Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Young Bird: Kansas City Lightning by Stanley Crouch

Though I've sometimes disagreed with him,  I've always had a soft spot for Stanley Crouch. Even in that hot-house tete-a-tete with the likes of one-time Miles sideman Mtume, I admired Crouch's defence of pre-electronic Miles, though I also had time for his adversaries. And I've long admired Crouch's essays in books like Notes of a Hanging Judge and Celebrating Genius. A musician, essayist, novelist, poet and radical traditionalist, Crouch is as qualified as anyone, and more than most, to revise Charlie Parker's life and legacy. Thirty years in the making, Kansas City Lightning covers Bird's early Kansas City years, up to his first trip to New York and return to K.C..

Crouch has certainly done his research, a good deal of it deriving from oral testimony.  The opening section on the Jay McShann's arrival at the Woodside in Harlem, with young Charlie Parker on alto, is pretty much worth the price of the book on its own.  Every sentence is a gem:

"The rest of the country may have been gearing up for war, but these musicians, known as the Jay McShann Orchestra, had been at war most of their lives. They were jazzmen, and that meant fighting with many a rival band for the affections of the dancers, and fighting with other individual musicians and aggregations for a place in the world of music- whether second chair or first chair, local fame or national recognition... 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 own voice. Just as an outstanding individual has a walk, a way of carrying the body through space, or a way of adding unique particulars to a dance, an outstanding player had to work till he developed his own phrasing, his own rhythm.  Like a cook who can reinvent a familiar meal, he had to know how to mix his own musical batter, how to balance his own spices, how to fry an idea on one side before turning it over. All those things formed your style and style was what led to recognition. It was the difference between being an artisan and an artist."

While Ross Russell's forty-year old Bird Lives remains an excellent and important book by that Chandler and Hammett-influenced writer, Kansas City Lightning fills in the gaps in greater detail,  and does so in a manner that befits its subject, Crouch's style an amalgam of black bop prosody and American modernist prose. Though, as Crouch points out, Bird, during this period, was an elusive figure, like a character in a film in  one scene only to vanish and pop up somewhere else.

But Crouch responds with a vengeance, delving into Bird's early life. And there seems to be much there to discover.  Evoking America during the Depression,  Crouch is particularly good when describing the music coming out of those territorial bands, both with and without Bird. And he's fond shifting from the particular to the general, in this case from the biographical to the cultural. Some segues might seem a bit stilted, but they are invariably interesting and thought provoking. For instance, when Bird holds a gun to his wife's head after Rebecca has called him out for lying about a sexually explicit letter from another woman, Crouch shifts from Rebecca's defiance- "If you're going to point at my head ahead, you'd better kill me"-  to what lies behind that defiance,  i.e., how African Americans, particularly women, were meant to behave as opposed to how they were being portrayed in news reels of faraway places, making the gap between fact and fiction more than superficially important, the gun being something real rather than a prop or something carved from the imagination. In the real world, the likes of Rebecca were ready to give it all up for the truth. As was Bird when it came to his music. In fact, Crouch's book is as much about world surrounding Bird, as it is about Bird himself. Which doesn't nor shouldn't obscure the fact that KC Lightning is about the education of a musician, and no ordinary musician at that.

It's also about how Bird came to sound the way he did. Crouch is quick to point out that it wasn't that his playing was a reaction to Lester Young, Chu Berry or Coleman Hawkins. He wanted to be playing with, if not like, them, to be recognised for who he was and what he played. Of course, Bird had and an ear and an ability like no one else. But this is certainly no hagiography. In fact, Bird as a person doesn't come of it looking all that great. After all, because he gave himself totally to the music, personal relationships, unless they were directly related to the music, were likely to take a back seat. Likewise, Crouch doesn't shy from depicting Bird's callous treatment of his wife and child, whether selling Rebecca's clothes to buy drugs, or leaving her to fend for herself.

Because there are blank spots in Bird's day to day Kansas City life, Crouch is left to improvise on what he has uncovered or suspects. And he manages to improvise admirably. This is particularly the case regarding Bird's initial visit to NY. Though that period remains sketchy, Crouch points out that during that time Bird managed to stay drug free, though perhaps he felt he had to lest he trade his music for a life of crime. Still, the paucity of information doesn't stop Crouch from riffing on his subject, while deploying some stylish prose:

"By the time Charlie Parker arrived in New York that winter, he'd been wearing his shoes so long that his feet and legs were swollen out of shape. He had come the hard way, freezing in boxcars between towns, getting a roof over his head and breakfast from the Salvation Army, then taking to the rails again. But he took the bumps, scrapes and pricks of his journey in stride, because he'd finally gotten to the place at the far end of the country where he wanted to be. Slight or acute, pain was a traveling partner by now. He'd learned the weight that hypocrisy and chaos brought to his sense of life, how it felt to be alone and the target of contempt; how to bear the soreness that came with mastering his instrument..."  

Of course, Crouch has much information here that will be new and illuminating to those familiar and unfamiliar with Bird's biography. But Crouch moves from the particular to the general, interpreting Bird, and sounding fairly convincing in the process:

"There was a high-minded, contemplative side to Charlie, too, a habit of wondering how things would feel if the world were vastly different. As fascinated as he was by innovation and invention, he was more intrigued by the inspiration behind the invention- by how some human mind thought of each new idea. He recognized that thought was a pure thing not impeded by social circumstance. It had independent power. A C scale was a C scale, no matter who played it or why, which gave those notes- any notes- a spiritual quality. That's why the bandstand was a sacred place, and why it would have been difficult to ascertain much about the social conditions of the 1930s by listening to the Negro musicians of Charlie's era. They didn't evade life when they performed, whether in public or private; they entered its condition of freedom through their craft, discipline and inspiration. In the pure universe of musical tone, they were able to express themselves as exactly who they were, not as the limited icons that others, black or white, might mistake them for."

Parker's elusiveness even extends to the date and circumstances of his first known recording- Body and Soul/Honeysuckle Rose (see the clip below). A private recording from either 1939 or 1940, location unknown, on which Bird plays unaccompanied. It's there that Crouch ends the book, suggesting, with that recording, that something monumental was about to take place: "Parker, the young talent, was beginning to realize that no established genius, however rough, tough and dreamily hypnotic, could hear what he was hearing. Perhaps what he heard was his and his alone."  One thing for sure, this book will make you want to dust off or acquire recordings by the Blue Devils, Bennie Moten, Buster Smith, Jay McShann, and, of course, Bird.  It also made me want to go back to some of the old school critics, like Albert Muarry and Ralph Ellison, not to mention Langston Hughes. Based on this volume- another is in the pipeline- Crouch's combined book looks certain to be, if not the definitive Bird biography, one of the best biographies of a jazz musician you are likely to read in this or any other year.


1 comment :

dlwilson26 said...

I read Crouch's Charlie Parker book "Kansas City Lightning." He is restrained and he does know a lot. I'd even say he has a big
picture view of Afro-American music that he put together by building it up by listening to all the various streams. His style is an attempt to catch the zeitgeist and thus it can be very immediate and engaging. He backs up his narrative with interviews of people who knew Bird like other musicians and Bird's family and friends from KC. Crouch likes to let the reader know that he knows more than you by working in the titles of some of the seminal songs that were part
of the bebop era. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. The man loves alliteration and makes use of Raymond Chandler's similes. Again sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. I give him a lot of credit for clearing up a lot of the myths of a life that was built on myth. The narrative ends with Bird's second trip to New York in
the early 40's when the revolution still was simmering with a top on.