KANSAS CITY LIGHTNING: THE RISE AND TIMES OF CHARLIE PARKER
By Stanley Crouch
Harper, $27.99, 365 pages, illustrated
Between 1945 and 1950, three young men transformed American theater, art and music. In 1947, Marlon Brando revolutionized American acting in "A Streetcar Named Desire." From 1947 to 1950, Jackson Pollock's "action painting" technique gave him international fame. And in November 1945, in a New York recording studio, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, using the chords of the swing tune "Cherokee," made a recording he called "Koko." It is said that when other musicians heard his improvisations, many of them hocked their horns because they knew from then on, either you played like Parker or you spent all your time trying to figure out how not to play like him. His nickname was "Bird," but he was really a lion in the path.
Brando's contribution is part of American theatrical history. Pollock's technique proved to be a one-off artistic dead end. But Charlie Parker's recorded music has influenced generations of musicians and remains as fresh and exciting as it was more than 60 years ago. For decades, I have listened to his modern masterpieces, and the older I get, the better Parker sounds. Social and jazz critic Stanley Crouch's "Kansas City Lightning" is an attempt to trace Parker's gifts back to Kansas City, where he grew up, learned to play the alto saxophone and developed a drug habit that would contribute to his death at age 35.
The book begins in medias res (what else for an epic hero?) when Parker was 20, playing in Jay McShann's band. It ends with Parker's first visit to New York, in 1942, when he was not yet certain how good he could be. At times, the author stops the story to offer sometimes illuminating, but too often digressive, bits and pieces of jazz history, and commentary on the life of black Americans. Using interviews with Rebecca Ruffin, the childhood sweetheart Parker married when he was 17, Mr. Crouch offers many new (to me at least) details about Parker's youth.
What we have here is not an objective study, but a tale, told in a storyteller's fashion. The author employs every device from cool scholarly detachment to personal anger, using the black vernacular to emphasize a point, and novelistic devices to punch up a scene. Here is his description of a Parker solo at Harlem's legendary Savoy Ballroom:
"The rhythm section had him by the tail, but there was no holding or cornering Bird. [W]hen 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 [e]ach chorus was getting hotter [his sound] was almost devoid of vibrato, notes flying thick as buckshot Parker ran through the [chord] changes like a dose of Epsom salts, unwilling or unable to repeat himself."
Mr. Crouch refers to "The Clansman," the book upon which the film "Birth of a Nation" was based, as "an incendiary, redneck pimple of propaganda shaped into a suppurating blackhead of a novel." His often over-the-top style annoyed me at first, but, as I read, on, I began to see that this in-your-face, personal approach is the best way to tell the story he wants to tell.
The book contains three principal figures: self-possessed Parker, sweet Rebecca and shrewd Addie, Parker's protective mother who spoiled him shamelessly but was always an emotional step or two distant from him (as Parker was from everyone else, all his life). Their story is told against the background of politically corrupt, wide-open Kansas City during the 1930s, and especially its jazz scene. Parker came to music when the city's already revered musicians were at their swinging peak, with an instantly recognizable propulsive, driving rhythmic style. The scene was fiercely competitive. There were battles of the bands and jam session "cutting contests" in which musicians traded choruses, each striving for more inventive ways to play. Beginners had a difficult time getting a hearing, never mind a job, although older players could be generous in helping those willing to work hard.
The author re-creates one of the mythic moments in young Parker's life, known to every Parker fan, when he first tried to play with older, thoroughly professional musicians. After making a mistake, he was publicly humiliated when the drummer contemptuously threw his cymbal on the floor, the universally recognized sign that a player was out of his depth and should leave the bandstand. This setback did not deter Parker, but spurred him on to sessions of unceasing practice, laboriously learning to play in all the keys, getting jobs at roadhouses in the Ozarks, sacrificing anything — friendships, regular meals and even his marriage — to make himself ready for the challenges the Kansas City musicians offered. When he finished his hard apprenticeship, he was indeed ready, for Kansas City players or anyone else.
Note: The Kansas City bands had rules: Work hard. Aim for excellence. Be yourself, but respect and learn from the hard-won accomplishments of those who came before you. If you succeed, help others, but only if they are willing to submit to the discipline without which nothing worthwhile can be achieved. Only through free and open competition can new ideas emerge and progress be made.
If that doesn't add up to a conservative ethos, I don't know what does. Jazz, in essence, is the musical manifestation of freedom, order and individual responsibility, the virtues at the heart of all true conservatism, political, social and artistic.
William F. Gavin is the author of "Speechwright: An Insider's Take on Political Rhetoric" (Michigan State University Press, 2011).