Although the University of Minnesota Press publishes many brand new books every year, they are also known for reprinting long out of print classics as well. The recent Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast is one example, as is the new Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker by Gary Giddins. The first publication of Celebrating Bird was back in 1987, and the new UMP softcover edition has been revised and includes a new introduction. Whether you are a longtime fan, or merely curious about the life of this musical legend, Celebrating Bird is an excellent resource.
The word “resource” may be a bit strong as a description of Celebrating Bird. As the author notes in his new introduction, his intent was to write “an extended biographical essay.” I believe he succeeded with this concept brilliantly. Rather than being an incredibly in-depth 800-word doorstop, the five-chapter, 195-page Celebrating Bird tells the story of Charles “Yardbird” Parker’s life in a concise and highly enjoyable fashion.
Parker was only 34 years old when he died in 1955, yet his impact on jazz was seismic. In the opening “Bird Lives!” chapter, Giddins offers an overview of Bird’s tremendous legacy. The author credits Parker with bringing modernism to jazz, then states “He forced players on every instrument to face their worst fears or realize their most prized aspirations in his music.” This is followed by testimonials from such talents as Dizzy Gillespie, Jay McShann, Thad Jones, and others.
Yet Parker never received the accolades he deserved while he was alive. Giddins notes that when Life magazine published an article about bebop, Bird’s name was not even mentioned. And when Time did a story on the “new jazz,” they chose Dave Brubeck for the cover. Even at a time when hottest jazz spot in the world was a club named after him (Birdland), Parker was playing second behind Gillespie. It is a very sad reality that he did not live long enough to enjoy the acclaim that surely would have eventually come his way.
In the chapters “Youth,” “Apprenticeship,” and “Mastery,” the author lays out the path Parker took from Kansas City, MO, to New York City, and all of the influences and situations he absorbed along the way. He grew up fast and learned a lot in a very short period of time, and Giddins’ writing reflects the pace of his subject. In many ways it is the perfect way to tell the story.
The closing “Bird Lives” chronicles the final eight years of Parker’s life, mostly spent in New York. There were triumphs during the years 1947-1955, such as the opening of Birdland in 1950, and a longing to learn more as a musician. He even (unsuccessfully) applied to become a student of Edgard Varese. But the opiates eventually won out. After being given morphine as pain medication following an auto accident, Parker fell in love with the poppy and it killed him.
There is as much sadness in Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker as there is joy, because that was the life he lived. This book is a classic in its own right in every way, and won an American Book Award and an ASCAP Deems Taylor Award when it was first published. The new University of Minnesota Press edition of it is a welcome treat this season, and one of the best books about a jazz musician I have ever read.