Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

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Bird Lives: On Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning

From roughly the end of World War II to the publication of On The Road, there was no more emulated musician in the world of jazz than Charlie “Bird” Parker. His ability to live on the edge of utter disaster while dishing up exhilaratingly lyrical, fantastically complex solos night after night became the stuff of legend. The undisputed master of Bebop, which was at one time the hippest, fastest, most complex version of jazz one could hear. There’s a reason why jazz is often regarded as one of the most challenging musical genres around. Playing it well means that one must invite and then master a certain kind of aesthetic risk.

A jazz musician is, in a sense, a kind of acrobat. We listen, whether we realize it or not, for how well they can handle themselves as they maneuver high up on the thinnest of wires, balancing order with chaos, with the whole band cooking behind them and the crowd watching as they try to claim a freedom both emotional and aesthetic that exists for, maybe, a few minutes at a time, night after night, until they drop. For an impressively long stretch of time, Parker was the finest — and most precarious — acrobat in town.

Everybody, it seems, wanted to either play with him or play like him. The young Miles Davis, barely out of his teens and never one to run with the herd, dropped out of his first year at Julliard to be his sideman, making a brilliant series of recordings as a full-fledged member of his band. Writers and artists from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to the Beats to Julio Cortázar to Jean-Michel Basquiat have paid homage to the manic brilliance of Parker’s art and life. Usually it‘s wise to try to separate an artist‘s personal peccadilloes from the meaning of their aesthetic achievement. The story of Charlie Parker, however, is pretty much always going to be entwined with the legend and for good reason.

I submit that the kind of place Parker holds within jazz tradition is a little like what you would get if you mixed Beethoven with Jimi Hendrix. He was a game changer. After him, the deluge. This might sound a bit hyperbolic, but there were few musicians at the time who could match the mercurial exuberance of his playing with the intricate technical understanding he brought to the saxophone every time he raised it to his lips. It should go without saying that Charlie Parker played the blues as few have before or since. In his autobiography, Miles Davis told how he and his bandmates spent the better part of a week preparing for a major concert, meticulously figuring out the set list and what key to play each song in, anxiety building over just where exactly Bird was and whether or not he’d make it to the show on time. Finally somebody found him, cleaned him up, and shoved him out into the performance without anything much in the way of a rehearsal. He played every single song in the proper key, of course, while adding a few of his own, piling chords and harmonic interventions with improvisational flights of fancy, utterly stunning everyone who tried to follow along. The really scary part is that this wasn’t an isolated incident — this kind of thing seemed to happen all the time. Small wonder that Parker’s music led to such an obsession with his enigmatic life.

In some ways, Stanley Crouch is the perfect candidate to write Bird’s biography. He’s been one of the boys on the beat of American culture for quite some time, with a Macarthur grant, several provocative essay collections, and a fine novel to his credit. Even better, Crouch has been one of the precious few public intellectuals to valorize jazz and insist and demonstrate how jazz can be seen as not only one of the pure products of America gone crazy but also its historic pulse, its backbeat, a trope that swings. One of the themes Crouch emphasizes is reflected in a quote from the Austrian novelist Hermann Broch: “the civilization of an epoch is its myth in action.” This insight is useful not only in giving a background for Parker’s eventual triumph and decline but also in showing how his music promised a certain kind of freedom one might have felt at a certain time and place, if you were willing to let it take you over. It’s the kind of democratic promise implicit in what they used to call American classical music, with collective improvisation and individual expression put in constant interplay, an offspring of the blues that reckoned with classical structures, music made for and by people who, with some notable exceptions, never found satisfaction anywhere else.

It’s for the best that Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker is the first volume of two. Some reviewers have complained about the novelistic, occasionally montage-like approach Crouch takes in telling the story of Parker‘s youth and adolescence. It’s been suggested that Crouch is padding his material or being self-indulgent. I see the point, but I would argue that this stylistic choice isn’t even Crouch’s fault. He’s definitely done his homework; his research began when he interviewed Parker’s first wife and some of his first musical collaborators back in the early ’80s. Depending on the accessibility of the subject, any biographer is going to be limited in some ways by the availability of the material and sometimes there just isn’t much information on hand to properly fill in the gaps. Crouch’s biography ends when Parker is barely out of his teens, and he was not born into particularly noteworthy circumstances, so it’s understandable that biographical detail would be a bit sketchy.

Instead of describing young Charlie’s endless hours in the woodshed (as if that were even possible), up to 15 hours a day, practicing over and over till he was fluent in every key, Crouch elaborates on things like Jack Johnson’s heroic stature within the black community, the effect of the Great Depression on urban life, and the freewheeling atmosphere of Kansas City in the late ’30s, brimming to the top with open corruption and all-night dancing. Even as a jazz fan, I didn’t really have much background on the music and lore of Kansas City before reading Crouch’s bio and it’s a treat to have had the scene come alive. No true record of American music would be complete without it.

And quite a world it is — Kansas City jazz at the time, still essentially based in blues and swing, shines through as intensely competitive and made up largely on the fly, hashed out in cutting contests while serenading the revelry of amoral politicians, gangsters, and anybody who had the requisite scratch and wanted to live his own particular version of the high life. In this case, the political machine of “Boss Tom“ Pendergast (who was also the original political patron of a mild-mannered war hero named Harry Truman) provided most of the social cover and performance spaces. Crouch helps the reader get to know musicians like the flamboyant and tenacious bandleader Billy Eckstine, as well as Erroll Garner and Chu Berry, each of who deserve a rediscovery in their own right and whose contributions to American music are deeply underrated, aside from specialists. Their mentorship also helped define and hone Parker’s incipient style; aside from his relentless practicing, he learned most of his skill on the bandstand, in the thick of it all.

We hear of the musicians on hand providing a soundtrack to after-hours glimpses of American decadence, where “men in dresses were seen performing oral sex on each other…Women had sex with other women. Some puffed cigars with their vaginas; some had sex with animals.” The point being that for a young jazzman on the make to see firsthand “the difference between what went on in the conventional world and what happened when people chose to reject the laws of polite society.” Jazz has always been a subversive, carnal music, viscerally at odds with the mainstream by being, for one thing, the house music of choice for American bohemia and the well-heeled alike for decades. It offered refuge and an open chance to strut your stuff for anyone who was willing to shed the inhibitions of the segregated, hostile, and haughtily dismissive world outside the club and the touring circuit.

The appeal of Kansas City Lightning is not so much that Crouch has unearthed shocking revelations about the mind and soul of Charlie Parker, but that he vividly brings to life Charlie Parker’s world as much as his music or his personality. We know that his father, Charles Parker Sr., was a charismatic Pullman car porter with a knack for the nimble work who eventually succumbed to alcoholism without apparently trying to fight it very hard. His mother, Addie, was a strong and fiercely independent woman with some Native American blood who, it’s generally agreed, deeply spoiled her only son and tolerated his well-known remoteness and emotional isolation. It’s interesting to read of Parker’s upbringing in light of his eventual hedonistic free-for-all once he hit the big time in New York. Impulse control wasn’t exactly his thing, to put it mildly. Crouch is hauntingly dead-on when he says of Parker that “the saxophone was the only thing that gave him exactly what he wanted and he gave in return.” This hits hardest when one reads about the teenage courtship of his first wife, Rebecca, who couldn’t help falling for the gifted mimic and cocky mama’s boy and who bore him a son of his own when they were both in their mid-teens.

After playing stimulant-filled, all-night jam sessions, honing his skills and getting his first experience of the nightlife, another form of self-indulgence, everyday struggles might have seemed intolerably unsatisfying to someone as ambitious and self-centered as Parker was. What it can’t quite justify, however, is his almost complete indifference when it came to being any kind of father or husband. Crouch’s novelistic approach builds subtle drama out of telling the story from Rebecca Parker’s confused and rightfully suspicious mindset when it came to matters concerning her husband. There are hints of young Parker coming and going, never explaining himself, out all night doing god-knows-what with god-knows-who. The excuses pile up, bills go unpaid, months of dread pass by. We feel for her; we know how this particular story is going to end.

There’s something telling about the way Parker seems to come most alive in escape, always one step ahead, one beat faster, a blur of motion at the edge of the narrative frame. Parker was a gifted mimic since childhood and, Crouch explains, when he went to the movies he could do a medley of imitations of the actors, mannerisms and all, to the delight of his friends. As a boy, Parker would wait in front of the local library for his mother and read books about religion and science fiction, stories of exotic places in the imagination. Everything he did seems tinged with a kind of manic energy as a means for some kind of escape. He’s always dashing off to practice for hours in the woodshed or make a quick buck at a gig with a good-times crowd or score the morphine he’d started injecting for the broken ribs he’d suffered in a car accident that had also killed his best friend. It’s not a pretty picture, by any means, once we get the full story of ducked responsibilities, selfishness, and growing addiction. And at this point, the future musical genius isn’t even out of his teens but he and we know full well that as far as he’s concerned, his real life will begin elsewhere.

The narrative leaves off at the point before Parker makes it big in New York, on the cusp of realizing his artistic breakthrough. Crouch illustrates vividly how difficult it was for someone with Parker’s background and slim prospects to even try to make the journey. We learn the tricks of the hobo trade, as any black musician heading north to find gigs pays dues amid circumstances that would make Tom Joad break into a cold sweat. We hear of how to keep box car doors from slamming shut, in order to keep from suffocating or freezing to death, and how to slake your thirst with the morning dew collected from the back of a leaf. Once Parker made it to the Big Apple, there was only more struggle ahead. We read of Parker walking endlessly through the freezing streets trying to keep warm with his paper-thin suit fraying at the edges, his shoes almost flapping, on the hunt for a pot of chili and a place to crash for the night.

Sometimes I worry that jazz has been ruined for the 21st century by caricatures of zoot suits and hirsute beatniks snapping away over black coffee, or has been relegated to the pathetic limbo of aural wallpaper at cocktail parties. It’s a shame that jazz doesn’t get the same kind of attention and mainstream buzz it used to. Telling the stories of the people who shaped it would be as good a way as any to bring a new audience. One of the benefits of Crouch’s novelistic style is that, by the end of the book, the reader wants more. After meeting his family and getting the nitty gritty details of his apprenticeship, we want the rising action of Charlie Parker’s story, once he conquers New York and starts jamming with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell, Max Roach, Thelonious Monk. and the aforementioned Miles and changes American music forever. In Crouch’s hands, the phrase that used to be ubiquitous around New York rings true: Bird lives. I hope I’m not the only one out there who is waiting with bated breath for Crouch’s next volume to see this Bird take flight.

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