Charlie Parker has just died and while his body lies unidentified in the Bellevue morgue, his ghost appears at Birdland, the jazz club named after him. He will try to compose a musical masterpiece before the news of his death becomes public.
A panicked Nica de Koenigswarter, in whose segregated apartment hotel suite Charlie died, finds him at last. He begs her, “Keep this a secret for now. I’ve got to work.”
“Just Us Birds Trying to Fly”
Charlie tries to write, but the notes continue to escape him. “So how do I capture these black dots, blue notes flying out of my horn? How do I freeze these notes on paper?”
“Twelfth and Vine”
Looking for inspiration, Charlie remembers his youth in Kansas City. But the neighbors complain about the noise and sinfulness of his jazz. His mother Addie worries about his lifestyle and drug use.
Charlie’s first wife Rebecca is there with their young son. She and Addie lament the challenges of being a wife and mother to black males in the United States. “This land ain’t no place for a black man child, got dreams.”
Charlie tells his mother he will make her proud of him one day, but Addie asks him to leave Kansas City for good, hoping to save his life. He asks her to take care of his wife and son.
Sensing his anguish, Doris, his third wife, tries to help him make peace with himself and God. Charlie asks, “So, if there is a God, why does the Negro suffer? Is my prayer, my music lesser, smaller in God’s eye?”
Nica hopes all will be well, but fears the scandal that will occur when the headlines about where he died appear in the morning papers.
“Bebop’s Gonna Change the World”
Dizzy brings inspiration and the triumph of bebop with him.
Suddenly, Chan, the mother of two of his children, appears. All at once, they are young again and reminisce about the first time they met.
“YATAG,” Chan’s solo
But just as quickly, Chan is gone from his arms as Moose the Mooch, his drug dealer, beckons. Despite Dizzy’s protest, Charlie leaves with Moose to get a fix.
Maybe conquering California holds the key to Charlie’s freedom. Dizzy sings, “Come on, Yard! Let’s get out of here! We still have to write that music down.”
Now high, Charlie sings, “I’m a jazzman. I’m blowing all my pain out through this horn. I’m gonna heal the world with my horn. I ain’t gonna sit in the back of the bus no more, ain’t going around the back no more.”
“My Boy is King”
Addie hears Charlie playing for the first time. “Oh listen, just listen to that. That’s my boy, that’s my boy, what a joy! My boy is King of Sax.”
“Pree is Dead”
While he is in California, Chan breaks the news about their two-year-old daughter.“Pree is dead. Where were you to calm her fears? Where were you to dry her tears?”
“Relaxin’ at Camarillo/Bellevue”
Charlie breaks down. He is arrested for indecent exposure and sent to Camarillo State Hospital.
Now recovered, Charlie says goodbye to his horn. “I chose you, my horn. I don’t believe I ever chose anything else but you.”
“Next of Kin”
Charlie’s body has now been discovered in the morgue, and when Addie walks in, she collapses in grief. Chan tries to make peace with her. Chan wants Charlie to remain in New York but Addie wants him buried in Kansas City. Soon Doris and Rebecca are there, and the women argue over where he is to be buried.
Addie, his three wives, and Dizzy sing of their love for Charlie.
Nica, alone on stage, also bids her farewell.
“I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”
Charlie realizes that playing his saxophone was indeed his life’s work and that there is no need to write a masterpiece. He sings lines from Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic poem, “Sympathy.”