on October 26, 2013
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. None of these minor differences are greatly important in the history of jazz, but 'Bird-nerds' should be advised,
It has been almost forty years since I read Russell's 'Bird Lives', but I recall it as the definitive biography of Charlie Parker. I recommend it for the single best work on him (and am moved to re-read it), but I highly recommend this Crouch book as a great introduction to the man, his early life, and the 30's music scene in Kansas City.
on October 28, 2013
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. This was the pinnacle to which the rest of the book climbed in a winding back and forth path - including grade school, high school band, domineering mother, childhood girlfriend whom he married, Kansas city in prohibition jazz club Prendergast days, Charlie's embarrassing rejections from his early tries to join KC jam sessions, his incredible determination to learn the sax, involving up to 15 hours a day practice. In later years, his dedication to find his own sound, resulted in leaving his wife and baby to go to New York and continue his search. It was amazing to me to find that this supposed musical genius had so much trouble, and not just with drugs, as has been highly reported, but with his music, which he worked on constantly (reminding us of what Edison said about inspiration and perspiration).
After winding through Parker's many disappointments, with numerous forays into such things as African and Native American history, history of the railroads, and, of course, history of jazz, the Author takes Parker riding the rails to New York where he finds a guitar player of kindred spirit (Biddy Fleet) and they spend much time practicing complex chord changes. As he comes to that pinnacle experience and the end of the Story, Crouch picks another note in the chord of the tune and says: "During his most satisfying bandstand experience, Charlie Parker knew what every talented jazz musician has, before and after: how to listen and hear, instant by instant, and how to respond to that instant, gone now and never to return."
The last twenty percent of the book is about Stanley Crouch, his family history, his many interviews to write this book (which he claims took 30 years), and the many footnote comments (indexed by page, so hard to locate on an e-reader) - that is where we find hidden the reason for Parker's nickname, "Yardbird, or Bird". There is nothing about Bird's further career, his hooking up with Dizzy and inventing Bebop, or his move to California, relapse into drugs and drinking, time spent in the Camarillo mental hospital, recovery, more recordings, then relapse and death. For this part of Parker's life, another book (or Wikipedia) will be required. However, for this reader, who lived not too far from Kansas City when Bird was there but knew nothing about him then, the detailed description of what went on with the Kansas City Jazz scene in those days was very interesting. Crouch's writing style was often as hard to follow as Bird's music. But if you like modern art and you like jazz, you probably will like this book.
on October 9, 2013
It is rare to find a biography of this magnitude. Mr. Crouch does an excellent job of putting the complexities and dynamics of Charlie Parker's life into focus. The book is 'arranged' the manner of a musical score. This story has been marked, shaped, redone, formed, kneaded and baked. We are looking at well delivered FINAL draft. It is thoroughly researched and carefully told. This work is done with style & precise detail. There are historic references which demonstrate solid & meaningful participation. It has the 'page turner' quality often limited to best seller novels...it reads like a story told at bedtime to children, to motivate them along a course of greatness. It flows like a lecture on the wonderful nature of humanity, outlining everything from settling the Western United States & breeding of horse in those plains, to the contributions of early 19th century Southern 'old timey' musicians to the tangible engagement of 20th century musicians who challenged each other on this very complicated network of 'notes on a page' which produce ART. We get a glimpse at those who forged the paths which led to such a great individual's capacity for 'such' spiritual and mechanical alignment. You are there at Cotton Club battle of the bands, you are there when Charlie Parker discovers adolescent love, you are there when he is driven to a level of superb dexterity & genius which makes him THE unique contributor we have grown to know. This biography is written with dedicated integrity.
on September 26, 2013
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. Young Man With A Horn does embody some essence of the twenties, but it's a white book, and jazz is a black music. No matter that Bix Beiderbecke was the Keats of jazz cornet, it was his good friend Louis Armstrong who was the virtuoso, doing impossible things night after night, decade after decade. Bird dominated the same way, picking up where Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins left off, playing with unheard of velocity, sophistication and pure beauty, fusing blues and those nifty mostly Jewish tunes from musicals into something strange and new, and incomprehensible to those for whom Benny Goodman's Carnegie Hall Concert was the crowning achievement of jazz music. Bird and bop announced something as shattering to its world as abstract expressionism was to painting.
Crouch delves into Bird's tortured self and meteoric life, bringing it to the reader as only great biographers can do. Gone is the contentious intellectual of earlier books, debates and forums, and the columnist for the Daily News. The novelist of Don't The Moon Look Lonesome comes forth, twinned with a tireless, hypnotic researcher who hunkers down in Parker's home town and tracks down the people around him in childhood and youth. And gets them to tell all. Crouch can be a tedious explainer, but he is so in love with the truth about his subject that this inclination is simply burned away.
Within a few paragraphs, Crouch conveys the feel of the thirties as experienced in wide-open Kansas City, where there was no Great Depression for jazz musicians. There were many bands, epic parties, and fierce proud competition. Kansas City was corrupt under Boss Pendergast, but it was a "boomtown for jazz, with mother lodes of style and gushers of swing." It was a red-hot creative crucible, as New Orleans and Chicago had been before, with musicians living for the music and finding themselves as artists in the heat of the jams and the chilly woodsheds where they practiced. Bands battled, great rooms full of people danced, and Jay McShann had the boss band. In it was the skinny 21 year old Parker with his soaring, searing alto, about to reinvent the music. Only a musician can fully appreciate the taste and texture of that, and Crouch was one himself back before he became an American oracle - a jazz drummer on the New York scene of the sixties and seventies, later booking bands into the Tin Palace and making it a cultural nexus.
He captures Parker's charm in talking a cop out of a ticket in Central Park as McShann's battered band arrives New York on its way to the Woodside Hotel, immortalized in Count Basie's Jumpin at the Woodside. In hardly any words at all he creates Harlem for us, a Harlem no less vivid than that of Chester Himes. Then he captures the junk-sick chill when Bird immediately leaves the hotel, a chill that haunted Parker almost all his life and created a generation of junky musicians who thought that was his secret.
Here and throughout, the book is a fascinating picture of the jazz life, of musicians eating and joking and hanging out, an uber-family in which Parker was both a legend and a notorious moneyless addict. The rich texture and detailing are amazing. Why were there two bandstands at the Savoy ballroom? So bands could battle without the distraction of one band leaving the stand and another setting up. Who went to the Savoy? Lana Turner, Greta Garbo, and, and, and... Did black real estate agent Charlie Buchanan own the Savoy ballroom where McShann would wipe out the Lucky Millinder band? Not really - it was two Jewish brothers re-named Gale. Does it matter? Definitely, because the music business and the music itself involves this ethnic relationship. The tens of thousands of black musicians schooling themselves on I Got Rhythm chords were studying George Gershwin. Louis Armstrong's career was crucially expedited and sustained by a Jewish manager who saved hin from the mob. Rich, relevant detail is a Crouch gift. Only academics dream of researching as he did, and this book is anything but academic. It leaps off the page.
How did Bird come to be? Who was he? Crouch infiltrates Kansas City as only a New York hustler on a mission could do. He goes back into the family bloodlines (totally hybridized, American style). He looks into the grandparents, and dwells a moment on Parker's handsome, charming, hard-drinking hell-raising dad. And his mother, his all-important mother, who eventually gave up on his dad and put everything into her son, whose innocent promise is written into the shy, hopeful photograph that opens the book. He notes his Roman Catholic schooling, notoriously the best and most disciplined generally available, and details his upbringing as a kind of young prince, dressed to the nines, never allowed to take a part time job. But he also quotes people close to the family who felt there was no love at the core of her devotion. He delves deep into those childhood friends and neighbors, and how the neighborhood operated, and tells about his very serious relationship with first wife, with whom he was in love from boyhood, and about his very different half-white brother. It's like Mark Twain on life in Hannibal, Missouri - pure America without much money to corrupt it.
There is very little Crouch failed to uncover about the nascent Bird, including his love of Sherlock Holmes (who was devoted to injecting cocaine), or about the grown man who who could never kick his habit for long. We see him in flush times, and we see him learning to hop a train, showing up in Chicago broke with no horn, half-starved, in funky old clothes. We see his chameleon ability to fit in anywhere very quickly through his gift for mimicry. And we see his inescapable genius as it evolved through intense creative relationships with musicians long forgotten. No one I ever met heard of Biddy Fleet, but Crouch did, and tells us how they shared an extended exploration of difficult tunes that other players avoided - which leads to his legendary breakthrough with Cherokee, a tricky tune that fascinated him and liberated him.
Crouch shows us a man changing his world as surely as Van Gogh in Arles or Beethoven in Vienna. We see him up close, and what he went through to do it. Kansas City Lightning is biography of the highest level, written about a musician, by a musician who also happens to be a very powerful writer. It's also loaded with pungent history of all kinds. American history that jumps off the page and grabs you.
-- Bjarne Rostaing, author of "Breeders," "Iron Crossing" and "Til Death Do Us Partner"
on January 18, 2016
Crouch is a frequently florid writer whose style may not be everyone's cup of tea, but no one can say that he doesn't always provide ample food for thought. This book about the early years of Charlie Parker-- from childhood to about 1940-- was over 30 years in the making, and hopefully its sequel covering the remaining 15 years or so of Parker's tragically short life will be forthcoming soon, for neither Crouch nor the many jazz fans looking forward to it are getting any younger. Crouch began the interview process way back in 1981, talking to Parker's mother Addie, first wife Rebecca, Orville Minor, Gene Ramey, Buster Smith, Jay McShann, and many other relatives, musicians, friends, etc. The result is a fascinating narrative that places Parker's formative years as both a musician and person in the context of the cultural, sociological, and technological trends of the times. This is essential reading for any serious lover of the music called jazz, and wanting insight into the roots of the trials, tribulations, and torment that Charlie Parker endured physically and emotionally, as well as of the artistic genius that he became.
on September 28, 2015
An average of four stars: five for an interesting and well researched history of Charlie "Bird" Parker's first nineteen years as well as of the jazz scene in Kansas City in the thirties, touching on the situation of African-American people of the time. Three stars for the flowery writing and similes which get in the way to the point of being annoying at times. Crouch discusses the influence on Bird of a number of 30's jazz musicians: Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, Lester Young, Buster Smith, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins; he also writes about several swing era bands who got their start in Kansas City. This is the first of a proposed two volume study of Bird; I hope that he will get to the real meat of Charlie Parker and his influence on jazz in volume 2.
on December 8, 2013
This book both fascinates and frustrates. It's fascinating in that context is richly provided and Bird is thoroughly situated in the era of his time. The Kansas City of Bird's time is earnestly unpacked so that the reader gets a full understanding of the environment that Bird was navigating.
We follow young Charlie through his very early years and his entry into high school. He commented apparently that he entered high school as a freshman and left as a freshman. He marries at 16, clearly not ready to support a wife. While Charlie is coming of age, the story of the times is highlighted in brilliant prose by Crouch.
Charlie's interest in music and his budding genius is clearly illustrated by Crouch through his examination of the music of Kansas City and the jazz club music battles. It was a time where you could be pulled off the bandstand if you couldn't swing with the best of them. So, if you wanted to be a major player, studious practice was necessary. And Charlie definitely wanted to be a player. And Crouch does a great job of making that clear
So what is frustrating? The book only deals with Charlie Parker's early years. In fact at its' conclusion Charlie is only 20 years old and has not yet made his mark on the world of music for which he would be remembered. I know there is another volume planned and I eagerly await its' publication.
Although there is a premature end to this volume it is a fine representation of the early Charlie Parker and I would recommend it to all those who love jazz music.
on April 18, 2015
I'm listening to the bio of one of jazz' greatest innovators; living in a time of the invention of "SWING". Charlie "Bird" Parker remains at the forefront of this time and place. The title "Kansas City Lightening" in reference to him is most fitting.T he power and glory of his legacy is truly richly deserved and make good reading in our contemporary music genre. His legacy lives!!!
on February 17, 2014
This book is well worth reading but perhaps requires a modicum of expectations management at the outset. It is not, as I expected, a thorough cradle-to-the-grave biography of Charlie Parker. Rather, it's a rich and carefully researched account of the childhood and coming of age of Bird in which local historical context plays a major role. Crouch's style may come across as ponderous and tangential at times, but if a reader can adjust to his style, the reward is a nuanced appreciation of what the jazz world was like in Kansas City and, later, Chicago and New York. Be advised, however, that the book ends with Parker's just getting started in New York. This limited focus is not a criticism, though, because the book is excellent at what it seeks to be and do. I recommend it highly not only for jazz buffs but also for readers interested in American cultural history.
on November 25, 2013
When I was a teenager 60 years ago, I listened to Charlie Parker repeatedly. I remember a recording of a rehearsal where he suddenly shouts, “Hold it!” and the music stops. It was hard for me to hear anything wrong and the repetition was very much like the first attempt. In the book “Kansas city lightning” Stanley Crouch describes the key factor which is the importance of diligence during practice. On photos, Charlie Parker is smiling but there was a dark side with narcotics and early death. This tragedy does not change my understanding of the music. Music was his life and made him to relax and his life outside music something else. I cannot link the dark parts of his life to the music after having read the book. I find more of delight in it when I listen again.