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.