Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker

By Shanley, Steve | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2016 | Go to article overview

Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker


Shanley, Steve, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker. By Chuck Haddix. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2013. Pp. 163, photographs, notes, index. Cloth, $24.95).

Alto saxophone virtuoso Charlie Parker changed the course of jazz music in the 1940s. Nicknamed "Bird" (for his lifelong propensity to eat chicken), Parker is considered one of the principal architects of the bebop movement, a genre notable for its fast tempos, complex harmonies, intricate melodies, and an overall high intellectual demand-both on performers and listeners. Given Parkers long-established primacy in the history of jazz music, there has been no shortage of biographies covering his musical accomplishments. However, in Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, Chuck Haddix argues that many details, especially of Parker's personal life, have remained unclear in the nearly six decades since his death in 1955. Haddix offers new insight through previously unpublished primary sources and lesser-known secondary sources, and he most notably brings further clarity to details from Parker's early life and career.

Although Parker was hardly the first or only jazz musician to suffer from drug addiction, his ravenous appetite for narcotics (heroin, in particular) and volatile lifestyle were striking even in comparison to the countless other troubled jazz personalities of the 1940s. As a result, few artifacts from Parker's personal life survived. In addition, he rarely wrote his thoughts on paper and was not candid about his private life in interviews. Those closest to Parker often gave radically different impressions of the jazz legend. Haddix contends that this is not surprising given the many contradictions in Parker's life. He was a high school dropout but well-read and well-spoken. Although he abused drugs and alcohol most of his life, he preached to younger musicians the importance of sobriety. He simultaneously displayed acts of great generosity and inexplicable greed. His attempts to serve as a loving husband and father were offset by habitual philandering while performing on the road. Whereas ample recorded evidence offers a clear picture of Parker the musician, Haddix argues that attempts to capture Parker the person have not been as accurate or thorough.

Haddix lives and works in Kansas City, birthplace of Parker and one of the most important locations in the development of jazz during the 1930s. New primary sources, such as interviews with relatives, census records, and city directories, help address previous misinformation regarding Parkers family history. …

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