Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker.
This masterwork by Stanley Crouch is a sustained piece of biography, imagination, and insight written in a pulsating prose that offers thrills and astonishments on every page.
More than thirty years in the making, Kansas City Lightning is the product of Crouch's deep research; of his highly attuned ear for music and speech; his skill at eliciting the juiciest memories, rumors, and cutting witticisms from famous and obscure raconteurs; his mad love of jazz in general and of the artistry of Charlie Parker in particular. The book caps Crouch's career-long drive to render into prose both the beauty and ugliness that comprise America's cultural splendor (though he no doubt is weaving other caps for future doffing).
This text is a sustained piece of Crouch's blowing prose riffs that often made me shake my head and go "Wow!" as he rang the changes on his several themes, consistently embellishing them with poetic observations that deepen a reader's understanding of both national history and musical composition. At his most felicitous, Crouch calls to mind the mastery of the English language evinced by the sublime seventeenth-century paragon Thomas Browne coupled with powerpacked two-fisted prose of American detective fiction a la Dashiell Hammett. At other times, he deploys the plain and colorful prose of fairy tales:
[Kansas City] was a city where corruption sprawled in comfort and a child could get the idea that right was wrong and wrong was right: the mayor was a pawn, the city boss was a crook, the police were corrupt, the gangsters had more privileges than honest businessmen, and the town was as wild with vice as you could encounter short of a convention of the best devils in hell.
Crouch's themes include not just Parker and jazz but also the conglomerated aesthetic of American territorial and regional history, the ironically liberating effect on some Afro-American communities of organized gangsters in the 1930s, the complex legacy of minstrelsy, the early film industry and its ingenious racist motifs a la D. W. Griffith, the locomotive, the rise of radio, the impact of the boxing champions Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, the yeasty significance of New Orleans, the interplay of classical and popular music, the aesthetics derived from mechanization, the pre-jazz musical tributaries flowing out of Dixieland and Ragtime, the musical education programs in secondary schools and colleges, the military marching bands, the bittersweet democracy of hobo life, and more.
Charlie Parker is twenty-one when the book begins. It's late 1941, around the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the kid, after a period of humiliation during his fledgling efforts on the alto sax, has married, fathered a son, fallen prey to dope, and caught on, after years of intense woodshedding alone and with a few buddies who were fellow aspirants, with Jay McShann's big band in Kansas City, Missouri. The ensemble is preparing to hit the road for New York City to take on Gotham bands in the bitter-friendly musical battles that were highlights of that era. Like that of all great, near-great, and would-be-great artists, Parker's self-imposed quest was to identify a mark he might make and then figure out how to make it:
Whatever you were after, you had to get up off your rusty dusty and do something to get noticed-something that was so much like you, it was nothing like anyone else. ... The point was to work at it and think about it and think about it until you'd produced a tone as recognizable as the texture of your voice.
Crouch recapitulates, reassembles, and reiterates his theme of what jazz creation is many times, often combining music-critic aesthetic lingo with vernacular flourishes. As in:
The goal was the groove, which felt like effortless perfection, a rhythm so right it was a refuge from mistakes. The groove was the jazzman's definition of absolute grace: shit, grit, and the highest level of mother wit. The development of the improvising rhythm section separates jazz from both African and European music, because the form demands that the players individually interpret the harmony, the beat, and the timbre while responding to one another and the featured improviser. Jazz, as a performing art, is about navigating a landscape in which spontaneous creation whizzes by in layered stacks, and about creating a fresh and continual response to that landscape.
Crouch has inherited and extended (and transferred to Wynton Marsalis) the not so much Afro-centric as Afro-radiant aesthetic of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, an aesthetic that acknowledges both the many sources of American culture that Afro-Americans have absorbed and inherited while also prizing and attempting to identify that hard-to-define "it" without which any "it" don't mean a thing if "it" ain't got "it." Whatever the "it" was or is, it requires artists to attend to the tastes of the collective, of his or her community:
All bluesmen had to [find out] that the audible route to success was through creating subtlety and fire in the tones and timbres of Negro American speech and rhythm and song.... The kinds of voices they heard in their daily lives had to rise out of the horns; the intervals they liked had to be rolled or trilled or boogied out of the piano; the backbeats they liked to set their dance steps to were expected of the drummers.
But neither the soil from which they arise nor their immediate progenitors can predict or explain the makeup of a genius. Drawing on the mountain of interviews he recorded from the 1980s on with Parker's friends and colleagues, Crouch gives us a Parker who even by age twenty-one was "possessed by his music-by a ravenous need to improvise, to learn new tunes, to find new ways of getting through the harmonies with materials that would liberate him from cliches. Once he did, his new ideas so excited him that he would play around the clock.... [Yet] Parker seemed to have a crying soul, a spirit as troubled by the nature of life as it was capable of almost unlimited celebration."
Mother-henned by Addie Parker, a woman whose hooks into her son were akin to those sunk into Norman Bates by his deranged mom in Psycho, Parker was a spoiled brat who grew into an aloof, feckless adolescent, undependable and sometimes sadistic. His father, Charles Sr., a railroad cook, lived nearby. A man of great charms and greater dissipation, he preferred over Addie's and Charlie's company that of another woman with whom he'd also sired a son. When Charlie was ten, Addie threw his dad out and moved from Kansas City, Kansas, to Kansas City, Missouri, where she intensified the doting on her son.
In 1934, when Charlie was fourteen, Addie took in another woman whose marriage had foundered, Fanny Ruffin, who rented the Parkers' second floor with five of her six children. One of them, Rebecca, was roughly Charlie's age, perhaps a year older. It was love at first sight, even though Fanny Ruffin never took to Charlie because of his all-too-familiar-to-her trifling ways. Nevertheless, the adolescent romance continued and led to secret encounters and then to marriage on July 25, 1936. Rebecca may have been sixteen, but Charlie was still a month shy of that milestone.
The novelistic saga of Charlie and Rebecca and their two strong and proud but antagonistic mothers threads in and out of the narrative like a pattern in a polychromatic tapestry. It's a sad story of love undercut by Charlie's drug addiction (he may have gotten hooked first at fifteen), his falseness and cheating on his wife and others, his callous role in the abortion of a second son: Charlie couldn't keep any promises to anyone or anything but his horn-and even that was a horn in the abstract, because he often pawned or purloined his real horns, some of them barely superior to scrap metal.
Added to Crouch's what-is-jazz/what-is-art motif (the changes on which he sort of wrings dry before letting it go) and the motif of the first twenty-one years of Charlie's life is a third, more complex compositional element. Woven sparingly, brilliantly, and unexpectedly, and providing a rich cultural and historical context for the biography, are italicized tone poems. These exquisitely crafted interludes stand apart from the core text but reverberate with it. It is here that Crouch exercises his own prodigious, idiosyncratic intelligence to the fullest. Crouch's prologue is the first example. He envisions a West African man dancing atop stilts, turning and spinning so as to "suggest the power of human beings to master the subtle-to-savage disruptions of rhythm and even that define experience." Then he executes a cinematic jump-cut to Harlem's Savoy Ballroom, where Charlie Parker is playing "for the Thursday night courtship ritual of the 'kitchen mechanics'-the female domestics on their night off, dressed in homespun Cinderella finery. The shine of their skin, in various tones, is muted by beige powder; rouge colors their lips; their hair is done up in gleaming black scrolls."
The second interlude pops up almost halfway through, opening Part 2, which is about Parker's musical apprenticeship. Here Crouch is giving a backhanded slap to the sort of establishment critic who seeks to belittle Parker and other jazz geniuses as talented noble savages who, as we hear of great boxers, athletes, and other dark performers, have talents that "can't be taught" or are "freaks," and in any case are unable to say how and why they do what they do. Charlie Parker "wasn't one to talk in musical detail about what he was doing," Crouch writes. "He rarely raised technical specifics in his conversation, and when he did talk, Parker sometimes gave the impression that he was largely a natural, an innocent into whom the cosmos poured its knowledge while never bothering his consciousness with explanations. The facts of his development were quite different. He worked for everything he got, and whenever possible, he did that work in association with a master."
Crouch draws on his conversations with sources ranging from Parker's widow to Jay McShann to show how intensely Parker taught and trained himself under the aegis of saxophone mentors and peers. Parker was also an avid reader of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes mysteries in his teens, and Crouch, in conveying his sense of mental affinities shared by Parker and Holmes, both of whom searched for mastery while seeking diversion through substances, quotes from The Sign of the Four. The novel opens with Holmes injecting his multi-punctured forearm with cocaine, then sinking back "with a long sigh of satisfaction." Holmes "goes on from that passage to exhibit incredible power of detection, a mastery of large implications divined through small details," Crouch notes, then adds:
If Charlie read the story before encountering the sweet haze of morphine, his curiosity is understandable. Each Doyle sentence is a road leading into a world where calculated or desperate destruction became comprehensible through the heightened gifts of a great detective. The Holmes stories transcend constraints of race or class since any brilliant young person in the modern world might identify with a detective solving the riddles of the universe.
The last and most striking interlude occurs seventy pages shy of the end. Focused on the railroad, it touches on the opening of the West before Parker's birth, the abolition movement as a figurative railroad, the mastery over technology represented by the toy train set, the legends of Casey Jones and John Henry, before calling attention to
[the] hard, unsentimental sound of the blues, evolving from the rural guitar and the rural voice, mimicking the shuffle of the train in a rhythm that pulled together the march and the waltz-that blues sound took a stand for the human heart in the factory-made American world.
And then, as if digging his toes in his stirrups and rearing up on the hind legs of his epic muse, Crouch concludes with this coda on Parker's hoboing days on a train out of Kansas City:
The trains allowed a colored man such a wide berth he sometimes almost felt as free as those whose only privilege was white skin, not money or class. The Negro railroad men smoked cigars as often as cigarettes; they wore their clothes mercilessly pressed, wore shoes so well-shined that the gleam told onlookers that they were men who knew of faraway places and felt comfortable all over the country.
Writing like that had me making so many chicken scratches with my pen that my book looks like a yard bird went over it with its feet. Sure, now and then Crouch can make you wince, as when a honking sax player raises your hair with a screech or honk. He seems, for example, to have a fetish about skin color and thus almost no figure emerges in the book without at least one metaphorical rendition of his or her skin tone. These dermal tropes function like epithets in epic literature, a thesaurus of terms ranging from midnight, eggplant, red bone, and, oh, so many more. But that's a quibble (and not much more consequential than my other quibble: Shouldn't the emblematic bird on the cover be a chicken rather than an eagle? If you tell it like it is, show it like it is!).
Crouch finishes the book in diminuendo mode, letting us know this is not the last movement in his organ symphony. After all, Parker is only twenty-one when we leave him. And we leave his biographer, too, standing at center ring, a bit weary after duking it out with an array of combatants who have presented a view of Parker or of jazz or of Afro-American culture or of American culture in general that strike him as inadequate, unjust, or downright twisted. Unlike me, some may resent the belligerence that occasionally surfaces in Crouch's narrative, as, for example, when he contrasts the 1930s denizens of the Cotton Club with some of today's dancing youth:
It was a place where white customers could experience so-called "jungle nights" in Harlem, full of what they thought to be the darkies' "natural" behavior-authentically imbecilic, if not amusingly or intriguingly subhuman, much like the thug-and-slut hip-hop world of today.
I enjoy a writer with a big chip on his shoulder, and if I'm judging the fray, I'd say in the cultural-critic Tough Man competition, Stanley Crouch is at this point still the last man standing.
John Woodford grew up in Benton Harbor, Michigan. After earning his BA and MA in English literature at Harvard University, he entered the field of journalism, first at let and Ebony magazines. He joined Muhammad Speaks newspaper in 1968 and served as executive editor there from 1969 to 1972. After copy editor positions at the Chicago Sun-Times and the New York Times, he wrote and edited for Ford Times and the Ann Arbor Observer before becoming an executive editor for the University of Michigan, where he ran the school's feature publication, Michigan Today, for twenty years, until his retirement in 2005.
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|Publication:||The Black Scholar|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2014|
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