Reviews by YouDoErnie
I have the utmost respect for anyone who writes a book about Charlie Parker, so the following opinions are entirely my own, and are not meant as a criticism of anybody’s hard work. To put my cards on the table, I admit that I’m more willing to give Bird the benefit of the doubt than most people. I believe there is a deep connection between Bird’s music and the way he lived his life, addictions included. Just about everybody seems to believe the two are unrelated and at odds.
The first book up for consideration is Bird Lives by Ross Russell. This is the most accessible and widely-read of all Parker biographies, and also the most problematic. Russell certainly adds to our knowledge, but there are so many outright fabrications that the book as a whole is tainted. Urged by Albert Goldman to take a novelistic approach, Russell invents fictional characters and dialogue in both Kansas City and New York. We are also privy to Bird’s inner thoughts, and those of others, throughout the book. This makes it an enjoyable read at the expense of credibility. As the founder of Dial Records, Russell was an eyewitness to history, and the detail he provides for many important recording sessions is valuable. But he also moves around the dates and locations of real events to suit his novelistic purposes and, worst of all, he fictionalizes a genuine historical figure, Dean Benedetti, in ways that are unforgivable. Given the number of well-researched biographies now available, there’s no need to sift through Russell’s prose trying to separate fact from fiction.
Celebrating Bird by Gary Giddens is above reproach factually, and it provides a good overview of Bird’s life and music, but it’s not very detailed about specific events and dates. While this makes it a relatively quick read, it’s clear that Giddens chose not to delve into every recording session or lay out a basic chronology. As a result, it doesn’t really stand on its own. To be fair, it was part of a multi-media release that included a video of the same title. My other gripe is that the information about Bird’s early life bears a striking resemblance to that which Stanley Crouch would subsequently publish in his own account of Bird’s younger years, Kansas City Lightning. This information relies on firsthand testimony given by Bird’s first wife, Rebecca., which can’t be corroborated. It’s certainly possible that everything, including the most lurid details, is true. I’m just not sure journalistic principles were followed. If Giddens and Crouch shared information that ended up published in two separate books, or simply relied on the same single source ( Rebecca), it gives the misleading appearance of corroboration.
If, on the other hand, you’re seeking the mother lode of uncorroborated evidence, then head for Bird: the Legend of Charlie Parker by Robert Reisner. Ultimately, this book may offer the most telling portrait of Bird, being a mosaic of personal recollections from a wide array of sources. There are examples here of every form of behavior, from the highest to the lowest. Some attest to Bird’s great intellect, others detail his debauchery. In any given account, he can be a mentor, a con man, a junkie, an oracle, or all of the above. It’s up to the reader to discern how credible each witness might be. This can be a very hard book to put down.
If you want a book that’s less difficult to put down, try the aforementioned Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch. There is much to be grateful for here, but you’ll get a side order of sociology that may spoil your appetite for the meal itself. There’s no doubt that Bird’s early life needed to be appraised in the context of African-American culture, so this exhaustive study is long overdue. After a while, though, I found myself skimming through the paragraphs in search of solid biographical facts. The most interesting revelation I could find is that Bird never washed dishes at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack in New York, where he supposedly listened to Art Tatum every night. If this well-worn chestnut is untrue, how many other supposed facts have been promulgated by one biographer repeating another? Let’s hope Crouch’s second volume on Bird’s adulthood vets other such clichés.
Brian Priestley’s biography, simply titled Charlie Parker, is another relatively quick overview of the main events, with interesting asides and a lot of direct quotes. It’s insightful and well written, but he also keeps a running commentary about Bird’s addictions and health, and at the end laments the “rootless confusion of Charlie Parker’s private life and waste of his undoubted intellect.” Pardon me if I’m too much of an apologist, but how much greater can we really expect Charlie Parker to be? He left behind a legacy of astonishing beauty. His music was highly intelligent and deeply moving. He fashioned bold conceptual leaps into a new musical language. What more should we expect of his intellect? And by whose standards are we judging his private life? [Note: the review is of Priestley’s 1984 book titled “Charlie Parker,” while the link takes you to the expanded 2006 edition entitled “Chasin’ the Bird – The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker”]
Bird fanatics everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to Carl Woideck for editing The Charlie Parker Companion. Subtitled “six decades of commentary“, that’s exactly what it is. Woideck has gathered together all manner of non-fiction writings about Bird: scholarly overviews, contemporaneous articles, interview transcriptions, remembrances, discographies, and more. This makes it a cousin to Reisner‘s Legend of Charlie Parker, in that you get a view of Bird’s life and music from a wide array of sources, in this case all reputable. If you were to read only one book about Bird, this would be it.