Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker
by Gary Giddins
Originally published in 1987, Gary Giddins’s no-nonsense biography of the transformative alto saxophonist Charlie (“Bird”) Parker was re-published in 2013 with some minor additions, including a new introduction. Last month’s lecture on Parker, delivered by Dr. Nathan Jorgensen and co-presented by the Seacoast Jazz Society and the Portsmouth Music & Arts Center (PMAC), prompted the feature of this enduring volume—either edition—in our Jazz Library column this month.
One of the co-founders of bebop in the ’40s, Charlie Parker had an influence on modern jazz, and indeed on every jazz musician who came after him, that cannot be overstated. And yet, remarkably, when Life Magazine published a feature article on what was then the new music of bebop, Charlie Parker’s name never came up. And, later, when Time published a cover article on modern jazz, it was the image of Dave Brubeck that graced the cover. The Giddins biography, however belatedly, gets it right, documenting unsentimentally Bird’s seismic impact on jazz, crediting the saxophonist with modernizing jazz, advancing it beyond the swing and dixieland jazz that preceded it.
The life story of Charlie Parker, though, as much as it is a story of artistic genius, is equally about the man’s long addiction to heroin and, later, also to alcohol. There is no doubt that it was his addictions that ended his life in 1955 at only 34 years old.
While Celebrating Bird avoids romanticizing Parker’s story, it is in no way an overly academic volume either. At Giddins’s skilled hands, we learn of Bird’s early influences and experiences, both good and bad. We learn of his commitment to achieving excellence in his playing, his long hours of practice, his breakthroughs as he unravels the secrets that allow him to play what he’d been hearing. We learn too the details of his struggles with heroin and alcohol, the effects of both on his brain, about his hospitalization for addiction, and finally of his death.
Gary Giddins is a jazz critic and author and a longtime columnist for The Village Voice. In addition to his biography of Charlie Parker, he also has written biographies of Louis Armstrong and Bing Crosby. He has received six ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Peabody Award.
Giddins is also the producer of a documentary film that’s based on the biography and also named Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker.