Role Models

Charlie_Parker,_Tommy_Potter,_Miles_Davis,_Max_Roach_(Gottlieb_06941)In my mission farewell talk,[fn1] I spent a little time talking about one of my teenage heroes. Charlie “Bird” Parker was an alto saxophone player who revolutionized jazz. With Dizzy Gillespie, he broke with swing and invented bebop, a faster, more cerebral, more harmonically complex style of music.

I admired the Bird’s virtuosity on the saxophone. I admired his improvisational genius. And I admired his work ethic: he may have had a natural genius, but, as a teenager, he also practiced 11-15 hours a day. And it was this work ethic, as much as anything, that appealed to me, and it was this work ethic that made me think of him as a prepared to leave on my mission.[fn2]

Another thing about Bird: he was a junkie. He named one of his songs after his dealer. He periodically pawned his saxophone (you know, the thing that allowed him to make a living) so that he had money to buy drugs. Sometimes on the bandstand, if he hadn’t had a hit of heroin, his arms shook so badly that he couldn’t play.

And there’s no happy ending here: unlike Miles, he didn’t lock himself into an apartment on his dad’s farm and come out clean. He died at 35 of pneumonia and a bleeding ulcer, and had cirrhosis and had had a heart attack. Almost certainly his body had deteriorated in part because of his drug and alcohol use.

On Tracy’s excellent post, a number of people have objected to one or more of the people she quotes as being poor role models for our kids. And frankly, they’re wrong.

Certainly, some (or, probably, all) of the women Tracy highlights and quotes have done things in their lives that I’d rather my daughters not do. But they’ve also done things that I hope my daughters do do. And our youth are smart enough to differentiate between the aspects of a role model that they want to emulate and the aspects that they don’t.

Look, that I wanted to be like Charlie Parker didn’t mean I wanted to use heroin.[fn3] Even as a teenager, I could separate out his musical genius and his incredible work ethic from his self-destructive behavior. I could want to be like him musically without wanting to be like him personally.

Moreover, if our youth can’t make that separation, we desperately need to teach them how to. They’ll have people they look up to who do things that are against our values; they’ll idolize athletes who cheat, dancers who sleep around, businesspeople who defraud investors. They’ll have friends and friends’ parents who drink and who are (not just appear—are) happy and good people.[fn4]

Charlie Parker was a deeply flawed person, one who made many mistakes and who, in many ways, set a poor example for people. But I don’t regret looking up to him in the least: sitting alongside his failings and weaknesses were sublime traits, traits to which I still aspire. I recognized the difference and recognized what parts of him I did and didn’t want to incorporate into my life. And I have no reason to believe our youth can’t make those same judgments, even when we present them with flawed embodiments of those ideals.

Special Bonus: A Bird Spotify Playlist. Enjoy!

[fn1] Remember when those were a thing?

[fn2] Note that, though I’m linking to many sources for my descriptions of Charlie Parker’s life, my teenage knowledge of these things came from reading the biography Bird Lives!.

[fn3] I’m a good Mormon boy: the only time I’ve seen an illegal drug was on my mission, crossing a bridge, when some kid came up to us, showed us his joint, and told us that he was giving it up for God, or something like that.

[fn4] Heck, if they’re anything like my kids, they’ll have elementary school teachers who drink coffee in class, and you’ll have to teach them that coffee doesn’t make their teachers bad people, but also they [your kids] can’t have coffee.


  1. That is why I love Old Testament. The same people, who do mighty miracles or show enormous faith in one chapter, do something very stupid in another chapters. And still they are my role models.

  2. This is such a wonderful expression of just good old common sense that we, as a people, really seem to have given up in a deepening collective cultural insanity.

    Thank you for telling us about your role model. I assure you that even without your metaphorical “mouseover”, I would have been able to understand that you admired and emulated Bird’s talent and work ethic, not his heroin addiction. My 13 year old daughter would have as well. Let’s hope that striving for righteousness and all that is virtuous, lovely, of good report, or praiseworthy doesn’t require obtuse resistance to common sense as well.

  3. The things you didn’t like about him probably contributed to what you did like about him.

  4. BL, that may well be true. There was allegedly a saying back then, something to the effect of, “To play Bird, you have to live Bird.” And, in fact, there were a lot of bebop players who did use heroin.

    On the other hand, Clifford Brown. He lived clean in every sense of the word, and was a stunning player (though I wasn’t familiar with him in high school). He demonstrates that the good and the bad are, in fact, separable.

  5. Bravo, Sam.

  6. “Moreover, if our youth can’t make that separation, we desperately need to teach them how to.” We need to take this step with church leaders as well, especially those where their pedstals might be cracking in places with new information.

  7. BL, Brigham Young’s determination got the Saints across the plains over a period of decades and also came across as rather authoritarian, which rankled a lot of people both then and now. The prophet Samuel led the people of Israel through a very tumultuous transition period from tribal infighting to unified kingdom and also murdered a captive king in cold blood. Alma the Younger persuaded a lot of people out of the Church, then after his conversion was unable to persuade them back into it.

    Doesn’t mean I can’t look up to all three of them as potential role models.

  8. Amen to this piece. Keeping it.

  9. For whatever reason, this post reminded me of one of my favorite Churchill quotes, talking about someone others admired: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.” Sometimes we admire heroes for their excellent choice of vices and their avoidance of irritating virtues.

  10. Love this post! It makes my sax playing heart sing to hear a fellow saint seek after the praiseworthy in Bird.

  11. I wanted to have Winston Churchill as a role model but then Aaron R. brought this to my attention and I had to ask myself, “How good a role model do you think he was, really?” (at 2:53)

  12. Thanks for this post. I have a friend I worked closely with for several years who became like a second mother to me. I went to visit her after my wearing pants to church made the Rexburg newspaper. She was appalled and chastised me. She warned me against being a stumbling block to others’ faith.

    As a way to teach me she told me about when her daughters were in YW they had a president who rode bikes. One night for mutual she came directly from her bike training and was wearing spandex biking gear (and NO garments). My friend was so upset she went to visit with her bishop about how damaging that YW pres wearing spandex was to her daughters. They had came home in tears, not being able to process that someone they were supposed to look up to made that choice. My friend told her bishop she would have rather the YW president had smoked a cigarette in front of her girls – she would have been able to explain that better.

    (sigh) While I didn’t choose to engage with my friend and correct her, I hope we are getting better at this. I had a friend walk up to me while I was wearing pants at church and say, “You know, you’re making it really hard for me to teach my daughter she can’t wear pants to church.” I replied that I was glad that we each get our agency to make our own decisions on how best to live the Gospel. She later thanked me for my answer that she chose to share as a teaching moment during Sunday dinner that night.

  13. Thanks for this, Sam. That playlist will get me started right tomorrow morning.

    We should also add Diz to this conversation, because he knew Bird very well, obviously admired him as a musician, and still managed to steer clear of his vices. The world would be a worse place if Diz had shunned Bird because of his unsavory qualities (although on tours Diz did know when not to hang out with his friend).

  14. Music is about far more than the technical skills of playing the right notes in the right way. Just as a writer, writes words that they know, a musician writes music that they know. Had he made different life choices his music may still have been great, but it would have been different. We should be grateful for beauty regardless of where it originated. We need to honor and celebrate authenticity, especially in Mormonism.

  15. I’m all for using Jesus as a role model, since he’s the only one we can have who has no faults, but frankly, it’s frustrating. As John C. implies in his recent post, “How to be Good Enough,” having perfection as your role model is a recipe for frequent disappointment. In addition, despite the best efforts of the Gospel writers, we don’t know enough about him to really emulate him, it seems to me. I sometimes get a picture of him as somewhat irritable, in fact, although if I were perfect and constantly had to answer questions from people like me, I’d be testy too. I don’t know if the NT gives us a very well-rounded portrait of the man.

    So any other role model we use is going to have some flaws. Someone said, in comment on Tracy’s post cited above, “Aren’t you afraid your daughters will find out more about these women and emulate the things you don’t like?” (paraphrased). Well, name a human role model who doesn’t contain some such element, be it Churchill’s cigars, Charlie Parker’s heroin, Brigham Young’s tobacco-chewing, etc. ad infinitum. If I insisted on perfection, I couldn’t even live with myself.

    Our EQ lesson on Sunday was on our 2015 ward plan and the EQ’s part in it. It could have been a numbers-fest, but I got all the way through it without telling anyone how many referrals they were supposed to give the missionaries this year. I did tell them to “show normal” – not to think that they had to be little white-shirted Mormbot clones. Act like a human and everything else will follow.

  16. For a great story about a junkie who’s also a Christ-figure, try Sonny’s Blues.

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