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Charlie Parker's War with Jazz

If the devil lives in the details, Stanley Crouch’s mission in his biography of Charlie Parker is not just to befriend the devil, but to make him a business partner.

Kansas City Lighting: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

Publisher: Harper
Length: 384 pages
Author: Stanley Crouch
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2013-09

Imagining jazz without Charlie Parker is like imagining the cinematic canon without Citizen Kane. With no Citizen Kane, we might have arrived at the same place but there would be no grand mythos to accompany our art. No tortured artists to identify to, no mythological status given to cultural giants, and, worst of all, none of the unspoken originality that built a solid foundation upon which all others could climb. Make no mistake, Parker—the jazzman, not the cultural artifact—was essential to the development of not only modern jazz, but modern music.

If this type of laudatory praise seems outlandish (or perhaps better laid at the feet of another figure), consider that Stanley Crouch has spent the better part of 20 years working on his meticulous biography of Parker. That fact alone does not guarantee greatness or significance; longer, more canonical works have been labored over for longer and for less. Rather, it’s the melding of three distinctive traits that have produced Crouch’s seminal work: his subject Charlie Parker, the seed of the jazz inception, and Crouch’s finely tuned ear for prose worthy of an Art Tatum piano run or a Hot Lips Page trill:

But Charlie Parker wanted to be more than good; he wanted to be different. Part of your statement was your sound and the one he was developing struck some more conventional musicians as brittle or harsh. Parker didn’t care. He didn’t want the kind of rich vibrato that characterized the sound of older players—Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges—that would almost force each note in his compulsively swift phrases to seep into the next. He needed pitches that came out of the horn quick, that were as blunt as snapping fingers when the inspiration demanded. His tone was absolutely unorthodox, as much like a snare drum or a bongo as a voice. It was assertive, at times comic or cavalier, and though often sweet, it could also sound almost devoid of pity. One trumpeter thought it sounded like knives being thrown into the audience. (19)

Parker wasn’t only at war with himself—his fundamental desire to move beyond the structural norms of family, marriage, and community—but he was constantly at war with jazz itself. The very foundation he devoted his brief life to deconstructing, resurrecting, and then cutting apart. This type of war lead to disastrous results: abandonment of his wife and child, alienation from family and other musicians, and, of course, an addiction to heroin. Crouch doesn’t bother with the duality of worn-down tropes like the monster/artist—as if we could narrow Parker down to a simple either/or metaphor. He skips the indulgence to focus on solely on Parker, and, instead, traces Parker’s arc by linking him to those around him; like a sort of War and Peace for the jazz age.

What gets overlooked—indeed, what Crouch makes look effortless—is the ability to write so assuredly about the sound and the mythos of jazz. Writing about the sound of modern music is a Herculean task; how many adjective get overused, how many sub-standard descriptors get repeated? How many worn-out phrases do we recycle? In Crouch’s passages, he very nearly invents a new language for discussing jazz. Parker’s tone was “at times comic or cavalier” and “devoid of pity”. Jazz, the type Parker played anyway, is its own voice—the voice that directed Parker to abandon his family, head East to New York, and push the needle in his vein.

As a reviewer, I should have known a bit better than to rush headlong into Kansas City Lightning. My eager appetite was rewarded with a blistering, metered first chapter. But then the real realm of Parker unfolds at a more tempered, delicate pace. Crouch, like any jazzman, understands that you can’t work your way into the spotlight and refuse to cede to the natural cadences of rhythm and pauses; there is no work worth its salt that continuously propels the reader forward at a maddening pace.

Parker’s life and Crouch’s words required the kind of careful consideration allowed a surgeon or an archeologist excavating the past and carefully examining the remnants to piece together a whole. And careful examination—right down to the most minute detail—are paramount to the panoramic show that Crouch is presenting. From the types of shoes that relatives wear, and the process by which Parker crafted his reeds, the extent of history presented in Kansas City Lightning is mind-numbing.

“When he told the guys in the band he played the alto saxophone, Goon Gardner, who was at a table flirting with a girl, turned around in his chair and slide a horn across the floor to Charlie, its neck and mouthpiece twisted safely up off the ground. Charlie picked up the instrument and turned the neck so that it was ready to play.” If the devil lives in the details, Crouch’s mission is not just to befriend the devil, but to make him a business partner.

Parker was nothing without his roots, his origin story. And Kansas City couldn’t have provided a rowdier or more fabulous cast of musicians. If “spook breakfasts” sound a bit uncanny, then its more alarming to grasp their reality—which is to say nothing of the live sex shows Parker witnessed and played at as a boy of 15. In 34 years’ time, Parker packed enough detail into his life that Crouch has a second part coming sometime soon.

But even if Kansas City Lightning is all Crouch gives us on Parker, it will be more than enough. It will be the personal culmination of a artists brief tenure and tearing down of the un-truths that have plagued Bird and his legend for so long.


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