Thursday, June 15, 2006

Chasin' The Bird : The Life and Legacy of Charlie Parker by Brian Priestley (Oxford University Press, 2006) + Incurable Blues: The Troubles and Triumph of Blues Legend Hubert Sumlin by Will Romero (Backbeat Books, 2005)

There have been a score of biographies about Charlie Parker, some more reliable than others. Priestley, who wrote an excellent biography of Charles Mingus several years ago, dispenses with the more dubious Parker stories and legends to deliver a short and concise history of the man and his music. The actual narrative of the book is less than 150 pages, but when you consider that Parker only lived to be 35, that seems understandable. The book moves briskly through his childhood in Kansas City and apprenticeship in the band of jump blues legend Jay McShann and then on to the formative years of bebop. His complex relationship with Dizzy Gillespie and other musicians of the period is explored as well as his love-hate relationships with promoters and record label heads like Norman Granz. There is some discussion of his drug and alcohol addiction, because it played such a large role in Parker's life and eventual death, but that subject is handled with honesty and tact and never lowers the book to a tabloid-like tell all, but keeps the focus squarely on the music. The final third of the book is an exhaustive discography of all of Parker's known recordings, useful, I suppose to the hard core collector only, but the biographical section should appeal to anyone who is looking for a concise and well written account of Charlie Parker's brief life and career.

Romero's book, while admirably bringing attention to an unjustly overlooked musician is a bit more of a slog. While it does provide some valuable insight into the Howlin' Wolf band (Sumlin was Wolf's guitarist for 16 years) and Sumlin's subsequent solo career, there just isn't enough depth, and many of the interviews take on a superficial quality. Interviews with other guitarists and Romero's own analysis continually fall back on the fact that Sumlin is a great guitar player. He is, no doubt about it, but the book nearly becomes a love letter from a smitten fan at some points. How many times can you say "one of the greatest guitarists?" Part of the problem is just the fact that Sumlin is obviously a quiet and humble man who is not comfortable talking about his past, so the book becomes a rambling hagiography. This could have been excellent if it was edited with a critical eye and presented as a long article in a journal like Living Blues because at his best Romero writes with an easy-going fluidity that serves his subject well. And he has obviously has listened to the recordings and done much research. But there just isn't enough to warrant a book length monograph.

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