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Celebrating Bird: THE TRIUMPH OF CHARLIE PARKER by Gary Giddins (Beech Tree/Morrow: $15.95; 128 pp., illustrated)

December 21, 1986|Art Seidenbaum | Seidenbaum is editor of The Times' Opinion section.

Charles Parker Jr., better known as Charlie and often known as Yardbird or just Bird, was a founding father of a modern jazz called bebop or rebop or just bop. Along with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk, alto saxophonist Parker changed the diction and accents of America's music in the early 1940s; and their manner of musical speaking has influenced jazz ever since.

Gillespie was the showman with the pumpkin cheeks, the beret and the little goatee to amuse the audiences that might not understand the new complicated music. Monk was the reticent, rarely speaking composer who hid under a hat when appearing in public. Parker had no distinguishing physical marks; he was the player, "the architect of the new sound," according to Gillespie as quoted by author Giddins. Parker was also the junkie--the four-times-married, hard-drinking, overdosing virtuoso who was dead by 1954 at age 34.

"Celebrating Bird" is a tribute, in photographs and text, to Parker's gift and grief. Giddins knows the music and the sources and as much of the story as survivors make available. He is at his best when arranging the elements of a short sonic life. He sometimes improvises beyond the rigors of biography: "Yet Bird lives. Bird is the truth. Bird is love. Bird is thousands of musical fragments, each a direct expression of a time and place--the mosaic burst into radiant bits."

Well, translating harmonic sound in simple print has always been an almost impossible chore; publisher Morrow has arranged for a videotape and record album to accompany the book. Translating what went so wrong for so talented an artist is also almost impossible. Was Parker troubled because he grew up in a broken Kansas City home and married at 16? Was he haunted by racism in a culture where black men, artists or not, sat in second-class seats? Was he the victim of a wandering life built around bad hours and bandstands? Giddins tells us the events--the rousing recorded triumphs of the late '40s, the terrible deterioration of the early '50s--but no one can put exact words to the agony that so often accompanies acclaim. "As with Mozart," concludes Giddins, "the facts of Charlie Parker's life make little sense because they fail to explain his music."

Read about Parker and remember the dissolution of Scott Fitzgerald drinking his way to early death, or Ezra Pound going mad or Jackson Pollock committing suicide. Superior talent and self-destruction are a song as old as the oldest arts. There is a historic dilemma here: Does the great gift grow out of hardship and hard times, or does a great gift mean other elements of life must suffer? Or without chicken-egg arguments: Does the gift exist independent of the times--and even the person who offers it?

Jazz has its own special breed of followers who like to celebrate its seriousness, complexity, improvisational originality--followers who also like to complain about its relative lack of popularity, acceptance, authority. Yet popularity, when and if it comes, troubles the followers. Giddins writes about Parker's unhappiness when Dave Brubeck--white, classically trained--became Time magazine's cover symbol of the new jazz. The special followers were troubled, too. They wondered whether Brubeck had become "commercial" and whether he was still worth their worship. The trouble is that most people who profess to love jazz love to think of themselves as members of a minority, insufficiently accepted for their seriousness, complexity and originality.

Giddins may write about the "renaissance" happening at crowded cellar saloons on 52nd Street in New York during the '40s, where Gillespie or Miles Davis or Max Roach was refining the new form in places named the Three Deuces or Onyx or Spotlite. Then he may berate the outside world for not paying attention, for not properly recognizing Charlie Parker until after his death. Jazz admirers, like jazz musicians, want love and want to be elite at the same time.

Bird's story is full of incidents suggesting that he wanted love and that he gave love, too. He was a musician who urged other musicians to embrace his music but not his addictions. He had white friends as well as black ones. He was generous to young players. He was gracious in praise of such older alto soloists as the late Johnny Hodges.

Giddins gives the man his due. He doesn't spare the degeneration. He offers a good discography, listing the Charlie Parker records still available. Those recordings, sometimes played locally on FM stations KKGO and KLON, are the best examples of Parker's contribution and continuance--echoes of the life, unmuddled by attempts to unravel it.

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