Groundbreaking new biographies of jazz giants Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker - The Buffalo News
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Groundbreaking new biographies of jazz giants Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker

Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington

By Terry Teachout

Gotham Books

482 pages, $30

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

By Stanley Crouch


365 pages, $27.99

By Jeff Simon


1972. We are gathered at Eduardo’s Restaurant on Bailey Avenue to await one of the everyday miracles of American music: the metamorphosis of the Ellington band from the rumpled, road-weary veterans they probably ought to be into the glorious living incarnation of the greatest orchestra jazz ever had, the Duke Ellington Band.

You witness it just after the band, as is its wont, plays some warm-up selections leaderless to shake off the travel dust. Baritone saxophonist Harry Carney pats off the downbeat with his right foot and the band plays some sloppy, sleepy versions of easy Ellington riff classics “C-Jam Blues” and “Perdido,” just so that everyone can get fingers working and embouchres warm.

And then their leader Duke Ellington – the greatest composer and bandleader in jazz history – comes out in a pleated indigo shirt and matching bow tie, bows to us, sits down at the piano and a whole different band, quite suddenly, inhabits the tired old bodies of the men we’ve just seen and heard, one with alert posture, ferocious swing, the exuberance and razor-sharp ensemble roar that their leader wants to hear.

We in the audience are hearing something that had become a rarity – Duke Ellington and his band in a nightclub.

Not long after in 1974, he’d be dead. And it would fully register among some critics how privileged we were to be able to review Duke Ellington in concert multiple times (three times in my case.)

Duke Ellington was, by common assent, the most majestic figure in American jazz – certainly its greatest composer and bandleader, as excellent as the Basie and Goodman bands were. And yet rare indeed are the truly great biographies worthy of him.

Here, in one of the year’s great publishing moments, are two hugely awaited biographies of two of the greatest figures in the history of jazz and, in fact, all of American music: Terry Teachout’s biography of Duke Ellington and the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s long-awaited biography of the most influential jazz soloist after Louis Armstrong, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker. The latter is, quite literally, a book that has been more than 30 years in the making. Crouch says that he began “formally interviewing people who had known Charlie Parker” in 1981, seven years after Duke Ellington’s death. They included Bird’s first wife, Rebecca Ruffin, who had not been interviewed before and who turned out to be a priceless source of information throughout Crouch’s book.

Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker were hugely different men. But we now know they had more than a little in common. Both were spoiled as children, particularly by their mothers. Parker, in Crouch’s view, was still very much a Mama’s boy when he was soaking up the music of Kansas City’s premiere alto saxophonist Buster Smith in Smith’s band. The young Duke, Teachout tells us, would descend from his upstairs bedroom to go to school and “deliver a little speech to his mother and his aunt. ‘this is the great, the grand, the magnificent Duke Ellington. Now applaud, applaud.’ ”

It’s what people did for most of Ellington’s life. Being genuinely great and grand and magnificent didn’t hurt.

But it is here that Teachout’s book is as far as can be from hagiography. You can’t go as far as to call it a “revisionist” biography, but Teachout is, by night, the drama critic of the Wall Street Journal and there is scarcely a page of “Duke” that isn’t marked by the utmost in critical lucidity and detachment. That is, I think, so much the case that it is virtually impossible to find a word or even a comma or semicolon in “Duke” that comes from the unmistakable fandom that, for good or for ill, has always functioned as ground zero for jazz criticism. That is so often the case that one often suspects Teachout finds Ellington’s self-centered and vehemently enigmatic nature more annoying than tantalizing. And that he finds his immense appetites (for food and women especially) less than sympathetic (“Underneath his soigne exterior, Ellington was a self-centered hedonist who lived a nomadic existence in which everything was subordinated to his art – and, in so far as possible, his pleasure.”)

The result, I think, of giving no quarter to fandom of any sort, may be the definitive Ellington biography thus far. It is especially valuable in its patience and exactitude with what remains the most controversial, even dubious of Ducal proclivities, his lifelong habit of appropriating others’ work as his own. It was a commonplace of Ellington “collaboration” that the wondrous imaginations of his men would wind up in the compositions that proved his genius. It went back at least to Bubber Miley’s contribution to “East St. Louis Toodle Oo” which Ellington, initially, took full credit for. What Barney Bigard created became the most important part of “Mood Indigo,” and Juan Tizol’s initial minor-key theme is the reason generations of jazz musicians have loved improvising on “Caravan,” not Ellington’s somewhat hackneyed and ordinary major key bridge on the tune.

When Billy Strayhorn joined the band as Ellington’s alter ego, his genius for absorption and indeed co-option became a way of life and an immense challenge to critics, listeners and other musicians – all to the greater glory of the band itself in its best years, but a continual enigma to anyone chained to Romantic individualistic Western notions of authorship and artistic creation. From the beginning, Ellington’s band were the collaborators who enabled his genius to flower and who could have never approached such accomplishment on their own.

That is why he was so legendarily lax as an employer, even to the point of carrying with the band some of the most renowned substance abusers in jazz who were jokingly called “the air force” by insiders (Ray Nance and Paul Gonsalves), men who could sometimes wind up brushing up against the law for their addictions.

Teachout is especially painstaking in separating out as many threads as possible in Ellington’s reputation for taking credit for other’s work. To his eternal credit, Teachout is no less exacting about his own definitive biography which, he says, is “Like ‘Pops’ my 2009 biography of Louis Armstrong’… not as much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis, a narrative biography of Louis Armstrong that is substantially based on the work of academic scholars and other researchers who in recent years have amassed a wealth of information about Duke Ellington and his colleagues.”

Stanley Crouch’s “Kansas City Lightning” is an almost diametric opposite of Teachout’s book, one whose great, indeed historic, glory is original research, its interviews with Parker friends from boyhood on about the first half of his life in Kansas City.

Charlie Parker lived less than half as long as Duke Ellington, but in his 34 years on earth influenced every soloist on every instrument who came after. We learn from Crouch that he was only 15 when he first encountered the drugs that swallowed his life outside of music. Morphine came first before heroin. Says Crouch, the stories in K.C. are that there was a woman “known as ‘Little Mama’ who worked as a nurse or in some similar capacity at a Kansas City hospital and who, legend has it, introduced the musician to hard-core dope. Little Mama is said to have been small, dark-skinned, nicely proportioned and vivacious. If Charlie Parker’s drug struggles began with her, that would make her a female counterforce to the power of (his mother) Addie Parker.”

I’m not sure how much credence to give Crouch’s subsequent theory that Parker’s addictions owe much to his affection for Sherlock Holmes stories (his quote of the opening of Doyle’s “The Sign of Four” is indeed telling), but it wouldn’t be a book by Stanley Crouch if it didn’t court controversy brazenly and take frequent risks with stylistic excess.

When they pay off, those risks can result in passages that are stunning. Parker’s alto saxophone genius never quite found the warm spot in jazz fans’ heart that even Coltrane, Monk, Miles and Mingus sometimes uncomfortably did. (The affection with which Miles Davis’ prickliness is almost always perceived is one of the most paradoxical of American jazz facts.)

You can’t find a better explanation of that, I don’t think, than Crouch’s description of the style that Charlie Parker looked for and found. “He needed pitches that come out of the horn quicker, that were as blunt as snapping fingers when the inspiration demanded. His tone was absolutely unorthodox, as much like a snare drum or a bongo as a voice.

It was assertive, at times comic or cavalier, and though often sweet, it could also sound almost devoid of pity. One trumpeter thought it sounded like knives being thrown into the audience.”

Two of the most important books, to be sure, of 2013.

Jeff Simon is the News’ Arts and Books Editor.

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