Dec 5, 2011

Review: "Yardbird Suite," by Lawrence O. Koch

Lawrence Koch’s “Yardbird Suite: A Compendium of the Music and Life of Charlie Parker” combines several aspects: biography, annotated discography, psychological speculation, and musical analysis; these aspects are integrated into a chronological narrative of Parker’s life. This book is invaluable to any musician who wants to understand the man who, more than any other individual, was responsible for modern jazz. Following are some comments about each of these facets of “Yardbird Suite.”


It’s a tricky thing, writing a biography of Charlie Parker. As an artist, Parker created an enduring musical language that was optimistic and joyful, as well as intellectually brilliant. In this respect, he was an exemplary human being. But at the same time, his substance abuse problems made him an awful role model, damaged the lives of others, and degraded the public image of jazz. How can a biographer convey the beauty and brilliance of Parker’s contribution, while acknowledging the realities of his personal life? Clint Eastwood’s film, “Bird,” attempted to do this. I remember leaving the theater with a feeling of depression. To me, that meant that the film had failed.

Koch manages to negotiate this problem well. He does not avoid the factual details of Bird’s life, but attempts to place them in proper perspective by making some psychological speculations, and more importantly, by simply focusing far more on the music.

The personal details of Parker’s life are generally drawn from other biographies, but are selected and presented in a way that Koch intends to be as accurate and succinct as possible. Occasionally, he discusses “Bird stories” that he finds factually dubious.


Virtually every Parker recording that had been documented at the time the book was written is discussed, both in the frame of historical narrative and in musical terms. Koch offers his opinions on each recording's relative artistic merit, and suggests which recordings he considers to be more (or less) essential. He lists Bird’s musical quotes in detail; I rather enjoyed that.

In the descriptions of the recording sessions, you will find information and perspective on just about any Parker recording that you may own.

Psychological speculation

I’m not qualified in any way to evaluate Bird’s mental state or motivations, or to evaluate Koch’s comments in this regard. But he offers his opinions, and to me they do not seem particularly out of line. Koch speculates that a lack of discipline in Parker’s early life led to his pattern of self-indulgence as an adult, and that his self-destructive tendencies were due to a conflict between the self-indulgent side of his personality and the higher, artistic side. You’ll have to read this book for yourself to see if I’m paraphrasing it properly.

Musical analysis

This, to me, is the book’s greatest strength. Besides the musical comments throughout the book, there is a 32-page appendix that presents an excellent study of the elements of Parker’s compositional/improvisational style. Topics include: Use of the b6, Use of the Major Scale, Treatment of the Dominant, Substitute Chords, Shifting Harmonic Accents, Superimposition, Blues, and so forth - 17 subjects in all. The appendix concludes with a transcription and bar-by-bar analysis of Bird’s solo on “Embraceable You.”

Personally, and as an ornithologist myself, I agree with most (not all) of Koch’s analytical comments. My disagreements are on the level of minor quibbling. (One quibble concerns his tendency to ascribe chordal thinking [substitutions, interpolations] to virtually every note, where I’d guess that Parker’s thinking might in some places be better explained as employing tension notes, neighboring tones, and passing tones.)

Koch’s writing style is personal and informal, rather than scholarly; this is appropriate, as the book includes a fair amount of personal opinion along with the biographical narrative and musical analysis.

The advertising blurb that you’ll find on Amazon and elsewhere doesn’t really do this book justice. It’s OK until it promises “stories of Parker’s eccentric behavior, sexual appetite, drug addiction, and compulsive drinking.” That sentence seems to have been intended to help sales, but aside from a few well-known incidents, this book doesn’t really deliver prurient details. It’s actually a well-researched book by a musician, directed primarily at other musicians, that delivers a respectful biography and quite a bit of musical insight. If you’re a jazz player, it’s a must-read.

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