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Kansas City Lightning

Young Charlie

To me the most boring part of any biography is the beginning. You know, all that stuff about the subject’s childhood and schooling and who his parents were and what they were like and even who his grandparents were. It’s usually not interesting, almost always dull. There are only so many ways to make a childhood interesting, and unless you’re dealing with some Mozart-ian child prodigy or a former member of the Mickey Mouse Club who shot their bolt before the sixth grade, it would generally be best to get that part over with as soon as it can credibly be dispensed with. A lot of the time I’m tempted to just skip the whole thing and get right at the meat of things by starting on chapter two or three or even deeper into the story. You usually won’t miss much.

Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (Harper Collins, 2013), the first volume of a projected two-volume biography, recounts the saxophonist’s childhood and adolescence, ending with Bird arriving in New York at the age of 20. So the whole book is about Parker’s childhood. Yes, he is standing on the verge of fame, and, yes, he is about to invent a new form of American music and ascend to the heights of the jazz world. But how is it that this man’s childhood — 340 pages of it! — can be not only fascinating but turns out to be one of the best books on jazz I’ve read recently?

Two reasons.

First, Crouch pulls off a small miracle; he tells the entire story of Kansas City jazz, from the stories of the individual musicians to the corrupt politics that ruled KC during the Depression era and on through the giant demographic and historic forces that brought the music to Kansas City and allowed it to flower there. This is a huge story and one not easily welded onto one man’s small adolescence, even if that adolescence is Charlie Parker’s. But Crouch, a journalist and critic who has been working on this book for over 30 years, has managed to do it. It is subtitled “…the Rise and Times…” for good reason. By concentrating on Parker’s times and referring not at all to his future achievement, the author foreshadows the enormous sea change we know is coming; there is but one mention of Miles Davis in the entire book, not one of Dizzy Gillespie, Monk and the rest of the gang who would in a couple of years turn jazz on its ear. Modernity doesn’t loom somewhere off in some theoretical future; it is being forged every day in the dives of Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Washington DC. It will take Charlie Parker and a handful of like-minded players to bring it to New York and international acclaim. But in the meantime it’s thriving in pockets of creativity all over the country. This is a story of a time that was more dangerous, more daring and more fun than our own and Crouch obviously relishes telling us about it. His love of jazz, both as history and anecdote, is alive on every page and that comprises the flesh of the book.

Second, the spine that flesh is hung on, Parker’s childhood, is interesting, especially as childhoods go. Charlie was married and a father and shooting heroin by the time he was sixteen, hocking his alto, stealing from his family and friends to pay for his habit. He was staying out all night playing in clubs and cafes, at after-hours parties, accompanying sex shows, and blowing at early morning jam sessions. At eighteen, a full-blown addict, he split, leaving his wife and child in the care of his mother and hobo-ing his way to Chicago and then New York, arriving in the World Capital of Jazz penniless and dependent on other KC musicians for food and shelter.

Not your average American adolescence.

Charlie Parker was not some sui generis savant who appeared in a puff of smoke on 52nd Street one night and started blowing Groovin’ High as is sometimes imagined, but a product, to a large extent, of his environment. His achievement was to synthesize the myriad musical influences around him to come up with a whole new thing. Crouch details these influences, often eliciting stories directly from the mouths of the musicians who were most important in Parker’s development. The author interviewed many of those people — musicians, friends, family — mostly now long-dead, as far back as the 1980s and uncovered lots of new information.

The obvious antecedent to Kansas City Lightning is Peter Guralnick’s definitive two-volume biography of Elvis — Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley and Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley — about another musical genius from humble beginnings who rose to prominence at a tender age and died young of general dissolution. (Elvis was 42, Parker 34.) The first volume of Guralnick’s Presley is thrilling, tracing Elvis’ early triumphs and glories, the second, as the subtitle warns, a depressing slog through drug addiction, unrealized dreams and artistic failure. But I’m looking forward the second volume of Crouch’s Parker, scheduled for release about two years from now. Crouch has wisely left Parker as he is just about to become…well…Charlie Parker, so not only will there be the expected and all-too-familiar tales of junkie business — endlessly pawning his horn, and everyone else’s, to pay for smack, broken promises, arrests, jails, Camarillo State hospital, etc. — but the balancing, parallel story of his creative evolution and of his eventual mastery of his art, which should be an exalting yarn. Given Crouch’s evident brilliance thus far, this should make for an even better book than the current one, if that is even possible.

Charlie Parker and Red Rodney listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Marjie Hyams, and Chuck Wayne, Downbeat, New York, 1947 (Photograph by William P. Gottlieb)
Charlie Parker and Red Rodney listening to Dizzy Gillespie, Marjie Hyams, and Chuck Wayne, Downbeat, New York, 1947 (Photograph by William P. Gottlieb)

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