There are no two larger figures in jazz than Duke Ellington (1899-1974) and Charlie Parker (1920-1955). Both transformed the nascent genre and helped establish its legitimacy as an art form. Both are treated with fresh insight in two new biographies — “Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington” by Terry Teachout and “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker” by Stanley Crouch.
The books are as different as their subjects. Ellington is the composer and popular big band leader, worldly and successful, eventually honored at the White House. Parker is “Bird,” the high-flying avant-gardist, an inventor of the radical musical language of bebop — his music known mostly to aficionados — who made his mark through his playing rather than his compositions.
But there are commonalities. Ellington, too, was an innovator, looked up to by Parker and his bebop cohort, and considered a hero by the likes of Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. And both men were given to excess. For Ellington it was food, drink, and sex. He eventually moderated his consumption of the first two but never tired of pursuing women (and they reciprocated: Even into his 70s, Teachout reports, Ellington was fending off female admirers). As for Parker, whatever his other indulgences, two became fatal — alcohol and heroin.
So we have a medium-size book about a long and successful life, and a slightly shorter one covering only the early life of a man who struggled through most of his 34 years. “Kansas City Lightning” is the first of a projected two-volume biography, and it takes us only up to 1939, the year Parker arrived in New York City. It ends just short of his biggest artistic breakthroughs.
Neither book unveils significant new information. Teachout even offers the modest disclaimer that his is “not so much a work of scholarship as an act of synthesis,” largely based on the research of others. But Teachout (drama critic for The Wall Street Journal and author of biographies of Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Balanchine) seems to have listened to and read everything, including academic studies, obscure air checks, and archived oral histories. Given all that, this is an impressively lucid, compact narrative. Critic and essayist Crouch, for his part, interviewed scores of primary witnesses to Charlie Parker’s life.
Crouch’s style is unorthodox — he’s often speculative, with an aggressively idiosyncratic narrative approach, given easily to lofty metaphors, often experimenting with point of view in a novelistic manner that at times puts us inside Parker’s thoughts and feelings. Teachout’s method is more buttoned down: He limits himself to the known facts of Ellington’s life, offering his analysis of the man and his music from a third-person perspective.
Teachout presents Ellington as a hugely ambitious man who, even as he achieved success, struggled for respect — as an African American, as an artist. Again and again, we see Ellington’s legitimacy as a composer questioned — not only by the critics and musical establishment, but by his own sidemen, from whom he was known to lift a lick or melody and fashion it into an entire piece without giving credit. Even when properly credited, some of the Duke Ellington Orchestra’s most famous tunes were written by his longtime collaborator, Billy Strayhorn, including the band’s theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
Teachout clearly elucidates Ellington’s mastery as a composer. Like a lot of jazz composers, Ellington didn’t write for instruments; he wrote for players: storied names like Bubber Miley, Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton, Barney Bigard, Ben Webster, Cootie Williams, and above all, Johnny Hodges. His untutored “mosaic” method of composition, rather than a thematic approach, may have prevented him from achieving the success he sought with long-form pieces, but his mastery of an array of orchestral color and harmony was undeniable. It’s one reason he kept his expensive, often fractious band together through thick and thin: He needed to hear his pieces, and he was writing constantly.
Teachout’s analysis of masterpieces like “Mood Indigo,” “Ko-Ko,” and “Reminiscing in Tempo” are revelatory. And he gets to the heart of “the Ellington effect,” the composer’s ability to conjure original sounds with unusual voicings and structures. Analyzing the structure of the 1940 composition “Sepia Panorama,” Teachout writes: “On paper the combination makes no sense, but Ellington was never afraid to let his ear make his decisions, and what should have been a musical muddle instead sounds impeccably right.”
Crouch is rarely satisfied with mere musical description or analysis. He wants to immerse us in the historical, cultural, and musical cauldron of Parker’s hometown, Prohibition-era Kansas City. His ambitious prose swings from the heels, strains for grand statements about art, race, the American experience. Sometimes he connects, as when he describes the effect that the defeat of Joe Louis in the first Max Schmeling fight had on the black community: “The unexpected and shocking knockout affirmed the sense of universal frailty so basic to the blues sensibility, the tragic recognition that made the blues such a perfect tool against sentimentality, if not against pain itself.”
Crouch can also break down the sound of an ensemble and tell you exactly what made it sui generis to Kansas City. He can pinpoint bassist Walter Page’s unprecedented ability to coordinate the “forward pulsation” and “percussive harmony” of a band. Too often, though, Crouch devolves into abstractions, or lists of emotions: “Basie’s music traced the roller-coaster fate of the human heart: rising high, falling low, singing, joking, sobbing, reminiscing, dreaming, cursing, bragging, praying. Everything was in there.” That line can describe almost any emotive music, from a Ray Charles song to a Mahler symphony.
Ellington was bestowed with honors during his lifetime, despite the notorious snubbing by the Pulitzer Prize committee in 1965. (To which he offered the classic Ellingtonian response: “Fate’s being kind to me.. . . Fate doesn’t want me to be too famous too young.” He was 66 at the time.) Parker never did live to appreciate his eventual renown. Both these biographies will send you searching for recordings. And really, there’s no more important litmus test for a music biography. Reading these books makes you want to listen.
Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
By Stanley Crouch
Harper, 365 pp., illustrated, $27.99.