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Bird's turbulent flight begins in bio

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‘CHARLIE Parker’s mind moved faster, and had a greater command of detail, than that of the merely gifted," author and critic Stanley Crouch writes in the first volume of his biography of the great alto saxophonist who helped shake up the jazz world and give it a new language, bebop.

Crouch's first instalment may not have arrived with the speed of a Parker solo, but the tale it tells of a young, although very troubled, genius is worth the wait.

Crouch began researching Kansas City Lightning, The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (Harper, $32) three decades ago when key figures in Parker's life were still alive to talk about the triumphs and tribulations of the popular jazz innovator known as Bird.

Kansas City Lightning covers the first 21 years of Parker's life, ending as he was just starting to become known as a musical force to be reckoned with. He would live only another 13 years. Parker died at the age of 34 on March 12, 1955, after years of ravaging his body with alcohol and drugs.

The prodigious drug habit, as well as his relentless search for a way to present the musical ideas swirling in his "quicksilver consciousness," began when Bird was a teenager in wide-open Kansas City, the cauldron for so many great musicians and band leaders such as Jay McShann, Lester Young, Bennie Moten, Walter Page and Count Basie.

Parker began learning music in school, when he attended, and soon was out all night listening to the celebrated Kansas City blues performed by local and travelling swing bands.

His early attempts to sit in on jam sessions were humiliating, but drove the young musician to learn from his mentors by listening to the pros in clubs and from practising, practising, practising.

While his musical prowess progressed in those years, his lack of basic social skills became apparent. He fell in love with a teen girl whose family boarded in the house shared by Parker and his mother, and they carried on a normal courtship.

But soon after they married (the first of four for Parker), he began staying out all night playing and listening to music and developing a drug habit. The young saxophonist haunted the popular clubs on 12th Street and Vine with "mysterious bags under his eyes and an appearance just short of an unmade bed."

That drug habit caused him to pawn his horn, sell the tailor-made suits his doting mother gave him and ignore his wife and soon their newborn son.

When many Kansas City musicians, such as Basie and saxophonist Buster Smith, Parker's mentor, lit out for New York City, he followed suit. But Parker rode the rails, first to Chicago where he met a young Billy Eckstine, then to the Big Apple, where Smith gave him a bed to sleep on during the day as Parker spent his nights at a job washing dishes and prowling the clubs looking for inspiration and gigs.

Crouch, an author, cultural critic, a founder of the Lincoln Center jazz department and a columnist for the New York Daily News, adeptly captures not only young Parker, but the times and surroundings he grew up in.

Before giving us the Parker backstory in K.C., Crouch opens Kansas City Lightning with the McShann band with Parker onstage in Harlem in 1941, burning up the place and the other bands in the battles that drew crowds nightly to the ballrooms of the storied African American neighbourhood.

That's where we can expect the second volume, expected in a couple of years, to pick up as the meat of the story of one the most innovative, original jazz musicians of all time is told.

-- -- --

Martha Brooks' new jazz album is indeed a labour of love for the Winnipeg author and singer.

The 11 songs by lyricist Sammy Cahn are a remembrance of her husband, Brian, who died of brain cancer in November 2012.

"A song dropped from the portals of heaven into my dreams and got me out of bed to find out who was the lyricist -- Sammy Cahn," Brooks writes in the liner notes about the concept behind All My Tomorrows.

"That song, an anthem to lifelong love, is All The Way."

That was the spark for a concert of 16 Cahn tunes at the Winnipeg International Jazz Festival last June, which was recorded for the CD.

Brooks enlisted pianist Jeff Presslaff for the project and the beautiful arrangements you hear are his. Presslaff (who also produced the album), bassist Steve Hamilton and drummer Rob Siwik provide the sensitive accompaniment the material and Brooks' vocals required.

"The recording was one of those magical things; it sounds remarkably like a studio recording," Presslaff says.

The Cahn lyrics, a tight band, and Brooks' almost wistful delivery is a winning combination.

"The love we put into this was so poignant. People really connected with it," Brooks says.

The disc is available at McNally Robinson Booksellers.

 

chris.smith@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 9, 2013 D3

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