Book Review: “Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker,” by Chuck Haddix

July 21, 2013

By Brian Arsenault

When I first heard Bird: The Savoy Recordings so many year ago I thought that Charlie Parker must be from a different place, a different planet, somewhere in a galaxy far far way.  And I was sort of right.

He was from the remarkable jazz planet of Kansas City, Missouri in the third and fourth decades of the twentieth century. Ben Webster, Lester Young, Count Basie and many others were part of that place and time that spawned the greatest of them all.

In his soon to be released Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker,  Chuck Haddix takes us on Parker’s journey from mediocre musicianship in KC to world renown fame in New York, LA. and Europe. But Haddix starts in that remarkable time in Kansas City.

It is one of the ironies of history that Missouri — from whence vicious rebels, from Quantrill to Bloody Bill Andersen to the James Brothers, raided free state Kansas on behalf of the Confederacy — became in Kansas City a rollicking free wheeling center for black musicians in large black neighborhoods of all kinds of commerce, intermingling with white ethnic neighborhoods, often quite comfortably.  The state of Kansas, meanwhile, stayed largely white, conservative in religion and politics.

Haddix gives us a feel for all that and if he spends too much time listing all the musicians in all the bands that ever played in the city and its environs, well, he is the Director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.  The home of a very fine music department, by the way.

Haddix’s work is very important because Parker is so very important. A history of Bird is, among other things, the history of bop jazz, unimaginable without him. Bird was a very great American artist among other great American artists.

What is it they say near the start of The Lord of the Rings: “History becomes legend. Legend becomes myth.”  Something like that.

And Charlie Parker is shrouded in myth.  The myth of enormous appetites: in alcohol, in drugs in food, in intimate relations.  Haddix notes for one thing that Parker was married simultaneously to Rebecca, Gerri and Doris.  That’s at the same time, folks, while also living in a common law marriage with children with a woman named Chan.

Rather like Jack Kerouac’s character Dean Moriarty and women in On the Road. Dean of course was a huge bop fan.

Haddix doesn’t gloss over any of Parker’s sides — unreliable, not showing up or showing up stoned for gigs, constantly disappearing in an ongoing search for drugs, chumping friends and business associates for money.  But Haddix is never sensational or salacious about it. He also shows us the generous Parker, the loving if frequently absent father, the kindnesses to lesser musicians, the enormous charm and charisma.  How else could he have had so many women, several of whom tolerated his massive infidelities.

With great artists you sometimes get great ranges in behavior.  Hemingway was capable of great kindness and great boorishness.  Joyce’s long suffering wife, Nora, frequently had to seek his drunken self in midnight Trieste, the booze paid for by money he scammed from his brother.

There’s more than a little hint of racism when whites nod sagely at the news that a black musician was, well, you know. Papa Hemingway would have had no trouble keeping up with Bird at the bar.

An artist must ultimately be judged by his work.  Who are we lesser beings to judge a life other than our own (if we dare)?  And in a very readable style Haddix shows us what a significant, brilliant musician Parker was. You may not get all the descriptions of Parker’s musicality if you aren’t musically schooled. I didn’t. But you will get Bird’s significance to American music, our greatest art form.

This is important.  Parts of our own history gets lost to us because they are seldom taught.  And any history of music in America without jazz is simply irrelevant.  And you cannot write a history of American jazz without Bird.

I said at the beginning how dazzled I was on first hearing Parker’s playing.  I was heartened in the book by Dizzy Gillespie’s remark that he’d “never heard anything like it before.  The way he assembled notes together.”  Yeah.

Gillespie is rightly credited by Haddix as the “co-founder” who actually inadvertently coined the name bebop. He and Parker were intense competitors and marvelous collaborators.

Critic and jazz historian Ira Gitler in the liner notes to my battered copy of Bird: The Savoy Recordings quotes drummer Stan Levey who played with Parker in the 1940s:

“My first impression of Charlie’s playing was that he was sort of a Pied Piper. I’d never heard anything like it.  I didn’t really know what he was doing but it made me feel good to listen to him.”

That’s about three of us so far who’d never heard anything like it.  Despite Parker’s many imitators and inheritors, I still haven’t.

I read much of the book listening to those Savoy recordings from the mid-1940s when Parker was arguably at his very best.  There’s a song called “Meandering” and it’s not full of the Parker famed double time and eighths and sixteenths.  It’s simple little ballad, a soft melody. It made me stop reading and just listen. Listen. It’s my greatest hope for the book that people will listen to Bird yet again or for the first time.

Charlie Parker began playing and hanging around clubs at 12.  He was gone at 34. Chuck Haddix has illuminated all that he did in between.

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To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


Books: Giveaways and Ruth Brown — “If I Can’t Sell It, I’m Gonna Keep Sittin’ On It”

May 26, 2013

By Michael Katz

Today, in preparation for the June 1st release of my new novel Dearly Befuddled, I’d like to say a few words about book giveaways. Since I am a proud holder of an MBA in finance from the University of Wisconsin, I approach this topic with a good deal of reticence.  It violates a founding tenet of business, as articulated by one of the great titans of industry, Father Guido Sarducci: “You buy-a-something. You sell it for more.”

Mike Katz Befuddled Book coverBut in the world of Internet book commerce, the giveaway has become something of a practiced art. The theory goes like this: you give your book away for a few days. Lots and lots of people “buy it,” swelling your “sales.” This appears to make your book a best seller on one of their many Best Seller Lists (“Number One On Amazon’s Alien Romance Sports Bicycle Repair Great Restaurants of Austin List!”) The people who bought your book for free read it and write glowing reader reviews. The public sees your suddenly inflated rating and glowing reviews, then decides they must purchase your book, as well as your backlist of E-books. Real money starts showing up in your bank account. Sports Illustrated swimsuit models start lining up at your front door. (Example enhanced for marketing purposes…)

I should point out that there is an entire industry built around these giveaways. Sites and services charge fees in the hundreds of dollars to publicize your giveaways. In other words, you, Dear Author, are paying real American dollars (or gold trinkets, depending on your political persuasion) to give away your own book.

I know some people swear this method works. Personally, I am skeptical. For one, I think folks place little value on things they get for free. For another, I actually tried it with my Sussman/Glick comic mystery trilogy. Over the past year I gave away hundreds of copies of Last Dance In Redondo Beach and The Big Freeze, and saw only a minimal sales bump.

But don’t take my word for it. Here is one of the most famous cases in business history, as taught in business schools throughout the nation. It involves a young woman who owned a small used furniture store. She had in her possession a valuable chair. A customer felt she was overcharging, and wanted her to, in the vernacular of the times, “give it away.”

Thanks to our sister institution, the Katz of The Day Online Business School, we have a transcript of the case discussion, as discussed by the famous marketing professor, Dr. Ruth Brown. The clip omits the first few words of the discussion, so I present them here to you in front of the actual presentation.

Ruth Brown:

“I own a second hand furniture store, and I think my prices are fair;

That is until this real cheap guy came in one day,

Saw this chair he wanted to buy, but he wouldn’t;

Claimed the price was too high…

If I Can’t Sell It, I’m Gonna Sit On It.”

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To read more iRoM reviews and posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.


Books: Scott Yanow’s “The Great Jazz Guitarists: The Ultimate Guide”

May 23, 2013

By Don Heckman

The jazz encyclopedist is at it again.  Scott Yanow, who must have reviewed every jazz recording released since 1975, when he turned 21, has published his eleventh jazz book. Not to mention the myriad of magazine and newspaper reviews, bios, press releases and more that he has written along the way.

Following in the pattern of  his previous books, The Great Jazz Guitarists:The Ultimate Guide is filled with detailed information.  But this tome is an even more remarkable accomplishment than such Yanow works as as his previous books on Swing, Bebop, Jazz Singers, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Trumpet Kings and Jazz on Film.

In it, Scott includes biographies, musical commentaries and comprehensive recording data about his subjects, managing to assemble an extraordinary amount of information about an equally extraordinary number of guitarists.

He opens with a thoughtful essay about the role of the guitar — and the banjo, as well — in the history of jazz.  Next up, he offers five far-reaching, all-inclusive guitar player segments:

- “The 342 Great Jazz Guitarists”

- “44 Other Historic Guitarists”

- “175 Other Jazz Guitarists on the Scene Today”

- “They Also Played Jazz Guitar” (including such multi-instrumentalists as Bobby Hackett and Bobby Sherword, and such genre-crossover players as Willie Nelson and Peter Frampton).

- “Jazz Guitarists On Film”

In total, it all adds up to just about everything one could ever want to know about the guitar in jazz — from its earliest role to the present, from the banjo to Pat Metheny’s Pikasso Guitar.  In short, like all of Scott Yanow’s previous books, The Great Jazz Guitarists: The Ultimate Guide is a vital reference source, one that belongs in the library of every serious jazz fan.


Book Review: “101 Essential Rock Records” by Jeff Gold

December 2, 2012

 101 Essential Rock Records: The Golden Age of Vinyl from the Beatles to the Sex Pistols

by Brian Arsenault

Thank you, Jeff Gold.

The vinyl LP needed someone to wax poetic about it and do a big book about it and you did. You notice I didn’t say coffee table book because that phrase has been used mostly pejoratively for a long time. So I’ll just say go get a copy of this big beautifully illustrated book and put it on a table where you can pick it up frequently and know what an art form once looked like.

There also are some neat essays done mostly by people you know — like Graham Nash, Iggy Pop, Suzanne Vega and some you may not.

David Bowie’s is one of the most intriguing wherein he observes that The Velvet Underground and Nico “. . . was so savagely indifferent to my feelings. It didn’t care if I liked it or not. It could give a fuck.” Exactly so and that’s what was scraping at my mind at a less articulated level for all these years since I first heard Warhol’s evil little band of demons.

Not all the writing is as good a Bowie’s and there’s a lot of “the first record I bought” stuff here but I think that’s what they all were asked to write about so no complaint. And the memories are just as dear to famous boomers as the rest.

So are the album covers.  One of the things I think Gold and Jac Holzman, both record executives, understate in their introductions is the importance of the jacket — its size, its pictures, its often wildly artistic presentation.  Compare that to something as small as a CD with its tiny lettering and postage stamp photos. With LPs, you could look at the band and read about them and there were the song titles and who produced it and all that good stuff.

Have you noticed that after shrinking to elf size, cell phones have suddenly grown larger to give you a screen on which you can actually see something. LP jackets gave you a lot to see.

What I think Gold and Holzman may overstate is the resurgence of vinyl. Thanks, Jac, for validating my long standing feeling that LP sound is “warmer and more sensual” but I’m not sure the vinyl record (what a quaint word, record) “is alive and doing well.”

Thanks again, Jeff, for the book but I’m not sure what it means that in 2011 vinyl sales were up more than 37 percent over the prior year.

I checked with the young, anyone under 40, and they aren’t abandoning iTunes and downloads. I think your optimism may just be based on boomers having enough disposable income to indulge their taste for vinyl.  It may not be all that different from collectors of first editions, old locks and keys or even model trains, God forbid.

The reissue, or even loving preservation or restoration of the classic Thunderbird, won’t stop the coming and ultimate dominance of the Prius and other such modernities.

Still, whatever its ultimate fate, those of us who love vinyl cannot help but dig (old vinyl word) its seeming current comeback and appreciate the presentation of so many of the great albums of that era. An era stretching from the coming of the Beatles in the mid 1960s to 1979 when cassettes — now there was a truly despicable technology — had their brief run as king of the music buying public.

Jeff — you invited readers to point out oversights in your listing of 101, so I will.

I understand the reasoning behind your presentation of the version of a record from its country of origin.  But really, Jeff, only the USA and the islands off the coast of Europe, England and Ireland, really matter.

To omit Meet the Beatles in favor of its British counterpart Please Please Me is to ignore the greatest musical force that ever hit America. Nothing was the same after its arrival, as you well know.

Another odd omission is Quicksilver Messenger Service’s Happy Trails, almost certainly rock’s first true concept album and a simply fantastic rock LP. “Who Do You Love?” and “Mona” taken to guitar operatic levels.

And how about the Grateful Dead’s American Beauty, an album of exceptional grace and beauty on which the band actually sings on key (most of the time) and creates a true piece of Americana music.

Yet much credit is earned for including the Butterfield Blues Band’s East-West, which gave many Beatles fans their first look into the complexity possible in rock and the blues base from which it came. I mean Bloomfield and Bishop were the other two B’s in that remarkable band.

Equal praise for the often overlooked Forever Changes by Love, an album of heartbreaking beauty and poetry within a psychedelic enigma.

Well, I could go on and on. This is a book as much about the music of a generation (or two or three) as it is about the vinyl form and there’s much pleasure to be gained.

If  Kramer(of Seinfeld) ’s concept of a coffee table book that’s an actual coffee table were to be realized, this would be my choice for enshrinement.

To read more posts, reviews and columns by Brian Arsenault click HERE.


An Appreciation: Ray Bradbury

June 9, 2012

By Michael Katz

The news that Ray Bradbury passed away this week hit close to home for several reasons. Bradbury, though born in Waukegan, had long ago qualified as an Angelino native. I had seen him several times at UCLA Live music events at Royce Hall, and by now most people know what a great supporter he was of the LA Library system and the arts in general. Self-educated – he was a Depression era kid who couldn’t afford college, Bradbury had little use for university writing programs. He immersed himself in literature of all types and wrote prolifically, keeping to a self-imposed regimen of 1,000 words a day even, by all accounts,  into his eighties. I thought it was ironic that, on his death, the obituary writers all flocked to literature professors to assess his impact. Better they should have gone to a library and asked some kid sitting at a carrel, reading a story from Something Wicked This Way Comes, or The Cat’s Pajamas.

Ray Bradbury

Those of us who have written in “genres” have a special admiration for someone who elevates the writing into something special, at least in the eyes of the literary establishment. Bradbury didn’t consider himself a science fiction writer, but let’s not quibble. How many of us were drawn into reading by futuristic stories, or tales of fantasy with a touch of the macabre? When I was a teenager it was Bradbury and Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, not to mention Jules Verne,  H.G. Wells and Edgar Allan Poe. That literature, often in the form of short stories perfected by Bradbury and others, has stoked the imagination of countless kids, not just for literature but for science, art, math, the whole academic spectrum. In these days of recession, huge public debts and talk of austerity, the arts are always the first to face budget cuts, as if cutting off the dreams and inspirations of kids will somehow make us more productive. Bradbury knew how ridiculous that concept was.

It was also ironic that Bradbury, the personification of futuristic writing, had such little use for the Internet and insisted for the longest time that his work not be available as E-books. But really, who can blame him? His life had been shaped in libraries, the physical act of holding a book and reading it was central to his existence. And truthfully, even for those of us who somewhat reluctantly embrace the new technology, the comfort of holding a dog-eared book (even if it has been dog-eared by someone else) remains at the core of our experience.

Reading a story by Bradbury was always a pleasure, the release of a new collection, usually including some older gems, was always a literary event. He loomed above the artistic community here, like an extra sun on a fictional planet. Or maybe a full moon on Halloween, grinning at us as he typed another thousand words.

We’ll miss him.

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To read more iRoM  posts by Michael Katz, click HERE.

To visit Michael Katz’s personal blog, “Katz of the Day,” click HERE.


Books: The Complete Quincy Jones – My Journey & My Passions

December 3, 2008

By Don Heckman

Say this about Quincy Jones: When he does something, he does it with style and class. Who else could produce a book with a Preface by Maya Angelou, a Foreword by Clint Eastwood, and Introduction by Bono and an Afterword by Sidney Poitier.

But, in fact, calling this package a “book” doesn’t really begin to describe q-jones-bookwhat’s going on behind its coffee table size cover.  The concept is simple enough: an overview of Q’s remarkable life, replete with photographs and memorabilia.  And the key word is “memorabilia.”  Because, in addition to its extraordinary collection of photos, and the narrative reaching from Q’s childhood in the ’30s to the present day, the book – superbly produced by Insight Editions — also includes exact replications of items from every stage of his journey.

Part 1, The Early Years, for example, inserts a small family photo album of images of family and friends; a Quincy Jones report card from 1951 (almost all A’s).

Part 2, The Music Business, features a reproduction of a few pages from Q’s Month at a Glance Calendar for 1955, with references to recordings and meetings with the likes of Ray Charles, Milt Gabler, Sonny Stitt, Lionel Hampton and dozens of others.  Equally fascinating, there is an account book, revealing the specifics of payments Q received for dates with Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson, Dinah Washington, etc. There’s also a Visual Discography with covers from his albums, and the reproduction of a sheet of manuscript paper on which composers such as David Raksin, John Williams, Henry Mancini, Benny Carter and others have autographed their brief sketches of a few bars from one of their significant works.

Part 3, Film & Television, offers a black and white contact sheet of photos from the making of “The Color Purple,” and a reproduction of a thank you note from Oprah Winfrey.

Part 4, Mentoring A Better World, features a smudged reproduction of the sheet music from “We Are The World,” signed and scribbled on by most of the high visibility performers on the classic date.

Part 5, Life and Legacy, concludes with another photo album, this time in full color, surveying Q’s complete history.

Would it be possible to view this luxe package as a grand gesture of ego?  Sure. But ultimately, isn’t that the case with all autobiographies?  Or personal journals.  Or, ahem, blogs?  The simple truth is that Quincy Jones has been one of the iconic figures of our time – present, contributing and influential in so many ways that it’s impossible not to be fascinated by his story.

By the way, for those in the Los Angeles area, I’ll be having a conversation with Q about “The Complete Quincy Jones: My Journey and Passions” tomorrow night – Thursday, Dec. 4 – at the Barnes & Noble on 3rd St. in Santa Monica, at 7 p.m.


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