REVIEW by Willard Manus
broad influence on modern jazz has been oft-documented, but "details
of his personal life have remained largely enigmatic," says Chuck
Haddix in his new book, BIRD: THE LIFE AND MUSIC OF CHARLIE PARKER (University
of Illinois Press).
"Because of his erratic lifestyle and addictions, few documents or
artifacts from his life survived," Haddix continues. "His saxophones
usually ended up in pawnshops, and the music he hastily scribbled on the
back of envelopes on the way to recording sessions disappeared afterward.
He rarely committed his thoughts to paper and was not forthcoming about
his personal life during interviews."
Haddix, author of a previous book on Kansas City jazz, does his best to
flesh out the details about Bird's personal life: he not only interviewed
numerous childhood friends of the iconic musician but managed to find
a newspaper story about his first wife, Rebecca Ruffin, whom he married
when he was fifteen and she seventeen.
The marriage, which produced a child, lasted only two years, largely because
Bird's drug use and unreliability caused strife at home. In the end, he
and Rebecca agreed that it would be best if he left Kansas City and started
a new life in another city.
Haddix's research has also turned up new details on the automobile accident
which inadvertently led to Bird's lifelong problems with drugs. While
en route to a gig in the Ozark's, the car carrying Bird and two other
musicians skidded in the rain and turned over. Bird broke three ribs and
fractured his spine. The doctor who treated him prescribed heroin to relieve
Bird's excrutiating pain.
"The doctor warned Charlie and his mother...that if Charlie kept
using heroin, he wouldn't live but 18 or 20 years more. There was the
possibility of overdosing on the stuff." Unfortunately, Bird was
unable to heed the doctor's advice. For the rest of his life he struggled
with his addiction to the drug. He died, tragically, at the age of 34,
just as the doctor had prophesized.
Haddix's biography weaves together personal details with astute insights
into Bird's musical accomplishments, which ranged from big band work to
his revolutionary experiments as a bebop musician on New York's 52nd Street.
With such sidekicks as Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and Bud Powell, Bird
took jazz to new heights and changed the sound and spirit of it forever.
Haddix's crisply written, coolly observant book is a worthy tribute to
modern jazz's tragic patron saint, Charlie 'Bird' Parker.