Review: Biographies bring jazz giants Ellington, Parker to life

Biographies of two jazz greats offer nuance and complexity. Just like jazz music itself.

Some books make me wish they came with sound tracks. Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington and Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker are both that kind of book.

These two new biographies of giants of 20th century American music focus on the mid-century decades that saw an explosion of creativity and interest in jazz, and their authors' passionate evocations of that music had me reaching for YouTube or iTunes every few pages.

Both books were written by men who are notable critics and jazz enthusiasts. Duke is by Terry Teachout, an accomplished music and drama critic, author of biographies of Louis Armstrong and George Balanchine and himself a jazz musician. It's a full-length biography of the man born Edward Kennedy Ellington in 1899 in Washington, D.C. Grandson of a slave and son of a butler, he grew up to lead one of America's most popular orchestras, compose more than 1,700 pieces of music and receive the Medal of Freedom from President Richard Nixon.

Kansas City Lightning is by Stanley Crouch, a wide-ranging cultural critic, MacArthur "genius" fellow and founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center. His subject is the alto saxophone player Charlie Parker, known as "Bird," one of the creators of the revolutionary style called bebop and a tragic figure whose arc of talent was cut short when he died at 34 after years of substance abuse. This book is the first of two volumes on Parker and takes him only to 1941, barely out his teens. (The second volume is set to be published in two years.)

Despite their markedly different styles and life trajectories, Ellington and Parker had some things in common. They were the adored only sons of strong-willed mothers — both authors use the word "prince" to describe their subjects as boys — and had white and American Indian ancestors as well as black ones. Both focused early on music, dropping out of high school to play professionally. And, of course, both struggled to achieve respect and success as black men in an overtly racist society.

Ellington was born into a middle-class family where representing his race with dignity was a lesson drilled into him from infancy. It was one of the factors that fed his perfectionism and his acute consciousness of public image — Teachout quotes cornetist Rex Stewart describing Ellington walking out on stage at one concert in a salmon-and-gray custom-tailored ensemble that caused the audience to cheer for "at least two minutes" before a note was played.

Teachout explores Ellington's personal life, which was earthier and more turbulent than his always elegant on-stage manner, but Duke is really a biography of a band, the Duke Ellington Orchestra, peppered with mini bios of its many eminent members over the years. It is also a fascinating account of how those musicians became Ellington's own "perfect instrument." He played piano, of course, and beautifully, but what he really played was the entire orchestra, not just staffing and conducting it but composing almost everything its members played, and doing so in a way that was remarkably fitted to each musician's talents, especially its "murderer's row of soloists."

Indeed, Ellington's compositions often began with a soloist's riff, a bit of music he heard, remembered and expanded into an entire song. Sometimes he shared credit with the musicians, sometimes he bought the rights from them for a few dollars, and sometimes he just shut them out — a practice his players viewed with a range of attitudes, from stoic shrugs to angry departures.

The most complex of his collaborative relationships, and one Teachout explores in depth, was with Billy Strayhorn. The musical prodigy — he wrote his classic song Lush Life when he was all of 18 — was 23 when he met Ellington and soon became not only a brilliant collaborator and protege but a sort of second son to the Duke. That intense relationship would continue for almost 30 years, until Strayhorn's death in 1967 from cancer, even though Ellington repeatedly took credit for Strayhorn's work, and Teachout thoughtfully speculates on why Strayhorn never struck out on his own.

Wherever his ideas sprang from, Ellington was obsessed with writing music, often at the expense of his personal relationships. He always aspired to write in longer forms — symphonies, musicals, ballets — although his attempts to do so met with varying success, and Teachout is perceptive about why.

Despite his ease at creating a public image, Ellington was finally a deeply guarded man, and even as thorough a biography as Duke can't completely pierce that veil. But Teachout gives us a rich portrait of the man, his music and his era.

Crouch's style in Kansas City Lightning is as different from Teachout's as Parker's is from Ellington's. Duke is mostly linear and chronological, but Kansas City Lightning reflects its subject's musical style, riffing and circling, expanding a theme and then taking a sharp turn. Not every writer could pull it off, but Crouch does.

Parker was born in Kansas City, Kan., in 1920, and his family moved across the river to Kansas City, Mo., soon after. But Crouch doesn't begin the book with that; instead, he opens with a Kansas City big band called the Jay McShann Orchestra, with a 21-year-old Parker on sax, traveling to Harlem for a 1941 performance at the Savoy, with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk in the audience, where Parker's solo on Cherokee just about tears the place down. It's a glorious evocation of time and place, as well as of Parker's imminent success, and it's what the rest of the book will point toward.

Parker is a more difficult subject for a biographer because his life, especially his early years, is simply not as well documented as Ellington's. The latter was interviewed countless times and wrote an autobiography, Music Is My Mistress. Parker spoke for himself mainly through his instrument.

Crouch finds many other sources, of course, most prominently Rebecca Ruffin, Parker's first wife. They met when her family rented the second story of the Parkers' home; they were sweethearts from the start and married when he was 15 and she 18. Her account of their relationship is bittersweet, as young love and a baby son are eclipsed by Parker's increasing obsession with his music — he developed his distinctive style by practicing for 11 or more hours a day — and, after he was injured in a car crash, his addiction to morphine (and later heroine).

Parker's personal life often recedes before Crouch's interest in larger context, both musical and historical. The book offers a detailed course on black music, from its African roots through marching bands and minstrel shows, field hollers and ragtime, showing the complex influences that shaped Parker's style, not to mention such jazz greats as Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young and Buster Smith.

Crouch places Parker in the stream of American history as well, going back as far as the Spanish conquistadors' search for the Seven Cities of Gold and moving through the wild frontier days of Kansas City and its equally wild character during the 1920s, when corrupt political boss Tom Pendergast ran the place, to the Great Migration that took 6 million black Americans from the rural South to every other corner of the nation in several waves across the 20th century.

All those digressions, though, come back to the main theme: Bird. He is an even more enigmatic subject than Ellington, but one who catches the imagination, as when Crouch describes one of his early performances in the cutthroat competition of the Kansas City music scene: "He was a skinny teenager with a horn held together with rubber bands and cellophane, and he was surrounded by men twice his age or more. They were merciless, and they didn't mind making you look like a fool." Parker blows it — gets gonged off the stage. " 'It's all right. I'll be back.' But Charlie Parker didn't come back — not for a long time, not until he was sure he would never be so wrong again."

Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.