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  • Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Times of Charlie Parker
  • Anna Harwell Celenza
Chasin’ the Bird: The Life and Times of Charlie Parker. By Brian Priestley. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. [x, 242 p. ISBN 0-195-30464-0. $28.] Illustrations, music examples.

This book is a revised and expanded edition of Brian Priestley's earlier biography Charlie Parker (New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984; Tunbridge Wells, England: Spellmount, 1984). The first half of the book presents a concise biography (chaps. 1 through 6), followed by a chapter describing Parker's performance style and a chapter on the musician's reception in literature and film since his untimely death in 1955 at age thirty-four. The second half of the book is dedicated to a user-friendly discography of everything that has so far been made publicly available of Parker's playing. As the author himself explains "the main claim to uniqueness" in this revised version is the fact that the project "necessitated revisiting and expanding an earlier work, written at a very different time of my life." (p. vii)

Indeed, Priestly has accomplished much since his first publication on Parker. Over the last two decades he has established himself as one of the most accomplished jazz scholars writing in the English language. He is co-author of The Rough Guide to Jazz (London: Rough Guides, 2004) now in its fourth edition, the biographer of Charles Mingus and John Coltrane, and a prolific critic and reviewer for numerous magazines. He is also a noted jazz pianist and a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3. The breadth of his knowledge is undisputed, and he puts it to good use in his short, but detail-rich, study of Parker's career. The only drawback of the book is the way in which its structure disconnects the events in Parker's life and career from the creation of his legendary musical style. Priestley openly admits to recycling the whole of his 1984 biography, and it is no doubt this "quirk of not wanting to throw anything away" (p. vii) that creates a sense of discontinuity in the text.

Chapters 1 through 6 scrutinize the details of Parker's musical career: his single-minded obsession with mastering the saxophone as a teenager; his collaborations with figures such as Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, and Mary Lou Williams; and the effects that drug and alcohol addiction had on his personal and professional relationships. In all of these discussions, Priestley appears to distance himself from his subject. He avoids dissecting Parker's complex personality or contemplating his psychological struggles. Instead, he sticks to the "facts," offering a thorough documentation of Parker's gigs, recordings, arrests, and hospitalizations.

One of the most revealing aspects of Priestley's biographical survey is his discussion of Parker's intellectual interests—most notably his brief fascination with contemporary French philosophy and music. Parker's musical interests apparently reached far beyond the boundaries of America's jazz scene. While in Paris he reportedly took saxophone lessons from the classical pedagogue Henry Lindeman and was even considering composition lessons [End Page 637] with Nadia Boulanger. As Priestley explains, Parker's years in New York and Paris eventually led to a deep interest in European music in general:

His photographic mind enabled him to incorporate specific quotations from Chopin or Debussy into an improvised solo (probably only when there was someone in the audience who would understand the reference), and in interviews he mentioned his liking for Bach, Beethoven, Bartók and Shostakovitch, often naming particular works such as Milhaud's Protée or Schoenberg's Pierrot Lunaire. (p. 73) Bartók's music was especially significant, so much so that when Parker's two-year-old daughter died in 1954, he insisted that Bartók's works, not his own, be performed at the funeral service.

(p. 100)

Priestley's biographical study sets the record straight about various Parker legends and anecdotes. One of the difficulties in writing a study about Parker is separating fact from fiction. According to Priestley, the confusion over many of the details of Parker's life "is a consequence of the...


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