Jan 1, 2014

Review: "Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker," by Stanley Crouch

“Long-awaited” is the descriptive term that reviewers repeatedly attach to Stanley Crouch’s new biography of Charlie Parker, "Kansas City Lightning." Beginning in the early 1980s, Crouch taped interviews with a number of Parker’s early associates, including Bird’s first wife, Rebecca Ruffin; Jay McShann; Buster Smith; Gene Ramey; and many others. Finally, in 2013, Crouch organized this material, along with previously known Parker history, into "Kansas City Lightning," which covers Parker’s life until about 1940. A second volume is anticipated.

However, Crouch was not content to produce a simply factual biography.

The reader will be immediately struck by two aspects of this book that one would not normally expect from a biography: First, the writing style that Crouch chooses to employ is not just florid, but over-the-top florid, in a vernacular idiom, often in street talk. Secondly, the narration often veers away from biography, into tangential historical material (e.g., railroad history; Jack Johnson; Sherlock Holmes; Chicago gangsters; American music from minstrels to ragtime). It’s enough to make most reviewers wonder what the heck Crouch was trying to do.

Check out these excellent reviews. You can feel the effort the reviewers had to expend, to make sense of Crouch’s mode of narration:

Matt Schudel, in The Washington Post

Dwight Garner, in The New York Times

Here’s my take: Crouch's digressions are obviously meant to put the biographical details into a comprehensive cultural/historical setting. The real significance of Parker’s life story is in the context of American culture. It goes in both directions: Understanding his world helps us to understand the development and significance of his art. At the same time, his art has taken its place in the ongoing development of our present cultural world.

Why the over-the-top florid writing style? I think the explanation is in an NPR interview that Crouch gave with Tavis Smiley: 

Crouch: ...there always is a bittersweet version of an epic hero in mythology. Charlie Parker is as close to a super hero as someone can be because the way he could play was on a super hero level. But that didn’t mean that he was a perfect person because Odysseus, Achilles, all of these people, they’re very gifted, but they’re also very screwed up [laugh]... 
The key here is Crouch’s analogy of Achilles and Odysseus to Charlie Parker. Today we see Charlie Parker as a nearly mythical figure - a “super hero.” The interviews that Crouch collected are as "factual" as reminiscences could be, fifty years later. Crouch, while presenting this "factual" material (OK, he does seem to invent some dialog, and often presumes to describe Charlie’s thoughts), sets himself up as an epic bard (like Homer, or maybe a Kansas City old-timer), and chooses his narrative voice appropriately. I’m sure Crouch knew that this would annoy some readers and reviewers, but if you look at this book as a long yarn spun by a colorful storyteller, it makes a very entertaining read. 

As far as nut-and-bolts musical analysis goes, this book doesn’t have a lot. Musicians will find better specific information in the biographies by Lawrence Koch (Yardbird Suite) and Carl Woideck (Charlie Parker: His Music and Life). Crouch does include some nicely written descriptions of the creative process in jazz, that are accessible to the average reader. As well, he explains the influences of Lester Young, Buster Smith, and Chu Berry on Parker’s style in layman's terms.

Although Stanley Crouch is a musician (drummer) as well as a writer, he does not always nail it, when it comes to the saxophone. I can say this, because I’m a sax player. For example,

“[Charlie] had long since mastered the physical challenges of playing - the pain of the lips, the tongue, and the teeth; the fatigue of the fingers, and the limitations of the lungs...”
As someone who has been playing for over 50 years, and taught many hundreds of students, I can assure you that this passage is more than a little overstated. But of course, it’s really just Crouch’s chosen prose style. There were a few other questionable saxophone-related statements that perhaps should have been fact-checked - but these are minor quibbles.

This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to understand how Charlie Parker went from being a clueless kid to becoming the brilliant creator of a musical style that is still fundamental to jazz. It’s quite informative, written from a unique perspective, and a lot of fun, if you are willing to accept Stanley Crouch on his own terms.

Link: Stanley Crouch bio on Wikipedia

And Happy New Year!

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