, recorded in 1953."

Without warning, Malcolm leapt out of his chair and bounded over to the stereo system in the corner of the study. He slipped a record from a sleeve with the fluency of habit. I could just make out the title on the sleeve: it was Calls of the Birds of the British Isles, Volume One.

"This is the heron," said Malcolm, and, right on cue, a voice from the quadrophonic speakers announced. "Heron. Male." We were all listening intently. Then, from the speakers positioned all around the study, came a strange, abrupt growl, followed by another, longer growl. It was, as Malcolm had said, a canine sound, a little gruff, though not without resonance. Malcolm switched records.

"Now here’s Satch," he said. "Listen for the run-in to the last let’s fall in love."

I listened. We all smiled. The concordance was indeed thrillingly exact.

That adolescent discovery, that the call of the heron was once precisely replicated by Louis Armstrong, gave Malcolm his vocation. As his collection of jazz records grew, and his ear became more finely attuned to the sounds of birdsong, Malcolm began to discover more and more echoes between the phrases and notes of jazz and the sounds of our feathered friends. Using state-of-the-art software, Malcolm has created a complex database on his home computer: he has cross-referenced species to artist, behaviour to instrument, habitat to song-title, and so on.

To browse that database is to enter Malcolm’s unique world. In the short time I spent as the Colliers’ guest at the Fo’c’sle, I learned that the steady note of the rufous-throated solitaire is to be found two minutes and twenty-four seconds through Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain. I discovered that one of Charlie Parker’s riffs in a 1958 out-take recording of Autumn Leaves is a perfect match to the song of the lilac-breasted roller, a lovely bird indigenous to the further reaches of Borneo. I was delighted to be informed that a particular variety of toucan shares its two-note call with a phrase from a scat sung by Ella Fitzgerald during a live performance of Lemon Drop at the Newport Jazz Festival, Carnegie Hall, 1973.

Jazz ornithology has, of course, changed Malcolm’s life. Much of the money he saves is set aside for birding holidays, compact discs and recording equipment. Ivy is quite at ease with her husband’s consuming passion, and accompanies him on all his expeditions. She does, however, refuse to go into jazz clubs. "The smoke gets at my sinuses," she explains, briskly.

"We had a couple of weeks in the Caribbean last year," Malcolm goes on. "I used to look around, and all the other people, they were happy enough, but it was like they were oblivious to everything, they just stumbled along."

"You were on cloud nine," said Ivy.

"I was on cloud nine," said Malcolm, as if he hadn’t heard her. "I matched the repeated trills of a green tody to the rising motif used by Stan Getz at the end of his recording of On Green Dolphin Street. Streamertail hummingbirds reminded me of a particular drum effect Art Blakey used to get with his brushes. It never stops, you see. Just outside Letchworth I’ve heard nightingales sing, and their pitch and tone, it’s been just the pitch and tone you hear from Sonny Rollins’s saxophone at the end of Loverman, a duet he recorded with Coleman Hawkins for All the Things You Are, that lovely Bluebird/RCA record he cut in ’63 or ’64, the young Herbie Hancock on piano. Marvellous."

I asked Malcolm if it was any more than coincidence that Charlie Parker was nicknamed bird or that the most famous jazz club of all was called Birdland.

"Well, I think a lot of people had already made the connection, you know, subconsciously," he replied. "Between the music and the ornithology. I’m working on a book, it’s going to have a cassette attached, like those books you can get to teach you French or something, and I think when the book comes out a lot of jazz musicians and fans and bird-watchers around the world will really start looking into the connections more seriously, because there really is a lot going on out there."

A proud, oddly poignant smile accompanied this last remark, as a bass note might accompany the piano’s first statement of a theme. It was getting late and I knew my time at the Fo’c’sle was coming to an end. And it was only when I was walking away from Malcolm and Ivy Collier, and closing their ornate iron gate behind me, and turning left into Raymere close, where my car was parked, that I realised I’d encountered a man sensitive to the strange intersections of an otherwise chaotic world, someone alert to the rhymes with which our lives are unexpectedly scattered, an artist of a kind.


Copyright © William Fiennes 1999

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Birdland is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author and Rogers, Coleridge & White/Literary Agency. For rights information, email <davidm@rcwlitagency.demon.co.uk> – please mention The Richmond Review when making rights enquiries.

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