Bird On a Wire The most passionate biography yet of the seminal jazz legend

Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker

By Stanley Crouch (Harper, 2013), 384 pages, including photos, bibliography, endnotes, index

In the spring of 1936, a young New York record producer and talent scout named John Hammond made his first trip to Kansas City. Many years later, by which time Hammond had launched the recording careers of singer Billie Holiday guitarist Charlie Christian and singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, he told a writer from the Atlantic Monthly that his first night in Kansas City “was the most exciting musical experience of my life.”

“I went straight to the Reno Club, where Basie was playing, and I stayed until four, when they closed. Then Basie and I went over to the Sunset Club to hear Joe Turner and Pete Johnson. We ended up at a joint on Eighteenth Street where Lester Young sat in…” Hammond never went to bed that night.

Chances are that Charlie Parker, just 15, was not among the musicians Hammond heard that long night in Kansas City, and if he had heard him the aristocratic New York jazz aficionado would surely have been disdainful of the skinny kid who carried his beat-up saxophone around in a cloth bag his mother had made for him. Charlie, who would change American music a decade later, hadn’t yet learned how to play the alto without squeaks and squawks and assorted harmonic infelicities, and Hammond would have remembered that sort of performance. Still, Hammond’s itinerary that night sounds much like the rounds young Parker himself was making, night after night, midnight to dawn in the wild, romping black entertainment district of KC.

By then, Charlie had pretty much given up on Lincoln High School, but it turned out he was getting a more-than adequate education just hanging out at the clubs that clustered around Vine Street at 12th and 18th. He hadn’t yet started using morphine—that would come within a year, as would the news that his young wife, Rebecca, was pregnant. Meanwhile, Charlie Parker was out on the town, learning from Kansas City’s peerless jazzmen. (And a few women, most prominently pianist-arranger Mary Lou Williams.)

Kansas City, where the Santa Fe Trail began, was still the Wild Wild West for musicians. Stanley Crouch explains that notion in “Kansas City Lightning,” his thoroughly researched, wonderfully serendipitous, at times quite lyrical new book about Parker’s early days. “For years it had been a wide-open city,” writes Crouch of Depression-era Kansas City, “thanks to the power of local gangsters and the corruption of boss Tom Pendergast’s regime—and in that time the city had become a hotbed of thrilling bandstand creativity.” Pendergast held no public office but he ran the city nonetheless, he and his cohorts in the Italian crime syndicate, and he permitted sin and decadence to flourish (with musical accompaniment) 24 hours a day as long as he got a cut of the proceeds.

Musicians, Crouch writes, “had known no Depression in Kansas City, no lack of work. Throughout the late 1920 and the 1930s, they had been free to play, compete and party around the clock. In that boomtown for jazz, mother lodes of style and gushers of swing were mined and brought in … to make way for a newly textured pressure on the rhythm, a Southwestern swing that celebrated the soul, as well as the coos, the calls, the cries, and the lamentations of the flesh, in pulsive time.”

Parker’s sound, Crouch writes, “struck some more conventional musicians as brittle or harsh, Parker didn’t care.” He aspired to notes that “came out of the horn quicker, that were blunt as snapping fingers when the inspiration demanded … though often sweet, it could also sound almost devoid of pity. One trumpeter through it sounded like knives being thrown into the audience.”

Crouch is passionate about his subject, about the music as well as the man, and he does tend to run on from time to time. It’s occasionally difficult to tell whether he is more in love with the sound of Charlie Parker’s saxophone, or the sound of is own voice. On the other hand, such apparent digressions as a close comparison of the compositional styles of Duke Ellington and movie director D. W. Griffith—with full discussion of the powerful effect of race on each—are quite interesting and thought provoking and even somewhat to the point. “Kansas City Lightning,” with its well-researched and well-told side trips into parallel histories, is reminiscent of another fine book that veers off the path of straight biography to the reward of the reader: Son of the Morning Star, Evan S. Connell’s multifaceted examination of the life and times of General George Armstrong Custer. And I can forgive Crouch any number of over-cooked metaphors and self-indulgent asides when his prose takes off and soars and snatches us up for the ride, like Charlie Parker’s saxophone. At its most intense, Crouch’s lyricism is positively Whitmanesque. His book is more passionate than other biographies of Parker, such as Ross Russell’s Bird Lives! The High Life and Hard Times of Charlie (Yardbird) Parker (1973), Chuck Haddix’s Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker (2013), and Gary Giddins’ Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (1987), and at the same time more scholarly. And no writer has come close to Crouch in detailing the immense influence growing up in Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s had on Parker.

In the 30-plus years he worked on Kansas City Lightning, Crouch conducted dozens and dozens of interviews with people who had known Parker, including his first wife, his childhood friends, and numerous musicians. He had lengthy interviews with John Tumino, manager of the band led by pianist Jay McShann, who reluctantly hired Charlie Parker in 1938 despite his drug habit and his unreliability.

Tumino told Crouch, “In Kansas City, the joints didn’t have locks on the doors. Threw them away! Didn’t need them. They were never closed anyway. . .you could have a good time morning, noon, and night. That stimulated God knows how much music—music of all kinds—and musicians playing so much they got better than just about anybody else in the country. These guys were playing all the time, long hours, and then they went out jamming and might not get home until the next afternoon. A few bucks, a little taste, and they were ready for anything and anybody. It was a good-time town, all right.”

In Kansas City Lightning, which is the first volume of his long-awaited biography of Parker, Crouch summons up in great, unprecedented detail the importance of Kansas City in the development of Charlie Parker, one of the prime creators of what is still, three-quarters of a century later, called “modern jazz.”

Garvin Bushell was a Kansas City reedman in the 1920s, when the Kansas City/Southwestern style was just emerging from bands like Walter Page’s Blue Devils and the Bennie Moten orchestra. Bushell remarked,  “The bands in the Midwest then had a more flexible style than the eastern ones. They were built on blues bands … They just played the blues, one after another, in different tempos.” The great bassist Walter Page and others molded the supple four-four rhythm that gave swing music much of its drive and potency out of essentially two-beat kinds of music, like the blues and New Orleans jazz. With a strong bassist, like Page, and a supple drummer, like Jo Jones of the Moten and Basie bands, four steady beats to the bar could carry the listener from night into morning like a fast-rising tide.

For the first time in the history of jazz, the saxophone, that most fluid instrument, led the ensemble’s way. Crouch observes, “the primacy of the saxophone, paired with the local players’ feeling for the blues, were central to the sound and character of Kansas City jazz.” The trumpet, the trombone, and the clarinet, the principal instruments of the New Orleans music of jazz’s birth, had been joined by the saxophone, and Charles Parker grew up hearing some of the best of the men who played it—Ben Webster, Lester Young, Herschel Evans, Budd Johnson, and other lesser-known innovators like Parker’s mentor the great reedman and arranger Buster Smith. In the 1930s, jazz still was dance music, popular music, and Kansas City’s throbbing four-four rhythm seemed born to be danced to, but many fans—like Hammond, a classically trained violinist—also appreciated, indeed demanded, instrumental virtuosity and harmonic innovation. Like earlier forms of European dance music in the hands of a Handel or a Bach, jazz was evolving into something more than a popular art form. And in Kansas City, the end of the earth as far as most easterners were concerned, the music never stopped and musicians were given room to change and grow and try new approaches away from the musical mainstream.

Charlie Parker was born in Kansas City, Kan., in August of 1920. An only child, he lived with and was spoiled by his mother, who left his drunken father when Charlie was about 10 and moved across the state line to the much larger city of Kansas City, Mo. Charlie and Addie’s new home, as luck would have it, was but a few blocks from the black nightclub district, where Kansas City jazz was being brewed. By the time he was 15, Parker, sensitive, intense, deeply intelligent and deeply self-centered, a womanizer like his father, was haunting the clubs, obsessed by the music. After an embarrassing failure at a jam session—Charlie was so bad that drummer Jo Jones threw a cymbal on the dance floor to shut him up—he began practicing his horn for many hours each day. He played with several local bands, including one that worked the Ozarks at the southwestern end of Missouri, and got his first big break at 18 when he was hired by McShann, whose base was Kansas City but who toured the East as well as the Midwest and Southwest.

Charlie’s idol was Count Basie’s great saxophonist Lester Young, who played the tenor with a light, supple sound that could be lyrical, sad, or jubilant. [“Not for him,” Crouch writes of Young, “the brusque call of Coleman Hawkins, whose vibrato bristled gruffly…”

Young counted among his influences the lyricism of the white reedman Frankie Trumbauer, and Buster Smith made sure that young Charlie Parker listened to Trumbauer, too—and to other white musicians. Although the innovators of the music in Kansas City as elsewhere were almost entirely African American, Kansas City was a Western city, not a Southern one like St. Louis at the eastern end of the state of Missouri, and racial rules and mores were looser. Whites and blacks often played music together, and in some clubs listened and, late at night, even danced together.

By 1937, the Basie band had taken up residence in New York, and the ensemble was famous enough that its sessions were broadcast nationally. McShann would time intermissions at his band’s gigs to catch the Basie broadcasts. Charlie Parker would listen with particular intensity to what Lester Young was playing and, Crouch writes, “when Young would do something new or exciting,” Charlie would “filter it back through his alto when the McShann orchestra returned to the bandstand.”

But Parker was, even then, much more than an imitator, and he was already capable of astonishing his fellow band members with the originality and advanced harmonies of his playing. Crouch writes, “Parker would toy with Young’s phrases, bending them, stretching them, stripping certain things away and mixing the compressed version with bold ideas of his own. But even when it was almost recitation, Charlie could tell his story with a shrill savagery you never heard in Young.” Parker had worked to rid himself of the vibrato so prominent in the playing of most saxophone players, and his sound was pared down to feed through the horn a stream of notes that could be passionate and fleet and even tender, but decidedly not “pretty.” He was after something deeper and stranger and truer than that, even if that something was also harder to take.

Parker’s sound, Crouch writes, “struck some more conventional musicians as brittle or harsh, Parker didn’t care.” He aspired to notes that “came out of the horn quicker, that were blunt as snapping fingers when the inspiration demanded…though often sweet, it could also sound almost devoid of pity. One trumpeter through it sounded like knives being thrown into the audience.” He became a virtuoso on the horn, but he probably would not have become one of the great jazz musicians of all time if he had not also been a harmonic genius who saw pathways through the chords that no one else could find without Parker showing the way.

In 1939, Boss Tom Pendergast was convicted of income tax evasion and sent to federal prison, enfeebling the reign of sin and corruption that had so enriched the nightlife of Kansas City. With most of the musicians he had admired and learned from leaving town or long gone, Charlie Parker stood in a KC railroad yard one night waiting for a train. He would ride boxcars to Chicago and then to New York, ready to compete with—and soon to astonish and dominate—the best jazz musicians in the world. He was dressed in old, baggy clothes, having hocked the last of his fancy bespoke suits to make the trip. He had even divested himself of his morphine habit, or at least got it under control. He was determined that nothing was going to stand in the way of his music. Charlie Parker told his wife and son goodbye and headed out.