Thursday, November 7, 2013

Gary Giddins: Celebrating Bird:The Triumph of Charlie Parker - Revised with a New Introduction

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“ At Minton's Playhouse, originally the dining area of the neighboring Hotel Cecil, a new music policy had been introduced in 1939 by Teddy Hill, the erstwhile bandleader who once employed such incipient modernists as Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Kenny Clarke. He chose Clarke and the pianist Thelonious Monk to lead a house band for Monday night jam sessions, which succeeded in drawing distinguished as well as aspiring musicians. …

The young Turks were serving notice that old formulas were no longer good enough. They were in rebellion not only against the banalization of "our music" by commercial interests but also against the morass of cliches that governed so many improvisations. What they offered was not simply an elevated harmonic intricacy but rather a new articulation.”
- Gary Giddins, Celebrating Bird, pp. 72 and 74

“According to Gillespie, ‘Charlie Parker was the architect of the new sound. He knew how to get from one note to another, the style of the thing. Most of what I did was in the area of harmony and rhythm.’ It remained for the rest of the musicians in the ensemble to adapt Parker's precepts.”
- Gary Giddins, Celebrating Bird, p.76

“In an unpublished interview with Helen Oakley Dance, Duke Ellington's renowned trumpet soloist Cootie Williams called Parker ‘the greatest individual musician that ever lived," justifying his claim with the observation that’ every instrument in the band tried to copy Charlie Parker, and in the history of jazz there had never been one man who influenced all the instruments.’"
- Gary Giddins, Celebrating Bird, p. 76

Gary Giddins writes about Jazz with a tenacity of purpose that makes you feel glad that he’s on the side of the music.

Whether you agree with him or not, you gotta love his style and his passion.

The man can flat-out write and he does so with brio and bravura, especially when it comes to one of his Jazz heroes.

He almost breathes life into them as he is writing about them. [The fact that his biographies tend to be loaded with first-rate photographs is certainly also helpful in this regard].

Such was the case with his Satchmo biography of Louis “Pops” Armstrong and this miracle of manifestation is also on display in his recently published Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker - Revised with a new Introduction.

Mr. Giddins’ recounts that when he was first writing about Jazz, there wasn’t enough readily available information to help him make the connection between Charlie Parker and Charlie’s nickname, “Bird” [aka “The Bird” and “Yardbird”] until an exasperated editor exclaimed: “..., everyone knows Charlie Parker is called Bird.”

Twenty five years later, Mr. Giddins would eradicate any hints of that naiveté with the 1987 publication of his definitive Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker.

This is not a book review that purports to make any profound statements about Gary Giddins revision of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker which the University of Minnesota published in October, 2013.

The profundity is in Mr. Giddins’ well-researched and astute writing on Charlie Parker, one of the most important musicians in the history of Jazz, by one of the premier writers on the subject, not in any review of it.

What follows, then, are my personal thoughts and impressions of Mr. Giddins’ biography of Charlie “Bird” Parker; more along the lines of what I found to be interesting and instructive concerning his view of a Jazz musician whose influence I always felt, but never knew much about.

One of the main values of this book is that it tells Parker’s story in a coherent and continuous narrative; less the stuff of legends and more about the manner in which a Jazz genius came into existence.

Since the original publication of Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker in 1987, much of the information about Bird’s life has become more readily available. But Mr. Giddins’ work helps the reader “see” this information, differently.

As detailed in the University of Minnesota’s media release:

“Within days of Charlie "Bird" Parker's death at the age of thirty-four, a scrawled legend began appearing on walls around New York City: Bird Lives. Gone was one of the most outstanding jaZZ musicians of any era, the troubled genius who brought modernism to jazz and became a defining cultural force for musicians, writers, and artists of every stripe Arguably the most significant musician in the country at the time of his death, Parker set the standard many musicians strove to reach-though he never enjoyed the same popular success that greeted many of his imitator, Today, the power of Parker's inventions resonates undiminished; and his influence continues to expand.

Celebrating Bird is the groundbreaking and award-winning account of the life and legend of Charlie Parker from renowned biographer and critic Gary Giddins, whom Esquire called "the best Jazz writer in America today." Richly illustrated and drawing primarily from original sources, Giddins overturns many of the myths that have grown up around Parker. He cuts a fascinating portrait of the period, from Parker's apprentice days in the 1930s in his hometown of Kansas City to the often difficult years playing clubs in New York and Los Angeles, and reveals how Parker came to embody not only musical innovation and brilliance but the rage and exhilaration of an entire generation.

Fully revised and with a new introduction by the author, Celebrating Bird is a classic of jazz writing that the Village Voice heralded as "a celebrating of the highest order" - a portrayal of a Jazz virtuoso whose gargantuan talent was haunted by his excesses and a view into the ravishing art of one of jazz's most commanding and remarkable figures.”

An indispensable primer on the life of Charlie Parker and his music when it was first published over twenty-five years ago, this revision makes it even more so because as Mr. Giddins states:

“Charlie Parker and his peers, shoulders to the wheel, inspiration through the roof, created the bedrock of modern Jazz, its aspirations and language. We hear him more than we know.”

In each of the book’s five chapters - Bird Lives!, Youth, Apprenticeship, Mastery, Bird Lives - Mr. Giddins helps us look at Parker’s life and music in the context in which it occurred and goes to great lengths to help us “hear him.”

If you ever wondered how Bird came about?; What was it like for him at the beginning?; How did he create such a formidable, musical persona, one that influenced many of his contemporaries?; Why and how does Parker’s influence on Jazz continue to this day?: the answers to these questions can be found in the 150 pages of Mr. Giddins biography along with a detailed discography and a selected bibliography.

To give you the “flavor” of Mr. Giddins’ polished style of writing and his many astute observations about Bird’s development and significance, here are excerpts from each of the book’s five chapters:

Bird Lives!

“[Upon his death, two New York papers published Charlie Parker obituaries under the name of “Yardbird Parker.”] Posterity made up for that neglect in a hurry, not with an accurate rendering of facts but with a rush of memories, many of them self-serving, a mad pastiche of discipleship and ardent love. ‘I knew him better than anyone,’ is the most frequent pledge a Parker biographer hears. But the fairest warning he can expect is that of the far from dispassionate observer who said, ‘You will talk to a million people and you will hear of a million Charlie Parkers.’ One wonders if it is possible to peel away the Charlie Parker created in death by family and partisans, hagiographers and voyeurs, and if so, to what purpose? Would a Charlie Parker reduced to life size be more easily apprehended, understood, and admired, or even closer to the truth, than the one of legend? The one irreducible fact of his existence is his genius, which will not cater to the routine explanations of psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, or musicologists. But a basic ordering of facts, as best they can be adduced in spite of conflicting claims, may, at least, complement the music of Charlie Parker and engage the imagination of listeners who know the ravishing pleasures of his art.” [pp. 16-17]


“Without formal training, Charlie adhered to the golden rule or the autodidact: if it sounds good, it is good. Immersed in the ceremony of mastering an art for which there are complicated techniques but no absolute procedures, he worked feverishly to soak up its secrets and traditions. Despite his infrequent assertions of self he moved cautiously through the Kansas City jazz world, preparing himself not for the moment when it offered him acceptance but for when he could supersede local ritual and, fueled by everything he had learned, take flight, like Basie, like Lester. The good apprentice seeks worthy masters and accommodates their teachings in grateful humility. Buster "Prof" Smith contracted a large band for the Reno that fall, with Jesse Price and Jay McShann. He hired Charlie as second alto and took him under his wing, teaching him to shave thick reeds to project a bold, brighter sound. Charlie never missed a rehearsal, never came late. He called Smith "Dad" and visited his house for extra sessions. When the band moved up a grade to the Antlers, Parker openly emulated the older man's improvisations.” [p.49]


“Parker was achieving the kind of fluency that only the greats can claim: complete authority from the first lick and the ability to sustain the initial inspiration throughout a solo so that it has dramatic coherence. His tone became increasingly sure, waxing in volume despite the purposeful lack of vibrato. It was candid and unswerving, and it had a cold blues edge unlike that of any of his predecessors. …” [p.64]

“Parker's countless choruses on "Cherokee" were a call to arms for young players who'd been exploring similarly advanced ideas in improvisation. His technique and speed, logic and lyricism, fire and shrewdness added up to a way out of the woodshed and into the light of accomplishment.” [p. 71]


Bird flourished in the bustling, integrated atmosphere of The Street [52nd Street], engorging himself on drugs, women, drink, food, and music in any order they came. His appetite for life exhilarated his friends and made him an easy mark for parasites and pushers who dogged his steps as relentlessly as his fans. With mobsters like Frank Costello running things, Fifty-second Street was something of a safe house from the police, though not from such peculiarly American treacheries as the white servicemen who taunted black musicians on the stand or in the bars, especially when they were in the company of white women. Still, for the most part, New York was a movable feast, and Bird tasted of it fully, fusing with people of every sort and storing motley bits of information. He seemed able to discuss everything, from science to chess to politics. Just as you could never tell what he would play from one set to the next, you couldn't predict where his conversation would turn. He had a way of discerning the subjects that were of interest to people, especially young musicians. "He spoke beautifully, and he was very kind," Al Cohn said. "He could talk to intellectuals about music and art and turn around and talk to street people as though he were one of them." Pepper Adams was only sixteen when he met him in Detroit, and they became friends because of a mutual fascination with Honegger. When Birds opinions appeared in print, fans sprang into action. "After I read that he liked Schoenberg," Phil Woods recalled, "I started to listen to Schoenberg. Whatever Bird said, that was it, you had to check it out."

Yet his habit worsened, and his absences increased to the point that Gillespie was regularly making excuses and carrying the show. Genius doesn't know its own worth, Sartre wrote. By most accounts, Bird knew his, but the knowledge was never enough to still the demons.” [pp.94-95]

Bird Lives

“Despite its incalculable influence, the specific legacy of Parker's genius is known to a relatively small but international cult. Admirers wonder at the absence of civil honors (statues, streets, parks, stamps), though a more acute absence is that of adequate recognition in studies that purport to evaluate "serious" music. While the philistines guard the gates of culture, the immediacy of Parker's achievement continues to astonish. You hear him, perhaps unexpectedly, when you walk into a friend's house, on the car radio, or worked into a film score, and you are struck by the relentless energy and uncorrupted humanity of his music. It is never without direction. This most restive, capricious of men is unequivocal in his art. He never deigns to impress with mere virtuoso moonshine. He draws you in, raises you up. His ballads are stirringly candid, his fiery free flights ruled with zeal, desire, rage, love. Was he more enthralled by life or terrified by it? Dead at thirty-four, played out like a bad song, looking twenty years his senior. Yet Bird lives. Bird is the truth. Bird is love. Bird is thousands of musical fragments, each a direct expression of a time and place—a mosaic burst into radiant bits. As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker's life make little sense because they fail to explain his music. Perhaps his life is what his music overcame. And overcomes.” [p. 145]

It has been said that God sprinkles a few geniuses into each lifetime to inspire the rest of us.

Maybe it takes a genius to reveal a genius?

You get the idea.

Order information is available at and via most online retailers.

The following video tribute to Charlie Parker features him performing Ko-Ko with Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Max Roach on drums as recorded on November 26, 1945.

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