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Book Review – Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a book that I just didn’t want to put down; you know, one of those books where you’re on page 183 and before you know it, you look down and you’re on page 287. This is one of those. (the truth be told, it's been awhile since I've read a whole book!)

This seems to be the first volume of a longer biographical project. It mostly covers Parker’s Kansas City years, with an excursion or two to the Big Apple and elsewhere. Crouch has been working on the book since the 1980s, and in that time he’s done a lot of interviews. This material enables him to tell the story as if it were a novel rather than a dry academic biography.

Anytime anybody talks about Parker, there are two broad topics: one is his music, and the other is his messy life. From early on in those Kansas City years, Parker dedicated himself to the alto saxophone with amazing drive, but at the same time seemed utterly incapable and unwilling to resist the temptations of drugs, alcohol and women. This is a familiar story. But in this book we can see the roots of it from when he was a teenager in Kansas City. Most of the accounts we are familiar with already are from his years in New York City.

So, as for his life, we learn about his mother’s dedication to him, his absent father (a Pullman porter), his troublesome teen-age marriage to Rebecca, his need to be out on the streets all night and his dalliances with drugs (which started at a very young age). As for his music, we hear about his early failures when he was laughed off the bandstands, his influences (Lester Young, Chu Berry, Roy Eldridge, and – most importantly – his mentor, Buster Smith), and his relentless drive to master his horn. (One of my favorite episodes is when Benny Goodman, making a visit to Kansas City, is put in his place by Smith in a jam session/cutting contest. The “professor,” despite being a great musician, was in most cases not interested in the spotlight but that night he felt obliged.)

Parker was intellectually curious. One minute he would be discussing philosophy and the next he would be sharing wine out of a paper bag with down-and-out juiceheads. His playing reflects this duality. Highly complex, lightning fast runs grounded with deep blues.

A talented storyteller, Crouch also knows his music and his history. The historical context and story of the young Bird are elegantly interwoven in this fine biography.



April 2019



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