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Jazz Sides

Yardbird blows his alto hard, fast, and revolutionary

Reviewed by Jay Trachtenberg, Fri., Dec. 6, 2013

Rock & Roll Books
Rock & Roll Books

Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker

by Chuck Haddix
University of Illinois Press,
224 pp., $24.95

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

by Stanley Crouch
Harper, 384 pp., $27.99

If there was ever a musician whose life in the fast lane personified the oft-quoted truism "If you haven't lived it, it won't come out of your horn," it was saxophonist Charlie "Yardbird" Parker. A mercurial, contradictory character, Bird's improvisational genius revolutionized not only the instrument, but arguably all of music – jazz's bebop movement of the Forties parallels punk in the Seventies – and these two books explore that extraordinary life. Chuck Haddix, a sound archivist, historian, and radio producer, offers a slender, fact-filled narrative of Parker's life, from coming of age in Kansas City's rich, Depression-era scene, to his work in Southwest territory bands, explosion on the NYC scene, and forging "bop" with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. The author doesn't shy away from the addictions and erratic behavior that led to Bird's premature demise at 34, yet this matter-of-fact accounting falls flat in the face of Stanley Crouch's far more subjective account, bursting with colorful descriptions, firsthand anecdotes, and insight. In this first of two volumes, The New York Daily News columnist and MacArthur "genius" concentrates on his subject's formative years, not only detailing life as an African-American musician during this fecund era, but tracing black entertainment evolution as it pertains to the American experience at large. Crouch analyzes jazz to that point and in doing so floridly paints a social milieu that's simply breathtaking.

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