Book Review: Kansas City Lightning

514book.250.jpgKansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch (New York: Harper, 2013), 365 pp. Hardcover, $27.99.

A section of this biography, which documents the early life of the dazzling bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, starts with a four-page meditation on "the truth and myth of railroads" in America: the figurative underground railroad that comprised a web of escape routes for slaves fleeing the South; the "black-smoke-puffing iron horse" that galloped into the West and "would eventually carry the brutal and legendary Apache chief Geronimo and his people . . . to Florida"; the trains "that inspired the legend of Casey Jones"; and the trains steaming through the blues tunes that echoed their melancholy nocturnal sounds.

Crouch views the train as "a vehicle and a dream source" in a culture where children were once tantalized by ads that pictured toy trains looping around "bright ovals of miniature track." As every jazz fan knows, Charlie Parker's playing traveled along bright ovals of its own. So does Crouch's prose, and his intellectual excursions carry readers well into the realm of African-American history, which is a significant dimension of this book.

Wielding a brush layered with jazz lore acquired over several decades, Crouch not only paints Parker as a young man, but also creates portraits of various 19th- and 20th-century musicians, along with vivid backdrop scenes that put his characters in context. All this makes it easier to accept the fact that he has left for another volume the saxophonist's most productive and, ultimately, self-destructive years.

The principal narrative line covers 20 years: from Parker's birth, in 1920, to 1940, when he returned to his mother's Kansas City, Missouri, home after some 18 months away. Crouch gleaned substantial information about his subject from primary research—personal interviews that date back to 1981. He talked with many of Parker's musical colleagues, as well as his first wife, Rebecca; one of her sisters; and Doris Parker, the musician's third wife.

While Crouch's sources provided abundant information, Parker's reserve seems to have obscured other facets of his personality. Clarence Davis, a trumpeter who played with him early on, was just one interviewee to mention Parker's reticence, noting, "He was never talkative. . . . Only time he talked was when he picked up his horn."

Parker's mother, Addie, doted on her only child. Though she earned their keep doing domestic work, and renting out parts of the two-story house she had bought after her husband's drinking drove her to leave him, she had Charlie's suits made to order. With them he wore slip-on shoes, a trait that Rebecca Ruffin Parker, who had met Charlie when he was 13 and her family moved into the second floor of the Parker house, attributed to laziness. "Lazy as they make them [and] spoiled rotten," she said of the boy she found so sweet, couldn't help but love, and married shortly before he turned 16.

Rebecca went on loving Charlie after some sour discoveries: the pubic lice he passed on to her, the missing possessions he had clearly taken to buy the white powder he once injected into his arm right in front of her. The teenaged musician would even hock, for drugs, his precious alto saxophone—the instrument "he had taken to kissing [and] calling . . . his 'baby.'"

Crouch's reflections on trains preface his account of a journey Parker took in 1939. At 18, he abandoned Rebecca and their year-old son, called Leon after the saxophonist Leon "Chu" Berry, and hopped a freight for Chicago. He then hoboed on to New York, where he apparently stayed clean of drugs while working hard to hone his musicianship. He came home after learning that his carousing, absentee father, who worked as a railway porter, had been stabbed to death with scissors by some "street woman."

Trains, Crouch ruminates, "solved problems of distance with speed—much as Charlie Parker would do years later, pulling into his horn an industrial edge of breathless rhythm and attack that gave as much flight and fancy to urban life as the metal taps on dancers' shoes, remaking the drag of gravity into an engine of rhythm ever ready to send out signals of elegance."

The glow of this outstanding book's title, Kansas City Lightning, extends beyond Parker to other musicians whose charged performances set the night sky of that politically corrupt, wide-open, "good-time town" ablaze in the 1920s and '30s. The trumpeter Orville "Piggy" Minor, who played with Parker there, told Crouch about a time Benny Goodman came around to jam. The main attraction then was Bill Basie's band, which included such top talents as the drummer Jo Jones, the trumpeter Buck Clayton, and the saxophonists Lester Young, Herschel Evans, and Buster Smith. Smith, an early Parker mentor, was called Professor or Prof for his prowess at arranging, which he preferred to stretching out on solos. Nevertheless, Minor recalled, Smith's playing was white-hot that night, and Goodman learned "'what a whole lot of people found out when they got to messing around in Kansas City. Benny Goodman found out how it felt when being a star didn't mean nothing. . . . Prof was cool about what he could do, but when he got to doing it, he could start spinning and spitting that stuff out. He could run a cyclone of fire up your butt.'"

So can Stanley Crouch.—David Lander

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture this 2010 C-SPAN interview talking about Charlie and the book, starting at 40:50.

If you have time, the whole wide-ranging interview is worth it.  Stanley's observations could have been made today.