Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

Ian Penman writes:

There was a lot of racial tension around bebop. Black men were going with fine, rich white bitches. They were all over these niggers out in public and the niggers were clean as a motherfucker and talking all kind of hip shit.

Trane liked to ask all these motherfucking questions back then about what he should or shouldn’t play. Man, fuck that shit –

Bird had this white bitch in the back of the taxi with us. He’d done already shot up a lot of heroin and now –

There is a long and slightly disreputable tradition in jazz of oral biography. The ‘as told to’ voice here belongs to Miles Davis, in Miles: The Autobiography, first published in 1989 and officially attributed to ‘Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe’ (see also Lady Sings the Blues by ‘Billie Holiday with William Duffy’). Depending on mood, ethnicity, ideology, drug of choice, an oral biography can strike the reader as an authentic reproduction of voice, in all its self-contradictory rhythm and curl – or borderline racist, like some Victorian anthropologist’s respectably freaky show and tell.

(LRB 23 January 2014)

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