Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

David A. Orthmann By

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Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
Stanley Crouch
Harper Collins

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 themes—the 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 few—would come off as labored, compartmentalized, or fail to cohere. In addition to his ability to nurture, manipulate and recast the themes, Crouch's prose—vivid, incisive, keenly intelligent, and filled with period colloquiums—reads 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).

In another broad sweep of historically informed thought, Crouch gives equal weight to African-derived sources of the music and the influence of formal, intellectual elements, all of which went into Parker's search for his musical identity. Not unlike every other aspect of the book, the elements and examples that permeate these concepts come at a rapid clip, at first glance aren't a particularly tight fit, and in some instances don't necessarily constitute a direct, cause and effect relationship to Parker's development. In part, they include the mutual influence of musicians and dancers in live performance situations; the presence of progressive, forward thinking African- American educators; the realization that any stimulus, regardless of its origin in terms of race, was valid as long as it made the music sound good; the legitimacy of informal study outside of the classroom, often in the presence of a mentor or peer; and the combative, hothouse atmosphere of the jam session, especially those in which musicians were cruelly dismissive of young Parker's efforts.

Crouch introduces substantive ideas about jazz and the art of improvisation throughout the book. These notions are essential in understanding Parker's quest as well as his eventual, widespread impact on the music. Not unlike other aspects of Crouch's thought, he shuns rigid definitions of jazz in favor of scattered, unruly flashes of insight. His willingness to keep things loose and fluid is a tacit acknowledgement that this music can't be tied down or cornered, and it will continue to grow in ways that we can't anticipate. One important thread will ring true to anyone who stays abreast of the music's varied developments in the twenty-first century: "a music ever in pursuit of vigor, elasticity, mutation of movement, and potency of pattern" (127). Another thread praises Parker's "control of the present," amounting to a ..."jazz musician [who] wrote and interpreted his own script on the spot, right in the middle of the chaos of the moment" (228). Then he reminds us that the music is much more than "merely making something up; as drummer Max Roach often said of playing jazz, it is about creating, maintaining, and developing a design" (325).

Above all, Crouch explains, individualism is what really matters. If a player doesn't rise above formative influences and find a way to speak in his or her own voice, the all-important respect from one's peers will not be forthcoming. Competition and invention go hand in hand. Crouch briefly cites two examples of Parker's budding individuality. In 1937, after a long stretch of nights playing clubs in the Ozarks and days spent practicing and beginning to grasp some of the music's formal, structural elements, the "challenge of synthesizing all of the things that touched his musical sensibility" begins to exceed the desire to send a message to his detractors in Kansas City (179). A year or so later, during his first stay with McShann's band in Kansas City, throughout intermissions Parker would avidly listen to Lester Young's solos with the Count Basie band, broadcast on the radio from New York. Anything new or interesting that Young had to say was fodder for Parker's emerging sense of self. In the course of McShann's following sets ..."Parker would toy with Young's phrases, bending them, stretching them, stripping certain things away, and mixing the compressed version with bold ideas of his own. But even when it was almost recitation, Charlie would tell his story with a shrill savagery you never heard in Young" (248).

Crouch addresses the concerns of the jazz improviser by juxtaposing the art's goals and objectives with the difficulties of actualizing them in real time. His passages strip away some of the mystique of spontaneous invention without shortchanging the enormous amount of effort and extensive skill set inherent in playing a genuinely original solo. Every jazz musician sets out to discover ways of creating phrases that are fluid, fraught with emotional power, and that stand tall inside of the ensemble (18). Few players reach the point in which these goals converge into a state of absolute flexibility, in part because of the demands of absorbing and responding to constant shifts and rhythm and harmony in a matter of split seconds (116). Crouch invites us to imagine what it's like to issue "a continual response to...a landscape in which spontaneous creation whizzes by in layered stacks" (325). At his best, Parker "knew...how to listen and hear, instant by instant, and how to respond with aesthetic command to that instant, gone now and never to return" (325).

Kansas City Lightning was three decades in the making. Speaking as someone who has awaited its arrival for a quarter of a century, I believe that Crouch has succeeded in delivering a volume that sheds light on Parker's origins, the rich, multifaceted society that influenced his journey, as well as the alto saxophonist's place in the jazz tradition. There are numerous passages that demand to be reread and pondered; moreover, Crouch's wise, firmly held opinions about the nature of jazz are just as important as the colorfully sketched details of Parker's life and times. This isn't simply the greatest of the Parker biographies—it may well be the standard by which we judge accounts of jazz musicians' lives and music for quite some time.

Looking ahead to a proposed second volume, it will be interesting to see how Crouch handles the most productive and celebrated years of Parker's life and career. The first volume's emphasis on Parker's activities as a sideman in large ensembles which thrived in the context of dancing and other forms of entertainment will yield to the saxophonist's stance as an artist and leader of smaller ensembles that were less accessible to mass audiences. Considering his capacity for expansive, complex thoughts on the music, American history and culture, Crouch will doubtlessly find challenging, thought provoking ways of illuminating this transformation.

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