How Charlie Parker Became “Bird!”

“How do you do that?” young Charlie Parker would ask older musicians. “Would you please do that again?” Those who know jazz, or who only know of jazz greats such as the man many have known simply as “Bird,” might have trouble imagining those questions coming from Parker. The standard mythology of Bird-ology holds that Charlie Parker discovered a whole new way of playing all by himself that changed the game of jazz instantly. Like a bolt from the blue, Parker struck like Kansas City lightning. Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, the first of a proposed two-part biography of the saxophonist, brings the lightning and the thunder, but more importantly explains where the force of nature Parker became came from. Starting with the thriving Kansas City jazz scene of the first third of the 20th century and concluding with Parker’s artistic arrival in New York City, Crouch paints a biographical portrait of the troubled artist against the larger musical, cultural, and historical landscapes of the times. In the end, you’ll find that Bird, the quintessentially original artist, grew from a set of long traditions that both kept him grounded and gave him the wings to fly.

Crouch begins by dropping you in medias res on a hot, 1940s New York City bandstand with the Jay McShann band featuring Charlie Parker on alto sax. “[H]e was ready, relaxed, and prepared to show off his wares,” Crouch writes of Parker at that moment. “Those wares hadn’t come easily, but through will, discipline, and his massive talent, he was approaching a point of almost absolute flexibility.” After “spen[ding] thousands of hours listening to, thinking about, and playing music,” Parker found himself on the cusp of becoming one of those few improvisational musicians who “invented his own line, his own melody, and orchestrated it within the ensemble so that he was in effect playing every instrument.” Crouch, a well-regarded jazz critic who served as one of the more enlightening talking heads of Ken BurnsJazz, takes you inside the music and the minds of the men who made it.

Improvisation’s “not magic, but it should seem like it is,” Crouch quotes an older musician. The author cites a long list of influences on Parker: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lester Young, Art Tatum, Coleman Hawkins, Roy Eldridge, Chu Berry, and, perhaps most importantly, the undeservedly little known Buster Smith, who became a mentor and father figure to Parker. In many ways, as Crouch shows, Parker grew up at the right time in the right place—Kansas City during the Great Depression, which became a Mecca for musicians looking for work in those lean times. In this great, but often cruel master class, only the strongest players survived the hyper-competitive “cutting sessions” that determined musical skill. Like many others, young Charlie stepped onto the bandstand and fell short. Unlike many others, however, young Charlie took the laughter and ridicule as fuel to come back stronger and even more determined. Years later, Bird tried to rewrite his early history. “He rarely raised technical specifics in his conversation,” Crouch relates, “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.” That “cosmic” natural image belies the hard work behind Parker’s art. “Bird” may have created his personal mythology to dissuade copycats, but, as Crouch more than proves, discovering the long struggle behind the seemingly effortless music makes us think more, not less, of the artist.

Beyond music, however, Crouch even more powerfully connects Parker to his times and almost to all times. “That long march to improvised sophistication began in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, when African slaves were first brought to North America,” Crouch writes, taking the extremely long view of history. “[Parker’s] bloodline was both cosmopolitan and all-American, mingling African, Indian (which is also to say Asian), and European stock. And the Wild West in which he grew up was shaped by the same three sources that constituted his genetic line.” At times, Crouch’s long-view history feels like it wanders from the subject, but he never fails to bring you back to Bird. To Crouch, “Charlie Parker was preparing to join a league of dignified musicians like Duke Ellington, of athletes like Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, of generations of lay persons who were buffeted about until they got their bearings and found as many ways to be unsentimentally happy as they could.” When Crouch connects the way the night of June 19, 1936 was both the night Joe Louis lost to Max Schmeling—a cataclysmic night for African Americans—and the night Charlie Parker decided to get married—a vital hinge in his personal history—you witness a master historian and writer in action. When Parker hops a train to hobo his way first to Chicago and then New York City, Crouch seizes the opportunity to muse on the roles trains have played in the African-American experience both metaphorically (the Underground Railroad) and physically. Parker later remarked that what appealed the most to him about the itinerant existence was, as Crouch puts it, “the insignificance of race” in which “[t]o the hobos, color meant nothing” and “[m]en were only men.” When Crouch enters such imaginative historical writing, the reader also realizes the insignificance of race as he emphasizes that African-American history is first and foremost American history.

In the midst of his wonder over Parker’s talent and drive, however, Crouch never loses sight of the dark side of this musical genius. Instead of excusing or judging Parker’s drug addiction, Crouch reports the facts and the influence on Parker’s personal and professional lives. He even offers the fascinating theory that Parker’s addiction could be related to his affection for the stories of Sherlock Holmes, the fictional genius who turned to drugs to stimulate his ever-restless intellect. Perhaps Parker rationalized his addiction as a sign of his own Holmesian genius, but that would just make him the first to rationalize his addiction and not the last critic or even the last musician to turn to drugs in hopes of replicating Bird’s “magic.” Just as Crouch pulls away the veil on Parker’s musical magic tricks, he dispels thoroughly any connection between the drugs and the music, other than how the drugs became a hindrance to his greatness. The harrowing tale of an enraged Charlie holding a gun to the head of his first wife emphatically illustrates the depth of Parker’s dark side.

Quoting another of his many writings, Crouch at one point praises African-American culture (and, by extension, Parker) for an “infinite plasticity” that could bend and adjust to accommodate new styles and approaches into a constantly new, continually interesting form. Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker demonstrates Crouch’s own “infinite plasticity” in his willingness to think both big and small in coming to terms with how Charlie Parker became Bird within the context of his time and place. In fact, by the end of this first volume, Bird is not yet “Bird.” Fellow musicians called him “Indian” as a reference to the stock still, “Cigar Store Indian” pose Parker would take even when playing his fastest and most frenetic. Kansas City Lightning never holds still in a fascinating voyage of discovery of both Parker the artist and Parker the African-American man navigating the troubled racial waters of America in the 20th century. Charlie “Bird” Parker challenged the limits of meter and melody to create a new way of listening and playing. In Kansas City Lightning, Stanley Crouch challenges the limits of history and biography to create a new way of appreciating both.

[Many thanks to Harper Collins Publishers for providing me with a review copy of Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker.]

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