Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
Stanley Crouch's account of Charlie Parker's first twenty-one years isn't a litany of facts and antidotes rendered in an easily digestible form. Not unlike Parker, Crouch is brilliant, bold, ambitious, and mercurial. He delights in conjoining a dazzling array of topics, often introducing a particular subject, moving on to something else, and later on revisiting the original concept in a different guise. Nothing stands in isolation; everything is interrelated. The book is filled with extended journeys into events which occurred decades and even centuries prior to Parker's youth. Crouch infers that the entirety of the American experience and culture (particularly African-American culture) looked over Parker's shoulder, offered guidance by example, prodded him, urged him to try and try again, and assured him that, despite a steady diet of rejection, uncertainties and pitfalls, remarkable heights eventually would be reached.
In the hands of a lesser literary talent, the juggling of so many themesthe legacy of the violent settling of the Kansas and Missouri territories; the hopelessly corrupt, anything goes atmosphere of Kansas City in the early twentieth century; the history of African- American music and dance; the intimate details of Parker's courtship and marriage to Rebecca, his first wife; clued-up accounts of the contributions of Parker's major influences; and insightful accounts of Parker's creative process during various points in his development, just to name a fewwould come off as labored, compartmentalized, or fail to cohere. In addition to his ability to nurture, manipulate and recast the themes, Crouch's prosevivid, incisive, keenly intelligent, and filled with period colloquiumsreads like a work of fiction and serves as the glue that holds the book together.
Crouch invests the book with society-wide dilemmas that give the work much of its power. They constitute a way of understanding the tensions that swirled around and affected Parker in his formative years, and that placed him and jazz firmly inside the American experience. Through trial and error, Parker eventually learned to thrive within "an improvised world" derived from the Old West's "provocative tension between the thrust of individual liberty and the desire for order and safety" (42). Not unlike the example of D.W. Griffith and Duke Ellington, both of whom evoked a democratic society's "fundamental tension between the individual and the collective" (72), so too the best of the ensembles in which Parker played struck a balance between these two extremes, "one that enriched the experience without distracting from it or descending into anarchy" (116).
While performing in venues where there was so much to be discovered, admired and celebrated, the threat of violence at the hands of racist law enforcement officials, gangster club owners, and jealous patrons, always loomed large. Successfully navigating the environs of Kansas City nightlife necessitated a variety of survival skills, all of which entailed close observation of minute details in the actions of others. "As professionals," Crouch concludes," the jazz players learned that the friendly and the hostile live next door to each other, that they stand shoulder to shoulder and sometimes even dance together" (122).
Crouch shows how these tensions were acted out on the bandstand, in an extraordinary passage which describes the Jay McShann Orchestra's performance of "Cherokee," live on the radio from the Savoy Ballroom in 1942. "Arrogant and proud of themselves, the rhythm section reared back and pounced on Charlie's back when he put the horn to his mouth. And his saxophone, in turn, became a flamethrower of rhythm, melody and harmony. They pushed and drove, chorus after chorus. Then, as professional experience had taught them, they lulled...and let him dance his hot-footed dance with subtle support. Then they tore into him again...The rhythm section had him by the tail, but there was no holding or cornering Bird. Disappearing acts were his specialty. Just when you thought you had him, he'd move, coming up with another idea, one that was as bold as red paint on a white sheet. When the band started throwing up stock riffs behind him, Parker sidestepped the familiar shapes, issuing his responses from deep in left field" (31).