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

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.

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