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Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker Hardcover – September 24, 2013

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

With the straight-ahead timing and the ethereal blowing of a great jazzman, Crouch delivers a scorching set in this first of two volumes of his biography of Charlie Yardbird Parker, capturing the downbeats and the up-tempo moments of the great saxophonist's life and music. Drawing on interviews with numerous friends, fellow musicians, and family members, Crouch traces Parker's life from his earliest days in Kansas City, Mo., his early romance and eventual marriage to Rebecca Ruffin, and his heroin addiction to his involvement with his mentors Lester Young and Buster Smith. Crouch brings to life the swinging backdrop against which Parker honed his craft: Kansas City was becoming a kind of kind of experimental laboratory, where the collective possibilities of American rhythm were being refined and expanded on a nightly basis. Parker eventually decides that Kansas City isn't big enough for him, and he rides the rails to Chicago and New York, ending up on Buster Smith's doorstep, eager to absorb all the lessons the big city has to teach him. By now, he had long since mastered the physical challenges of playing... and become preoccupied with the coordination of mind and muscle necessary to make his own way. As Crouch reminds us, however, Charlie Parker, no matter how highly talented, was not greater than his idiom. But his work helped to lead the art form to its most penetrating achievement. (Oct.)

From Booklist

*Starred Review* To jazz lovers, the prospect of music and cultural critic Crouch taking on the life of the iconic Charlie Parker carries the anticipation that fans would have had at the great battles of the jazz bands or the cutting contests vividly described here. Crouch captures with novelistic verve the excitement of that period in covering the early years of Parker’s ultimately short life, which contained within it so many warring elements that he has daunted even, perhaps especially, awestruck biographers. Crouch’s eyes are wide open, and he lends his considerable talents to a jazz biography that ranks with the very best, including Robin D. G. Kelley on Thelonious Monk. Though extensively researched, this is less academic, informed by Crouch’s extensive knowledge and his deft hand with complex elements of American music. The occasional cliché or clunky wording is offset by more frequent profundities, e.g., “the double consciousness so fundamental to jazz: the burdens of the soul met by the optimism of the groove.” Parker’s influences are made clear (Lester Young and Roy Eldridge, sure, but much here on the often-overlooked Buster Smith and guitarist Biddy Fleet), as is the vital context of Parker’s hometown, the wide-open and musically fertile Kansas City. This is, it must be noted, the first of two projected volumes. Those waiting expectantly for Crouch’s take on Parker’s full maturity (and drug-ridden decline, though foreshadowed here) and his classic collaborations with Dizzy Gillespie and others will need to be patient. --Mark Levine
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harper; 1St Edition edition (September 24, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062005596
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062005595
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #213,970 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

31 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Greg Prachar - Pacific Palisades, CA on October 26, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Every few years a new book comes out on historical figures - Caesar, Napoleon, JFK, etc. Sometimes, something new is added, but often, a repeat of the story is worth the effort even if only told in a different tone and with some different details or emphasis. This is such book. Charlie Parker was a major figure in American music, though probably now much forgotten in either legend or music by a younger generation. Crouch retells the story of 'Bird' from early life through his years immediately before the explosion of the "be-bop revolution". (I understand that another Crouch book will follow on the second part of Parker's career.)

Other good works on the topic include Ira Gitler's 'Jazz Masters of the Forties', Gary Giddins's 'Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker', and Ross Russell's 'Bird Lives' and 'Jazz Styles in Kansas City and the Southwest'. Crouch doesn't add a lot to these (and his narrative is close to that of Giddins), but nicely puts Parker in the context of Kansas City music in the 1930s. There is much information on Buster Smith, Walter Page, Benny Moten, Jay McShann and others who factored into the development of Parker's style. (Though I hope that additional information on McShann is forthcoming in his next volume.) There is also much on his personal life. In fact, this work has more value - and new information - in its telling of his family story, and relationship with his mother, his first wife Rebecca Ruffin and others, than it does as a musicological tome. There are some traditional gaps in Parker history, most notably the late 1930s. Crouch assigns definite dates to his first journey to Chicago and New York, but Giddins has different dates and Gitler acknowledges conflicts in the supporting information.
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46 of 53 people found the following review helpful By BJARNE ROSTAING, AUTHOR OF BREEDERS on September 26, 2013
Format: Hardcover
If you want to read a book, a spectacular book about a spectacular man, try Stanley Crouch's Kansas City Lightning, the story of Charley "Bird" Parker.

Stanley Crouch writes like one of those big pre-emissions V-8s they used to build in Detroit with multiple mammoth carburetors, minimal gas mileage, and no tomorrow if you held the gas pedal down. On American roads they'd obliterate cute little hottie sports cars, and that's what Crouch has done to jazz writing with Kansas City Lightning, his biography of the legendary Charlie Parker, who personified jazz during that wild WW2 period when be-bop sprang forth to confound the music world.

Parker, a.k.a. Bird, is an unnerving figure, profoundly talented and intelligent. He climbed as far and as fast in every way as could be done in thirty five years, the quintessential boy from the provinces. He was the bomb. From being thrown off the bandstand in his teens, he became the greatest horn man of his time, and he did it on the very unforgiving alto saxophone. From an obscure ghetto childhood in Kansas City he became a favorite of Nica de Koenigswarter, another legend, a Rothschild who was the patron of all time. Every jazz fan knows the melodrama of Bird's death while watching TV in the apartment of the Baroness Nica, and instead of that, Crouch gives us his brief, brilliant, fated life: when he died, his work was truly done. People were scrawling Bird Lives! on walls for years afterward, and he did that - no reedman has ever been so influential, dominating, loved and imitated. Everyone wanted to play like Bird, and no one could. I spent years trying.

Jazz books, be they fact or fiction, tend to be on the thin side.
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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Joseph Palen on October 28, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
This biography is more a work of modern art than a documentary. Like most modern art, at first glance many of us will say, "What is he trying to do here." I had the same feeling when I first heard a recording of Charley Parker. So I guess it is fitting that his biography reads the same way. It is not that Stanley Crouch does not know how to write - this is far from his first book on Jazz, or African American History, or many other subjects. Therefore, I must assume he writes this way - flowery excess language, wide forays from the subject into related subjects, then return to the story line, like the jazz player, who leaves the melody to return later after many embellished variations.

To understand the storyline or "tune" of this biography, read and memorize Chapter One. It culminates in a New York radio session with Jay McShann's band, recently arrived from Kansas City for a second try at the big time, this time with young Charley Parker - who had not yet shown up for the gig. As the band finished swinging some preliminary tunes and were ready to swing into Charley's now trademarked "Cherokee" everyone held their breath. Charley was well into his second trip with the big H and prone to show or not show. As he finally walked in there was a collective sigh of relief as the band kicked into Cherokee and Charley proceeded to blow the roof off with high velocity rips through complex chord changes, the likes of which no one there or in radio land had ever heard before from a saxophone.
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