Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
By Stanley Crouch
(HarperCollins, 384 pages, $27.99)
Few reputations in jazz are more secure than Charlie “Bird” Parker’s. Miles Davis is said to have quipped that “You can tell the history of jazz in four words: Louis Armstrong. Charlie Parker.” Hundreds, if not thousands, of Bird discs, from budget-priced compilations to $300 deluxe boxed sets, are in the catalogues of various record companies. Modern students of jazz, trombonists, guitarists, and saxophonists alike, painstakingly transcribe and commit to memory his spontaneous solos, searching through alternate takes and obscure bootleg recordings in the hope of internalizing the idiomatic language of bebop.
But do readers need another biography of the legendary bebopper? Half a dozen biographies of various scope and quality are readily purchasable for the interested fan, even a children’s book, Chris Raschka’s Charlie Parker Played Be Bop. Clint Eastwood directed a respectable biopic back in 1988, and Parker features prominently in Ken Burns’s Jazzminiseries. Audio interviews with Parker stream across YouTube channels and his life, and the mythology that surrounds it, is central to all the published biographies of his contemporaries.
In the acknowledgments of Kansas City Lightning, Stanley Crouch’s new book about Charlie Parker’s early life, the author hints at “the misreadings, distortions, and willful fantasies” about his subject “that some others have paraded forward as fact.” Perhaps Crouch, a jazz critic and New York Daily News columnist known for his antipathy toward rap and his attacks upon, among others, Al Sharpton, Spike Lee, and Cornel West, seeks to set the record straight on this often misunderstood champion of American music. (He may even be alluding toBird Lives!, Ross Russell’s infamously fictionalized account of Parker’s life.) Tall tales and hazy anecdotes of Parker’s exploits, musical and otherwise, abound. But Crouch does little to dispute the claims staked in the existing Bird bios on the market. Instead, Crouch has given us a 334-page extemporization about a range—admittedly wide—of subjects that interest him. Here are 50-odd pages of actual biography surrounded by cultural commentary, music history, jazz criticism. Who would have thought that a short biography of Charlie Parker would draw not only upon scores of hours of personal interviews but upon Madame Bovary, Frederick Douglass’s autobiography, Simone Weil’s War and the Iliad, and David Dary’sCowboy Culture: A Saga of Five Centuries?
Still, when Crouch is actually writing about Parker’s life, his diligent research adds the grace note of minutiae that helps us to envision our strange Kansas City cast as real people. For instance, Crouch shows us a young Parker and his bride-to-be Rebecca Ruffin watching serialized Westerns on the silver screen. Crouch uses Parker’s penchant for accurately aping the screen actors’ voices to foreshadow Bird’s ability to mimic his musical heroes, as well as his aptitude in navigating the complex and contradictory swing subcultures of Kansas City, Chicago, and New York.
Too often, however, Crouch pursues what are often tangential talking points at the expense of his narrative. For example, he sidelines his account of Charlie and Rebecca’s relationship in favor of a detailed comparison between Duke Ellington and D.W. Griffith, both of whom he claims “mirrored America’s democratic dimension by evoking the fundamental tension between the individual and the collective.” Crouch’s similar meditations on Jack Johnson’s cultural influence and the ways in which the Midwest killing sprees of Bonnie and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and John Dillinger paralleled the rising popularity of swing are interesting enough in themselves, but seem destined for another book entirely. Elsewhere he goes out of his way to quote himself, in a soliloquy about “infinite plasticity” from his book Considering Genius. Meanwhile, he fails to expand upon seemingly important events in Parker’s life: in the space of three paragraphs, one of them only a sentence long, we learn that Parker’s mother had a long affair with a church deacon and that (one assumes, but is never told, that there is a causal relationship here) Parker “never went to church.” Perhaps instead of reminding us that the saxophone, Parker’s chosen instrument, was “invented by the Belgian Adolphe Sax in the 1840s,” he might have told us more about Rebecca’s second pregnancy, which ended in a miscarriage.
Even when Crouch is relaying information about Parker and his associates, we are often left with what amounts to monotonous backstory and mere cataloguing of facts. “Buster Smith,” one of Bird’s heroes, “was the reliable type. If he got a job, he was there and ready to perform,” Crouch informs us in what becomes a 20-page aside about the life and the work of the multi-instrumentalist and bandleader that exhausts readers who wish to learn how Parker and Smith’s careers intersected. Similarly, he spends eight pages dissecting the transition between ragtime and swing band archetypes before finally returning to a story about Parker losing a screw in his saxophone. The reader needn’t even worry about young Parker’s diet as a growing sax shark, since Crouch offers us a few paragraphs from Jay McShann summoning up remembrance of barbeque joints past.
Lightning is at its best when it approaches the novelistic, as it does in Crouch’s opening riff about Parker’s experiences in the big band “battles” of the swing era. Unfortunately, as the book proceeds, we get less and less of this as Crouch gradually dispenses with scene and character building. This is a shame. Tertiary figures, extraneous detail, and scholarly pomp snuff out what might have been a compelling lost love story about Parker and Ruffin.
Crouch is a gifted, if uneven, prose stylist. Occasionally he thrills: “celluloid cowboys were clouding the air with the smoke of blanks,” “like a suicidal Napoleon crowning himself with solid stink,” or “get through a jam session losing slices of scalp and butt to the locals.” But too often he relies upon clichéd phrases and unimaginative metaphors. “The rearview mirror of memory,” “running home with his tail between his legs,” “taking in information like a vacuum cleaner,” or “Charlie’s involvements and horizons were expanding” are filler that suggest Crouch’s fatigue from a project he claims “was begun more than three decades ago.” Interestingly enough, some of the most memorable language comes from Crouch’s sources, as when Orville Minor describes Buster Smith’s ability to “run a cyclone of fire up your butt.”
By the end of the present volume, Parker is not quite 20 years old. His legacy as a performer and recording artist is entirely in front of him. For the specialist reader interested in seeing Bird placed in a much broader cultural context, Kansas City Lightning is an enlightening, if occasionally frustrating read. As tumultuous as its subject’s brief life, Crouch’s book attempts to translate Parker’s enduringly modern musical style into letters, with mixed results. Let us hope that, if and when Crouch produces a second companion volume, he is able to rein in his more dubious improvisations.
For now, readers in search of a thorough account of Charlie Parker’s life should look elsewhere.