“Bird was kind of like the sun, giving off the energy we drew from him,” Max Roach said of the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. The sun set early for Parker, who died at thirty-four of pneumonia on March 12, 1955. He spent his last few days in a suite at the Stanhope Hotel owned by the Baronness Nica de Koenigswarter, a Rothschild heiress who was well known for her patronage of jazz musicians. He’d been watching a juggler on the Tommy Dorsey show when he collapsed. A baseless rumor spread that the baroness’s lover, the drummer Art Blakey, either shot or knocked him out in the middle of a quarrel, but Parker, who had been shooting heroin since he was seventeen, hardly needed help killing himself. He was a world-class musician, but he was also a world-class addict. His body was so haggard that the doctor who examined him estimated his age at fifty-three.
Kansas City Lightning, the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s Parker biography, never gets to the Stanhope. It covers only the first twenty-one years of Parker’s life. But each page is haunted by the demons that brought down the man known as Bird. In the richly evocative set piece that opens the book, Parker turns up late for a gig at the Savoy Ballroom with the Jay McShann Orchestra. Crouch imagines the musicians on stage asking themselves, “Why did this guy have to be the guy with all the talent?… Why did his private life have to mess up everybody’s plans so often?” This is, of course, conjecture, but it’s not unreasonable to think that Parker’s bandmates might have wished that he was more like the courtly and punctual Duke Ellington. Parker often nodded off during concerts, or vanished midway through a set. When he wasn’t playing, he was copping for heroin. He stole from his family and friends. His most lasting relationship was with his horn, which he often pawned when he was in need of a fix. Miles Davis, who worshiped Parker, called him “one of the slimiest and greediest mother fuckers who ever lived.”
But when Parker played, all was forgiven. He has often been accused of abusing his gifts, but few have denied them. As the trumpeter Red Rodney put it, Parker “could play a tomato can and make it sound great.” He was the most imaginative improviser in jazz since Louis Armstrong, and the most influential saxophonist in its history. He was not the only leader of the bebop revolution. The South Carolina–born trumpeter John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie, with whom he joined forces at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street in 1944, had an equally strong claim to leadership. Bebop, a highly syncopated, often vertiginously fast style of small-group jazz, was no single musician’s invention. A…
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