Stanley Crouch’s much-anticipated biography of Charlie Parker is finally here. Or rather, the first of two scheduled volumes has arrived, this installment bringing Bird from his Kansas City roots to the cusp of stardom and the creation of bebop in New York City. In Crouch’s hands, that relatively short period makes for a riveting read.
This certainly isn’t the first Parker biography. In fact, in September the University of Minnesota Press brought out a revised edition of one of the earlier ones, Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker,by Crouch’s onetime Village Voice colleague Gary Giddins. The two books complement each other nicely. Giddins’ is lavishly illustrated and focuses on Parker’s music; Crouch’s digs deeper into the narrative of Parker’s life, both its professional and personal sides, and pays closer attention to historical and sociological context. It’s more of a storyteller’s take than a critic’s, and so we’re given adroit sketches of jazz history, of Kansas City corruption under political boss Tom Pendergast, of boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, of Chicago post-Al Capone. We witness Parker being spoiled by his mother, and follow his courtship of and marriage to one of her boarders at age 15. We read of his better-known musical influences: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Chu Berry, Roy Eldridge. But we also witness Parker’s encounters with the more workmanlike and obscure musicians who helped shape him.