Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Bird Lives

Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker by Chuck Haddix
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a marvelous biography about legedenary jazz musician Charlie "Bird" Parker, who was born and raised in Kansas City. His nickname is a shortened version of Yardbird, which is what Charlie called chickens. He liked to eat chicken, and others picked up on the name. 

Chuck Haddix tells lively stories about the saxophonist, who was known for his brilliant jazz compositions but also for his drug and alcohol use. Charlie would often disappear before a gig because he was trying to score heroin. One time he went into withdrawal while traveling cross-country, and he wandered off the train in the middle of the desert to try and get drugs. 

One of the saddest stories in the book happened in 1936, when Charlie was in a car accident while traveling to a gig in central Missouri. Charlie broke three ribs and fractured his spine. During his recovery, a doctor prescribed heroin to relieve Charlie's pain. But he soon became addicted and struggled with his heroin habit for the rest of his life. It makes one wonder how different his life might have been if he had never been in that crash. Yes, Charlie drank and smoke before then, but maybe he could have avoided a heroin addiction that ultimately ruined him and damaged his career.

However, that sad story is quickly followed by my favorite one in the book, which is how and where Charlie honed his craft. Back in the 1930s, a resort area in southern Missouri called the Ozarks was just starting to get booming, and club owners started bringing in musicians from Kansas City and St. Louis to satisfy the tourists from those bigger cities. At that time and in that part of the country, it wasn't considered safe for blacks to be traveling after dark, so Charlie and other musicians would often remain in the resort town for weeks at a time, until their contract was over. It was during one such stretch in the Ozarks that Charlie had time to really focus on his music and his playing. When he returned to Kansas City a few months later, everyone was blown away by how much he had improved.

"Charlie Parker, in the brief span of his life, crowded more living into it than any other human being. He was a man of tremendous physical appetites. He ate like a horse, drank like a fish, was as sexy as a rabbit. He was complete in the world, was interested in everything. He composed, painted; he loved machines, cars; he was a loving father. He liked to joke and laugh. He never slept, subsisting on little catnaps. Everyone was his friend -- delivery boys, taxicab drivers ... No one had such a love of life, and no one tried harder to kill himself."

When Parker died in in 1955, he was only 34. But his health had been so poor and his body was so abused by drugs and alcohol that the attending physician judged him to be 53.

Haddix lovingly describes Parker’s compositions and performances, inspiring me to look up and listen to several of Parker's songs. Some of my favorite details in the book were about Kansas City’s history, including where Charlie went to school and how he started playing music, or where the hopping nightclubs were in 1951. This would be a great gift for any jazz fan.

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