BIRD, CAB and IDRIS MUHAMMAD

Let’s see, Charlie Parker was one of the three or four best ballad players in recorded history. He was also one of the three or four best blues players in history. And then, he invented bebop. Taken in the aggregate, those are good enough reasons to justify the books that people keep writing about him. But I think we finally have something definitive: Bird, The Life and Legend of Charlie Parker by Chuck Haddix (University of Illinois Press, 2013) is the best of an odd lot of Parker books for a number of reasons. First, we have a timeline that is not only accurate but is backed up with significant documentation, Secondly, a few myths are finally put to rest and lastly, there are no lengthy passages of psycho-babble attempting to justify one theory or another.

The Kansas City period is rich in detail here. Haddix, who works at the Marr Sound Archive at the University of Missouri-KC, has addresses and historical details about the era not available elsewhere. There is a thorough discussion of the 1936 auto accident that left a sixteen-year old Charlie Parker with three broken ribs and a fractured spine. He was treated with heroin for the pain. Parker and his mother were also warned by the doctor that continued usage might cut his life short and that he might live only ”eighteen to twenty more years”. How’s that for an accurate diagnosis!
Both Ross Russell and Teddy Reig, record producers who worked with Bird, have written about him and each had his own axe to grind. There is none of that here and while it is refreshing to read about events without the attendant drama involved, some peripheral details are missing.
And there are a few bobbles;

-A lengthy story by Jay McShann about a battle of the bands, in Houston, between McShann and Milton Larkin could not have happened as described.
-The December 1945-January 1946 engagement at Billy Berg’s in Los Angeles is further obfuscated rather than unraveled. The engagement was for eight weeks: if business was so bad, why didn’t Berg negotiate out of the deal? There is no mention of the radio broadcasts from the club. Would not the Defense plant closures and high unemployment in Los Angeles have had something to do with reduced attendance?
-There is no mention of the Norman Granz Jam Session that featured Parker alongside Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges.

But what sets this book apart from the competition is the concise nature of the prose. There is no wastage here. Another fifty pages to visit some events not discussed and flesh out some others might have been valuable but I have few complaints with what we have. Sixteen photos, some common, some rare (one with Dean Benedetti, another on stage with the Earl Hines band playing tenor). Highly recommended. Alyn Shipton’s excellent biography of Cab Calloway, Hi-De-Ho which was published by Oxford University Press in 2010 is now in paperback. If you missed it the first time around, try to catch this edition. Shipton is very good on the transition from the show band, The Missourians, which Cab had at his 1931 opening at The Cotton Club to the dynamic jazz band of 1939-1941. Only Lunceford could compete with Cab during that time for the dual qualities of polished precision and jazz soloist abilities. There is considerable information on Jonah Jones which is good but not nearly enough on Chu Berry.

Shipton should have corrected mistakes such as his suggestion that Lionel Hampton cut the size of his big band in the 1940s. He actually increased it, having as many as twenty-one pieces in 1949. There is a good deal regarding Irving Mills but a suggestion that Columbia was “one of Mills’ stable of labels” is ridiculous. As is the quote of Illinois Jacquet that he was paid “$100 a bar” for writing a Stormy Weather film arrangement. For a novice arranger? In 1943 dollars? Cab cuts down to seven pieces in 1947 or ’48-there is conflicting evidence-but like other big band leaders in similar situations could and did expand to full size if a week-long theater engagement opened up. After 1949, the jazz interest tails off as Cab got more into acting. No photos and no discography although there is a list of CD reissues.

Inside The Music: The Life Of Idris Muhammad (Xlibris Corp., 2012) is an auto-biography of the great drummer. I know this artist and without question this is his voice on the page rather than an as-told-to production. Would that more autobios were this candid!
His given name was Leo Morris and he is related to the Neviiles, a premier music making family. The first two chapters are set in New Orleans and the discussion of Mardi Gras Indians is of great value here.

There were two tribes, The Guardians of the Flame and the Wild Tchoupitoulas, in his neighborhood and the description of the pecking order, common to all tribes, is welcome. Muhammad also describes following the bass drummer in a Mardi Gras parade too closely and being warned that he’d get hit with a mallet if he didn’t move away!
When he moved to New York in the mid-60s he wanted to play jazz. But the jazz guys wanted his New Orleans street beat! He came to prominence with Lou Donaldson and soon was drumming with all manner of Blue Note and Prestige artists. He was present on more than a dozen hit albums during the 1967-71 Soul Jazz era. He also joined the original cast of the Broadway show Hair. He has since made ten or twelve albums as a leader.

When things slowed down he went out with Roberta Flack or Ahmad Jamal, making each of those artists sound better because of his presence. He has been happily married to Lala Brooks, former lead singer of The Crystals, for many years. There are discussions and evaluations of projects he was involved in in a way that doesn’t happen every day. There is music business inside stuff that is of considerable value as well. No discography and unfortunately no photos but well worth it for the story he tells.