Charlie Parker has been the subject of numerous books since his death in 1955. Many of the most popular books can only offer a brief synopsis of Parker's early life as unsurprisingly, little was known of these years. Writers and journalists, when writing about Parker, accept the established view found in these books and referred to what was assumed to be fact. Unfortunately, many of these biographies relied on interviews and personal recollections, reduplicated stories, untruths, and perhaps a touch of the author's literary licence too! The 'biography' had been written and confirmed so often that over the course of the past 50 years, this common 'biography' of Charlie Parker came to be accepted as 'the facts'.
Some authors preferred to focus on the music, and padded their work with any event or story that might support the status of the 'genius' they were writing about, but more often, it was easier to assume that the brilliance of his music must be matched by a similarly dazzling life story....despite any essence of fact!
In retrospect, it might seem surprising that the biography of one of the most influential musicians of the 20th Century not only contained such deficiencies, but that the 'accepted' biography of his life had survived unchallenged for so long?
However, in 2013, two books were published, each presenting a fresh view of the life and the times of Charlie Parker. Both books challenged accepted beliefs and myths and also, based on fresh research and insight, enhanced Parker's early life, environment and influences of the young musician.
Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker by Chuck Haddix, and Kansas City Lightning - The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch broke new ground. The books were the result of scholarly research presenting a detailed and clearer picture of the the young musician.
Unfortunately, the significance of each edition was somehow eclipsed by the publication of the other, being published in such a close proximity of time. In many cases, the uniqueness of each work was lost in reviews that offered comparisons of each other rather than the celebration of two remarkable achievements.
Nevertheless, the impact of these two works has challenged our previously accepted understanding of Charlie Parker and significantly increased our understanding of the musician. Previously, Parker had only really been judged on the magnificence of his musical output but with the publication of these two works, many gaps have been filled and many of the myths taken for fact since the publication of Bird Lives by Ross Russell, were put to rest and replaced by well researched journalism.
With these publications, the understanding of the life of Charlie Parker has been greatly enhanced and with this increased knowledge, there may be a potential for a reexamination and/or reinterpretation of Parker's music....?
Rather than attempting to add to the literature surrounding this books, this page lists some reviews.
‘Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker’ by Chuck Haddix
Posted by: Jack Goodstein October 17, 2013
The artistic genius tormented and ultimately destroyed by his demons may be a stereotype, but if the stereotype fits, wear it. Groundbreaking bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker did not only play like a virtuoso, he led the way to a musical revolution, and he did both while addicted to drugs and alcohol. He worked his way through several marriages and at least one long-term relationship, usually neglecting the formality of a divorce.
He would sign contracts for appearances and show up late and unprepared; he would show up drunk or stung out, and there were the times he didn’t show up at all. But when he did show up, and he showed up often enough to make the point, drunk or strung out, he could play every one else under the table. There was only one Charlie Parker — Bird — and if you had to put up with a lot to hear him, there was no question for most jazz enthusiasts the price was cheap.
Chuck Haddix’s Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, the new biography in the University of Illinois “Music in American Life” series, looks at the man, his demons and his art about as evenhandedly as one could hope for. It is not hagiography: Haddix does not shy away from the unpleasant details, nor does he go out of his way to excuse bad behavior. It is not a hatchet job: there are reasons for bad behavior, they may not excuse it, but they do help to explain it. And always it helps to remember all those hours and hours of great music.
Born in Kansas City in August of 1920, he began playing the sax while in high school eventually getting gigs with local bands as he tried to learn his craft. Hurt in an auto accident on the way home from one gig, he was taken to the hospital where he was given heroine to deal with his injuries. Music and drugs: before he was out of his teens he was introduced to what were the two great passions of his life. And, women, the third, were there as well, the first time in the form of Rebecca Ruffin, the girl he married when he was 15.
Haddix traces Parker’s development as he played with a variety of bands, Buster Smith, Jay McShann, and eventually he runs into trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and kindred souls they click, at least musically, at least for a while, at least long enough to make music history. Eventually finding themselves in New York, they would get together to jam with a crew of other modernist musicians at Minton’s, a Harlem jazz club. What they were playing was new, and it was exciting. It was what eventually was to be called bebop. Haddix quotes Mary Lou Williams: “Bop is the phrasing and accenting of the notes, as well as the harmonies used. Every other note is accented. Never in the history of jazz has the phrasing been like it is in bop.” Their relationship doesn’t last, but few things do in Parker’s life.
Even as Parker’s musical career was taking off, the cracks were showing. Stories of unprofessional behavior abound. He’s fired from a band after fighting over some money he used to buy dope. He pawns a saxophone he’s been given by a band leader and then leaves town. He marries another woman, neglecting to divorce Rebecca. And as his career progresses, his musical growth and influence is paralleled by a moral and physical decline. His music for a time gets better and better, his behavior worse and worse.
Parker’s life raises a significant question: How much bad behavior, much of it self-destructive, is acceptable for the sake of genius? This is not a question that concerns Haddix, at least not in this book, but it is a question that arises over and over again. Had Charlie Parker not lived the life he did, would he have produced the brilliant music that has made him someone truly special? Had he been an ordinary guy, willing to play by the rules, would he have been able to innovate so significantly by breaking with convention? Do you have to be a risk-taker willing to go against the grain to be great?
Parker died in 1955. Like many great artists his life was short and not always happy, but long and happy might have added up to mediocrity. If there is one word that will never fit Charlie Parker, it is mediocre. He could be great, and in his worst moments he could be horrid, but mediocre, never.
Chuck Haddix has written a compelling account of the dilemma of the man and his music. It is well researched, but it is not a ponderous tome. It is moves along apace, filled with illuminating anecdotes from the people who knew the man, who saw at his best, who saw him at his worst, people who loved him. There may be a lot of other books about Charlie Parker, but Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker is as fine an introduction to the man as you could want.
‘Kansas City Lightning’ and ‘Bird’
By DAVID HAJDUDEC
When you’re writing about the movies, the film critic and painter Manny Farber said, the language ought to emulate the art. “I don’t think you can be mimetic enough,” Farber told an interviewer. That is to say, screen violence calls for barbarous prose; romance requires a warmness of tone. This principle could be applied to writing about all the arts, or most of them — including jazz, as the cultural critic and novelist Stanley Crouch has demonstrated with his judicious, strategically crafted new book about Charlie Parker, the revered and immeasurably influential alto saxophonist and composer. “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker” is, like the music made by its subject in his abbreviated life, free-flowing and severe, volatile, expansive, allusive and indulgent. From bravura sentence to serpentine paragraph, the book is a virtuoso performance of musical-literary mimesis.
In jazz history, few figures carry the stature of Parker, who, with his friend and frequent collaborator Dizzy Gillespie, led a movement away from swing and into a realm that was once known as “modern jazz” but came to be identified by its onomatopoeic nickname, bebop. Parker and his colleagues and emulators took jazz out of the ballrooms of the big-band craze and turned it into a daunting and cerebral music centered on the highly personalized work of idiosyncratic soloists — a small-club chamber art more suited to close listening and thinking than to dancing. Parker, more than anyone, made jazz the music of postwar American intellectualism.
In jazz scholarship, few writers have been as devoted to their subjects as Crouch has been to Parker. More than 30 years have elapsed since Crouch began the work that has now borne fruit with “Kansas City Lightning.” The early start allowed him to interview valuable sources who have been unavailable to other writers for some time: among them, Billy Eckstine, the singer and bandleader, who had hired Parker for the orchestra later known as the “cradle of bebop” band and who died in 1993; and Ralph Ellison, the novelist and onetime jazz trumpeter, who, before his death in 1994, provided Crouch with insight into how a single-note instrument can employ “discontinuity” to explore harmony in jazz improvisation.
More significant, the years provided Crouch with plentiful opportunity to think about the development of Parker’s art and to give voice to that thinking in prose befitting the subject. In the first section of “Kansas City Lightning,” Crouch lays out, as a dramatic set piece, a battle of the bands between two swing orchestras in the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, a contest between the popular locals, conducted by Lucky Millinder, and the upstarts visiting from Kansas City, led by Jay McShann, in 1942. The latter ensemble featured a 21-year-old named Charlie Parker, then virtually unknown in New York. Crouch, in this section, explains the imperative of personal expression in jazz improvisation: “The point was to work at it and think about it and think about it until you’d produced a tone as recognizable as the texture of your voice.”
Later in the book, at a point that falls earlier in the chronology of Parker’s story, Crouch describes how Parker, as a teenager living in Kansas City, practiced the alto saxophone alone for hours and hours in his house. “True mastery involved learning, not just emoting.”
“Kansas City Lightning” is a work of considerable learning. Crouch has a great deal to tell us about the world that produced Charlie Parker — so much, in fact, that he does not have room left in his book to cover the part of Parker’s life that many readers will probably be most interested in. As the literary scholar Andrew Delbanco did with his book “Melville,” Crouch is superb at situating his subject historically through the critical analysis of contextual (and, sometimes, almost extra-contextual) material. In “Kansas City Lightning,” we learn not only about the aesthetic freedom that came with the hedonism in Tom Pendergast’s infamously corrupt Kansas City; we learn about the quasi-pugilistic competition in the city’s great jam sessions, and that has bearing, of a sort, when Crouch writes for several pages about Jack Johnson, the first African-American heavyweight champion, and later takes up Joe Louis.
By the time Crouch gets Charlie Parker to New York and his first recordings, we have read all about Scott Joplin, the ragtime master who died three years before Parker was born; about Buddy Bolden, the unrecorded cornetist from the primordial days of New Orleans jazz; about D. W. Griffith, the silent film director, and his role in establishing conceptions of the South in the public imagination; about Lester Young, the tenor saxophonist who played with elegiac grace for the Count Basie band; about Buster Smith, a harmonically advanced alto saxophonist (nicknamed Professor) who foreshadowed and tutored Charlie Parker; and the book is over. It is only 1942, and Parker has just begun to invent the music of his legacy. He has the near whole of his output as a mature artist and 13 years of very hard living ahead of him. (When Parker died at 34 in 1955, the coroner estimated him to be between 50 and 60 years old; such was the abuse to which he had subjected his body through drugs and alcohol.)
Ultimately frustrating for all it withholds — or postpones for a follow-up volume — “Kansas City Lightning” provides more ideas and better writing in its 365 pages than any other book about Parker, notwithstanding Gary Giddins’s wonderful extended essay with photographs, “Celebrating Bird,” published in 1987. Another book about Parker — “Bird,” by Chuck Haddix, an archivist for the University of Missouri-Kansas City Libraries — has also recently been published, and its benign but bloodless presentation of the facts about Parker’s life reminds one of the value of critical analysis and interpretation, however digressive. (The information in Haddix’s book is not always accurate, either — it gives the name of Parker’s first child as Leon Francis, when it was really Francis Leon. A slip-up on something like that would be negligible in another book aiming to do more than provide factual details.)
Not everyone who thinks about jazz thinks the way Crouch does. He is perhaps overly taken with the notion of jazz playing as a kind of macho competition. He refers repeatedly to performances as “battles” and describes band musicians as “combatants,” undervaluing the necessities of musical sensitivity and cooperation in the art of group improvisation. His ideas tend to be ideological. But he brings them to the page with forthright eloquence, and his fervor is endearing.
In a passage that is not at all atypical of Crouch’s writing in “Kansas City Lightning,” he effectively presents the whole early history of jazz in one dizzying sentence:
“First the cornet, then the trumpet, had dominated early jazz, taking the strutting, pelvic swing of the black marching bands, the melodic richness of the spirituals, the tumbling jauntiness of ragtime, and the belly-to-belly earthiness of the blues, and pulling them together into a music that purported to soothe the mournful soul, to soak the bloomers of listening girls, and generally to cause everyone to kick up a lot of dust.”
If writing like that takes three decades to do, I’m willing to wait another 30 years for Crouch to finish his work on Charlie Parker.
KANSAS CITY LIGHTNING - The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
By Stanley Crouch
Illustrated. 365 pp. Harper. $27.99.
BIRD - The Life and Music of Charlie Parker
By Chuck Haddix
Illustrated. 188 pp. University of Illinois Press. $24.95.
Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, by Chuck Haddix. University of Illinois Press, 2013.
Chuck Haddix’s remarkable biography of Charlie Parker focuses on Bird’s years in the Kansas City area. Except for summer gigs in the Ozarks and brief gigs north and west, Bird lived in the intense Kansas City jazz world from 1920 until he left almost 20 years later. By then, some players had already learned about his playing and his drug habits, but great fame would come to him only after he left town for Chicago, New York, Paris, California.
This book takes an unexpected path. It pays attention to the source of Bird’s powers. It shows how talent turns to genius, how and where it happened. The author has written a scholarly book that grapples with the mysteries of epistemology, a task of enormous difficulty, especially when dealing with a subject as complicated, troubled and ambiguous as Charlie “Bird” Parker.
In many ways, Haddix is the ideal writer to take on this challenge. He is from Kansas City and knows the territory and its jazz scene intimately. He has researched and explored the landscape, the joints and the different modes of communicating about this subject matter. For many years he has been heard on area radio as a jazz and blues disc jocky. He is also co-author of Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop (Oxford U P, 2005). As the director of one of the great sound archives in the country, Marr Sound Archives, he has personally tracked down jazz artifacts, scholars and collectors.
Because Haddix has been so assiduous in following up on local particulars, Kansas City jazzers have a rare experience, reading Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker. Buildings can still be seen that housed clubs where Parker played, such as the Century Room at 3605 Broadway, and another at 210 W. 47th; one can drive past Parker’s old residences in midtown. Some of us went to the same schools where Parker went, Sumner Academy or Lincoln High School. He remains in our lives. It is still possible to hear the old guys at the Mutual Musicians Foundation argue about what was and is.
It is good to read a scholarly book in which the writing is beautifully colloquial and without waste. “Charlie’s drug use and strife also caused strife at home,” Haddix writes. “He argued with Addie [his mother] and fought with Rebecca [his wife]. Addie, fed up with the domestic turmoil, ordered Charlie to leave. . . . Stung by his mother’s rebuke and unable to work locally, Charlie hopped a freight train for Chicago, the first stop on his journey to New York, where he hoped to reunite with Buster Smith, his musical father.”
In Chicago, Bird begins to demonstrate at once his “quicksilver execution and his ideas.” Billy Eckstine saw him at the 65 Club, the first gig Parker found when he got off the train. Eckstine recounted, “Charlie dazzled the crowd.”
The selection of quotes provided by Haddix to clarify and amplify stun one with their aptness, the right words in the right mouths, not the easy clichés in so much scholarly writing about jazz.
Chuck Haddix identifies his sources; he provides the environmental and familial contexts necessary to understand Bird’s actions, his addictions, problems, and decisions. Not that everything can be determined. Of course not. But it helps to know that the Depression had its consequences, that even Kansas City’s jazz scene suffered, that a suicidal father not often at home is not likely to provide his son the most successful protective habits. This is a candid biography, devoted to providing the background and the truths Haddix can nail down. To that end, he provides chapter notes, a delicious bibliography for jazz enthusiasts, and an index, usual paraphernalia to help readers of scholarly texts. Some jazz biographies do not include them. I mention this to underline a major reason why the Chuck Haddix book has a special value for Kansas City readers and for readers especially interested in how Bird became such an important figure in musical history, even though he lived more than half his life obscure and beset by many jostling forces.
I have read some remarkable stylists who eschew footnotes and the like in their reviews and books. One of my favorite jazz writers, Dan Morgenstern, can say he was there when Bird played a famous controversial gig. Dan Morgenstern can say it about as well as anybody can. He is formidably famous, and to my mind, deserves our admiration as a jazz writer. I think of him as a romantic, in the best sense of that word, remembering and saving the feelings and the moments he so often located unerringly.
But he couldn’t write the Haddix biography, not without becoming a Kansas City cat, not without knowing the smell of Milton’s Tap Room, now long gone, not without standing in the fried chicken line at the Musicians Foundation on Bird’s birthday.
Chuck Haddix never met Bird. Haddix was too young. The actual was denied him, which always intensifies desire. He never sat in a joint on 52nd Street during the years of Bird’s great fame. One of the great poets of the 20th century did. W. H. Auden opened his famous WWII poem “September 1, 1939” this way: “I sit in one of the dives / On Fifty-second Street / Uncertain and afraid / As the clever hopes expire / Of a low dishonest decade.”
Auden’s lines and his poem are emblematic of how Bird’s life came to represent the struggle for meaning in America. Bird came to stand for the plight of the creative voice, of trapped minorities, the stirrer up of startling changes. He refused to wait outside the back door, to praise the usual as acceptable. As symbols do, one can go on and on. Hemingway once said that if “you write clearly and honestly, the symbols put themselves in.” So do the questions, even more so the answers. In fact, the questions may be the most important insights. Here are just a few encouraged by this book.
How does genius survive the most potent attempts to destroy it? Here’s another one, cousin of First Cause? From where and how did Bird evolve? What defines genius and its contribution?
Bird, it seems, leads us to the question of humanity, whether we really deserve a place at the top of the Great Chain of Being. Shall we value more the species or the self? Yes, I’m thinking of Bird again. What does he teach us? Positive? Negative?
Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker leads us to a final crescendo; as in Lear and Hamlet, the tragedies accumulate. The “tremendous clap of thunder” the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter said she heard “at the moment of his [Parker’s] going” became more than romantic emblem. No matter how Bird was ignored or disguised, exaggerated or heralded, there was always an insistent revitalization. BIRD LIVES! appeared on walls everywhere, became the final phrase of affirmation. Bass man Charlie Mingus said as much by implication at Bird’s funeral: “It wasn’t Bird in the coffin.”
Strange book that goes so far, stays so close, reminding readers that Bird developed and lived most of his years in Kansas City. He remains internationally famous, but still so close no distance can obliterate the music in our ears.