Crouch has certainly done his research, a good deal of it deriving from oral testimony. The opening section on the Jay McShann's arrival at the Woodside in Harlem, with young Charlie Parker on alto, is pretty much worth the price of the book on its own. Every sentence is a gem:
"The rest of the country may have been gearing up for war, but these musicians, known as the Jay McShann Orchestra, had been at war most of their lives. They were jazzmen, and that meant fighting with many a rival band for the affections of the dancers, and fighting with other individual musicians and aggregations for a place in the world of music- whether second chair or first chair, local fame or national recognition... The point was to work at it and think about it and think about it until you'd produced a tone as recognizable as the texture of your own voice. Just as an outstanding individual has a walk, a way of carrying the body through space, or a way of adding unique particulars to a dance, an outstanding player had to work till he developed his own phrasing, his own rhythm. Like a cook who can reinvent a familiar meal, he had to know how to mix his own musical batter, how to balance his own spices, how to fry an idea on one side before turning it over. All those things formed your style and style was what led to recognition. It was the difference between being an artisan and an artist."
Because there are blank spots in Bird's day to day Kansas City life, Crouch is left to improvise on what he has uncovered or suspects. And he manages to improvise admirably. This is particularly the case regarding Bird's initial visit to NY. Though that period remains sketchy, Crouch points out that during that time Bird managed to stay drug free, though perhaps he felt he had to lest he trade his music for a life of crime. Still, the paucity of information doesn't stop Crouch from riffing on his subject, while deploying some stylish prose:
"By the time Charlie Parker arrived in New York that winter, he'd been wearing his shoes so long that his feet and legs were swollen out of shape. He had come the hard way, freezing in boxcars between towns, getting a roof over his head and breakfast from the Salvation Army, then taking to the rails again. But he took the bumps, scrapes and pricks of his journey in stride, because he'd finally gotten to the place at the far end of the country where he wanted to be. Slight or acute, pain was a traveling partner by now. He'd learned the weight that hypocrisy and chaos brought to his sense of life, how it felt to be alone and the target of contempt; how to bear the soreness that came with mastering his instrument..."
Of course, Crouch has much information here that will be new and illuminating to those familiar and unfamiliar with Bird's biography. But Crouch moves from the particular to the general, interpreting Bird, and sounding fairly convincing in the process:
"There was a high-minded, contemplative side to Charlie, too, a habit of wondering how things would feel if the world were vastly different. As fascinated as he was by innovation and invention, he was more intrigued by the inspiration behind the invention- by how some human mind thought of each new idea. He recognized that thought was a pure thing not impeded by social circumstance. It had independent power. A C scale was a C scale, no matter who played it or why, which gave those notes- any notes- a spiritual quality. That's why the bandstand was a sacred place, and why it would have been difficult to ascertain much about the social conditions of the 1930s by listening to the Negro musicians of Charlie's era. They didn't evade life when they performed, whether in public or private; they entered its condition of freedom through their craft, discipline and inspiration. In the pure universe of musical tone, they were able to express themselves as exactly who they were, not as the limited icons that others, black or white, might mistake them for."
Parker's elusiveness even extends to the date and circumstances of his first known recording- Body and Soul/Honeysuckle Rose (see the clip below). A private recording from either 1939 or 1940, location unknown, on which Bird plays unaccompanied. It's there that Crouch ends the book, suggesting, with that recording, that something monumental was about to take place: "Parker, the young talent, was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was his and his alone." One thing for sure, this book will make you want to dust off or acquire recordings by the Blue Devils, Bennie Moten, Buster Smith, Jay McShann, and, of course, Bird. It also made me want to go back to some of the old school critics, like Albert Muarry and Ralph Ellison, not to mention Langston Hughes. Based on this volume- another is in the pipeline- Crouch's combined book looks certain to be, if not the definitive Bird biography, one of the best biographies of a jazz musician you are likely to read in this or any other year.