Beyond the Music of Jazz Giants Ellington, Parker

Article excerpt

Groundbreaking new biographies of jazz giants Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

By Terry Teachout Gotham Books 482 pages, $30

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

By Stanley Crouch Harper 365 pages, $27.99

1972. We are gathered at Eduardo's Restaurant on Bailey Avenue to await one of the everyday miracles of American music: the metamorphosis of the Ellington band from the rumpled, road-weary veterans they probably ought to be into the glorious living incarnation of the greatest orchestra jazz ever had, the Duke Ellington Band.

You witness it just after the band, as is its wont, plays some warm-up selections leaderless to shake off the travel dust. Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney pats off the downbeat with his right foot and the band plays some sloppy, sleepy versions of easy Ellington riff classics "C-Jam Blues" and "Perdido," just so that everyone can get fingers working and embouchres warm.

And then their leader Duke Ellington - the greatest composer and bandleader in jazz history - comes out in a pleated indigo shirt and matching bow tie, bows to us, sits down at the piano and a whole different band, quite suddenly, inhabits the tired old bodies of the men we've just seen and heard, one with alert posture, ferocious swing, the exuberance and razor-sharp ensemble roar that their leader wants to hear.

We in the audience are hearing something that had become a rarity - Duke Ellington and his band in a nightclub.

Not long after in 1974, he'd be dead. And it would fully register among some critics how privileged we were to be able to review Duke Ellington in concert multiple times (three times in my case.)

Duke Ellington was, by common assent, the most majestic figure in American jazz - certainly its greatest composer and bandleader, as excellent as the Basie and Goodman bands were. And yet rare indeed are the truly great biographies worthy of him.

Here, in one of the year's great publishing moments, are two hugely awaited biographies of two of the greatest figures in the history of jazz and, in fact, all of American music: Terry Teachout's biography of Duke Ellington and the first volume of Stanley Crouch's long-awaited biography of the most influential jazz soloist after Louis Armstrong, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. The latter is, quite literally, a book that has been more than 30 years in the making. Crouch says that he began "formally interviewing people who had known Charlie Parker" in 1981, seven years after Duke Ellington's death. They included Bird's first wife, Rebecca Ruffin, who had not been interviewed before and who turned out to be a priceless source of information throughout Crouch's book.

Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker were hugely different men. But we now know they had more than a little in common. Both were spoiled as children, particularly by their mothers. Parker, in Crouch's view, was still very much a Mama's boy when he was soaking up the music of Kansas City's premiere alto saxophonist Buster Smith in Smith's band. The young Duke, Teachout tells us, would descend from his upstairs bedroom to go to school and "deliver a little speech to his mother and his aunt. 'this is the great, the grand, the magnificent Duke Ellington. Now applaud, applaud.' "

It's what people did for most of Ellington's life. Being genuinely great and grand and magnificent didn't hurt.

But it is here that Teachout's book is as far as can be from hagiography. You can't go as far as to call it a "revisionist" biography, but Teachout is, by night, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and there is scarcely a page of "Duke" that isn't marked by the utmost in critical lucidity and detachment. That is, I think, so much the case that it is virtually impossible to find a word or even a comma or semicolon in "Duke" that comes from the unmistakable fandom that, for good or for ill, has always functioned as ground zero for jazz criticism. …