Rob McMonigal's Reviews > Chasin' the Bird: The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker

Chasin' the Bird by Brian Priestley
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Aug 03, 2007

really liked it
Read in October, 2007

Charlie "Bird" Parker was an amazing jazz player who, along with Dizzy Gillespie and others, helped form the Bop movement. Unfortunately, he was also unable to keep his addictions under control and ended up dead at the age of 34. The doctor, according to Priestley, thought he was 53 at the time of death, the drugs and alcohol had wrecked his body so badly.

This book is the story, as best as can be pieced together from sketchy sources and unreliable loves, of the talented and troubled young man who reportedly was the source used to model Woody Woodpecker's laugh. Not unlike a jazz-world version of Britney Spears, Parker went through his life getting better for a bit then going right back down the spiral again, going lower and lower with each such relapse. Frequently fired, even by Miles Davis, he went from place to place and even coast to coast trying to find a way to get better. Sadly, there seems to have been no hope for him, and no one close enough in his life to keep him away from the things that harmed him before it was too late.

Priestley does a very good job of finding a way to make sense of often sparse details, especially in the early going. Like most jazz men, Parker's early life is sketchy, as a racist society cared very little for the coming and going of African Americans near the turn of the century. Starting on an alto saxophone, he rose like a rocket through the musical scene, making it big and getting all the way to New York. But the better things got for Parker musically, they got worse personally.

The book winds its way through a pattern of getting better, playing a bit, and getting worse. Bad record deals didn't help, either, and we are lucky that so many fans taped the jazz shows they attended or so much of Parker's brief musically life would have been lost. (Granted, some of these are of dubious quality, but I am of the opinion that live music--particularly live jazz music--is the bet way to see an artist truly perform.) Jazz figures, including Gillespie, Davis, Powell, Roach, Ray Brown, Rich, and Blakey weave their way in and out of the narrative, either playing with Parker or rising above him in the popular eye due to their better control of their vices. (Davis may be the most notable of these, an addict who cleaned himself up and went on for a long and critically acclaimed career.)

It's hard at times to read this book, because it's much like reading about a train wreck--you know the destruction is coming, it's just a matter of time. Still, Priestley does a good job of not being overly dramatic with the text, laying things out as factually as possible. But when you read Parker's pleas to be allowed to perform to help his sick child, it's hard not to feel a wave of emotion like the wail of his sax.

The book ends with a brief discussion of his musical style, described as "for laymen" but was over my head as well as a bit about his legacy and a great discography. This book is just what I like in a biography--not too long, sticks to the facts, and gives you a lot of good information. Highly recommended for any jazz fan. (Library, 10/07)

Trebby's Take: A great biography.
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