Bird, Duke and all that jazz
The greatest jazz artists emit mystique and mystery of commensurate depth. Miles Davis used his impassive cool to shroud volatile feelings from the audience after each solo while the grins of Louis Armstrong offset the blunt, piercing aggression of his horn and the occasional anger over racial injustice.
And then there were the other two significant figures of jazz's first century: Duke Ellington as a bandleader-composer of peerless breadth and prodigious achievement and Charlie "Bird" Parker as an alto saxophonist of radiant virtuosity and propulsive invention. Breaking down the particulars of their artistry is almost as daunting as breaking through their respective mystiques. Two new biographies make impressive attempts at doing both.
Neither Terry Teachout's "Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington" (Gotham, $30) nor Stanley Crouch's "Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker" (Harper, $27.99) claim to be definitive or scholarly examinations. They are life stories; in "Lightning's" case, an account of Charlie Parker's life as well as his times. And because Crouch's book is just the first of at least two projected volumes of his much-anticipated Parker biography, only the first 21 years of Parker's brief, turbulent life are covered.
As Crouch's title makes clear, those years were mostly spent in Kansas City, which, during the 1920s and 1930s of Parker's childhood and adolescence, was the crucible for a hard-driving, bluesy big-band swing whose rise to national renown would help spur the bebop revolution of the 1940s for which Parker would become a central avatar. Crouch weaves the history of the city's raucous music scene, and the political corruption that enabled it, with the more intimate and less easily accessible details of Parker's upbringing, his ill-starred teen romance with Rebecca Ruffin (one of several witnesses to Parker's early life Crouch has interviewed since the early 1980s) and his rugged musical apprenticeship, which would leave the fledgling bebop genius "possessed ... by a ravenous need to improvise, to learn new tunes, to find new ways of getting through the harmonies with materials that would liberate him from cliches."
Known for wielding rhetorical bludgeons as a columnist and cultural critic, Crouch here unwinds a looser, moreleisurely-than-expected narrative that deftly blends its digressions into musical and sociocultural history with the story of Parker's coming-of-age, a volatile combination of drug addiction, self-centered ambition and ground-level musical education. One expects Crouch to deepen the shadows and elaborate Parker's complexities in the volume, or volumes, to come.
Teachout's singlevolume biography of Duke Ellington closely resembles his 2009 "Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong" (and not just in the similar title). As with his Armstrong bio, Teachout nimbly assembles and conflates most of the available information about Ellington into an account that engrosses without illuminating the many mysteries and paradoxes of Duke's personal life. There is, for example, the nagging question of how Ellington received the scar that, seemingly out of nowhere, appeared on his left cheek in 1928. Asked about it over the ensuing decades, Ellington suavely offered multiple-choice replies, including one involving a saber duel. Teachout seems to accept the consensus that the slash was administered by a jealous woman scorned by one of the maestro's frequent infidelities. Here, as with other Ellington biographers before him, Teachout is content to let such puzzling events stand intact; after all, they make a better story.
Teachout is also good at explaining some of the things that made Ellington stand out among the other great composers of his time, jazz or classical; how he "treated the sections of his compositions as if they were separate pieces in a mosaic that could be rearranged at will." What disquiets somewhat is that Teachout's repeated assertions of Ellington's greatness as a jazz composer and orchestrator whose "true instrument" (as he, I and others have perpetually asserted) was his band seem mitigated throughout by skepticism (at best) toward Ellington's efforts at larger, more ambitious work, especially in the 1950s and 1960s, when such intriguing albums as "The Far East Suite" and "New Orleans Suite" were released.
Otherwise, it seems enough for Teachout to eulogize Ellington as "a disciplined, lyric miniaturist" who was far more effective at bringing forth such immortal standards as "Solitude," "Sophisticated Lady" and "Harlem Air Shaft." It might have been more generous -- and more encouraging to future biographers -- to leave behind as many open questions in Ellington's art as there are in his life.