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No Ordinary Biography of No Ordinary Man,
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This review is from: Kansas City Lightning (Kindle Edition)
This biography is more a work of modern art than a documentary. Like most modern art, at first glance many of us will say, "What is he trying to do here." I had the same feeling when I first heard a recording of Charley Parker. So I guess it is fitting that his biography reads the same way. It is not that Stanley Crouch does not know how to write - this is far from his first book on Jazz, or African American History, or many other subjects. Therefore, I must assume he writes this way - flowery excess language, wide forays from the subject into related subjects, then return to the story line, like the jazz player, who leaves the melody to return later after many embellished variations.
To understand the storyline or "tune" of this biography, read and memorize Chapter One. It culminates in a New York radio session with Jay McShann's band, recently arrived from Kansas City for a second try at the big time, this time with young Charley Parker - who had not yet shown up for the gig. As the band finished swinging some preliminary tunes and were ready to swing into Charley's now trademarked "Cherokee" everyone held their breath. Charley was well into his second trip with the big H and prone to show or not show. As he finally walked in there was a collective sigh of relief as the band kicked into Cherokee and Charley proceeded to blow the roof off with high velocity rips through complex chord changes, the likes of which no one there or in radio land had ever heard before from a saxophone. This was the pinnacle to which the rest of the book climbed in a winding back and forth path - including grade school, high school band, domineering mother, childhood girlfriend whom he married, Kansas city in prohibition jazz club Prendergast days, Charlie's embarrassing rejections from his early tries to join KC jam sessions, his incredible determination to learn the sax, involving up to 15 hours a day practice. In later years, his dedication to find his own sound, resulted in leaving his wife and baby to go to New York and continue his search. It was amazing to me to find that this supposed musical genius had so much trouble, and not just with drugs, as has been highly reported, but with his music, which he worked on constantly (reminding us of what Edison said about inspiration and perspiration).
After winding through Parker's many disappointments, with numerous forays into such things as African and Native American history, history of the railroads, and, of course, history of jazz, the Author takes Parker riding the rails to New York where he finds a guitar player of kindred spirit (Biddy Fleet) and they spend much time practicing complex chord changes. As he comes to that pinnacle experience and the end of the Story, Crouch picks another note in the chord of the tune and says: "During his most satisfying bandstand experience, Charlie Parker knew what every talented jazz musician has, before and after: how to listen and hear, instant by instant, and how to respond to that instant, gone now and never to return."
The last twenty percent of the book is about Stanley Crouch, his family history, his many interviews to write this book (which he claims took 30 years), and the many footnote comments (indexed by page, so hard to locate on an e-reader) - that is where we find hidden the reason for Parker's nickname, "Yardbird, or Bird". There is nothing about Bird's further career, his hooking up with Dizzy and inventing Bebop, or his move to California, relapse into drugs and drinking, time spent in the Camarillo mental hospital, recovery, more recordings, then relapse and death. For this part of Parker's life, another book (or Wikipedia) will be required. However, for this reader, who lived not too far from Kansas City when Bird was there but knew nothing about him then, the detailed description of what went on with the Kansas City Jazz scene in those days was very interesting. Crouch's writing style was often as hard to follow as Bird's music. But if you like modern art and you like jazz, you probably will like this book.