Friday, January 17, 2014

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

Harper, 2013
365 pp


"What he gave the horn, it gave back. What it gave him, he never forgot."

The ultimate reading day for me includes the following: rain (which we get a lot of down here in the south), a cup or two or three of strong black coffee (no pods -- I love freshly ground) and most important, the jazz music playing in the background.  One of my favorite musicians is Charlie Parker, about whom this book was written.  I have been wanting to read a biography about Parker for a long time; when Kansas City Lightning was published last year, I scooped it up.  But here's the thing:  this is less of a biography than I thought it would be.  At first I was disappointed, but I kept flipping back to the book cover with its subtitle "The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker," and came to terms with the fact that a standard biography was not the author's intention.  I say that up front so that if you start reading and Parker disappears for long periods of book space, don't despair and keep going. The end product as a whole is informative and frankly, quite a ride, one not solely for the jazz lover.  It also speaks to African-American culture of the time, and expands out into a look at  blues, swing and jazz in the context of a wider American culture.    

Starting out at New York's Savoy Ballroom, the "Madison Square Garden of the battles of the bands", the story takes you back in time to the Kansas City and the origins of Parker's eventual rise to fame.  It was a place where musicians held court at 18th Street and Vine, where the blues morphed into a new form of jazz.  The book is filled with the people, music, culture etc that influenced Parker, often related via interview by people who were there who had a connection with him. There are also times where the author goes off on serious but informative tangents and  not just in the world of music: he spends time talking about the Buffalo Soldiers, the impact of D.W.Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," which portrayed African American men as the white man's worst enemies vis-a-vis white women; there is a also a brief history of minstrelsy which eventually serious African-American musicians refused to be a part of; the rise and downfall of boxer Jack Johnson and his later betrayal of Joe Louis among many others.  But it's when he's into the music and the musicians that the writing shines;  the descriptions of after-hours jam sessions where musicians were free to be themselves are amazing.  Even though there are a number of gaps in Parker's personal life story here (as the author notes, it's largely because so much of his early years remain undocumented), the beauty of this book lies in the world surrounding Parker and how it influenced his near fanatic drive to create something new, something  already inside him needing to come out. 

While sometimes the writing meanders, when he's ready to bring Parker back into the scene, he's in tight control.  Some of these parts  are reimagined, while others are based on personal memories and research. At the same time, he lets the reader know when discrepancies arise -- for example, stories told by Parker's first wife Rebecca don't always mesh with the eyewitness accounts of her sister.  But while in places the writing might strike an off-key note (for me there were a few, especially when he equates "Charlie's curiosity about narcotics" to his affection for Sherlock Holmes mysteries) taken as a whole, the book has a cool flow to it, filled with vivid jargon in a style that is truly his own. 

Reader response has been generally favorable toward this book; after perusing several professional reviews, the same is true on that level as well.  I also discovered that Kansas City Lightning is just one of a two-volume set, so I'll sit tight and eagerly anticipate the next book.  In the meantime, I can very highly recommend this book, especially to fans of jazz and of Charlie Parker, but also to anyone who is into African-American history.  A definite no-miss.

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