Sunday, May 13, 2007

Chasin' the Bird

Chasin’ the Bird: the Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker
By Brian Priestly
Oxford University Press tradepaperback

Charlie Parker never recorded for a “major” label and was only filmed in performance on two occasions that we know of, and for which the video document survives. Still, he remains the personification of modern jazz. Brian Priestly examines the significance of Parker’s life lived in the vanguard of American music in the re-publication of Chasin’ the Bird.

Tragically, Parker’s name is intimately associated with heroin addiction. Priestly’s account suggests Parker was less dependent in his later years than generally believed, but his use of alcohol as a substitute took as great, or greater toll on his health.

While Parker’s struggles with substance abuse are infamous, his confrontations with the AFM musicians’ union are less not as well known. The local effectively stalled his budding career when Parker first arrived in New York, by enforcing their restrictive work rules. According to Priestly:

“opportunities were severely restricted since the musicians’ union in New York was the branch most keen on observing the rule that a new arrival must wait six months before transferring membership from his hometown.” (p. 26)

At one point in 1947, Parker’s disputes with union took a more violent turn. Priestly describes his ill-fated attempt at redress in Chicago:

“However, the black branch official Henry Gray, who had earlier acted to break Earl Hines free of a long-term contract controlled by gangster interests, on this occasion took the club-owner’s side. Pulling a gun on the Parker quintet, he dismissed them from his office, and though Charlie was all for defending himself with his fists (again foreshadowing Mingus), Duke Jordan wisely restrained him.” (p. 67)

Despite all the obstacles in Parker’s career path (some of which he bore some measure of responsibility), Parker’s musical genius would fundamentally influence the future of jazz specifically, and American music in general. Much of the general public’s collective impression of Parker in recent years, has been shaped by Clint Eastwood’s bio-film Bird. The film would be controversial with ornithologists for editorial and musically choices made by the filmmakers. Priestly identifies an interesting historical irony of the film, related to an all-star jazz tour Parker participated in with the Stan Kenton orchestra:

“Kenton recorded the arrangement Bill Holman wrote for Parker on Cherokee, as a feature for his own altoist Lennie Neihaus. Neihaus became something of a star during the brief 1950s vogue for West Coast jazz but also, by a neat twist of fate, was to be the musical director for the film Bird.” (p. 99)

Brief, but authoritative, Chasin’ the Bird has the advantage of building on an already well-respected edition published in the 1980’s. Priestly demonstrates a thorough understanding of Parker’s music, and refrains from harsh judgments when recounting the excesses of Parker’s short but dramatic life, making Chasin’ a good introduction to ornithology.