Capturing Bird: Stanley Crouch on Kansas City Lightning

While learning to play the saxophone as an eleven-year-old, I expressed an interest in jazz almost immediately, so my mother bought me the Charlie Parker Omnibook: an extensive collection of the bebop player's improvised solos transcribed in perfect notation. The pages were filled with a spattering of sweeping arpeggios, sophisticated harmonies, and blazing thirty-second-note runs that would make your head spin; in some sections the staff was barely discernible beneath the flurry of broken chords and winking grace notes. As I struggled against Parker's genius, I would usually wonder about the man himself. Parker was the enigmatic figure behind the music, whose distinctive style was nevertheless channeled through my poor approximations of his masterworks, a melodic phoenix consistently reborn from the ashes of my attempts.

To most, Charlie Parker is considered a tragic virtuoso, a man of endless talent whose life ended at thirty-four due to the accumulated damage wreaked by heroin and alcohol. As one of the most influential jazz musicians in history, it's surprising that until now, Parker has remained the man in the iron mask of his genre, his story coming through his horn but not from those who actually knew him. Yet Stanley Crouch, jazz historian, novelist, critic, and one of the founders of Jazz at Lincoln Center, has managed to lift that mask in Kansas City Lightning, a chronicle of Parker's early life and the beginnings of his musical career. The book itself reads like a jazz record: Crouch zigs and zags around the mysterious years of Parker's childhood and adolescence with the seemingly erratic nature of a soloist, but don't be fooled: he keeps a straight narrative beneath the brass, the beat of a jazz band's rhythm section that becomes louder and more prominent as the story develops. Cradling Parker's past in the long and incredibly fruitful history of music in America, Crouch brings the alto saxophonist to life, his biography an amalgamation of the people who knew him, loved him, and, of course, played alongside him.

The following is an edited transcript of our conversation about Parker, the strange and colorful years of the Depression that birthed him, and of course, that temperamental swinging beast that's distinctly, unapologetically, gorgeously American: jazz. --Sarah Ungerleider
 
The Barnes & Noble Review: Kansas City Lightning is a biography thirty years in the making. What kind of writing process did you develop for this book, and how did you accommodate the vagueness that surrounds Parker's early years?

Stanley Crouch: After I responded to Clint Eastwood's biopic of Charlie Parker, Bird, in the New Republic, I was convinced by my agent that I should come up with a proposal for a biography. At that point I started going to Kansas City, Parker's hometown, to interview those who had drunk wine with him and played music with him, and Charlie Parker began to appear to me. He became even clearer when I went to Texas and interviewed bassist Gene Ramey, a homemade "Mr. Memory" who had known and worked with Parker in K.C. and traveled across the country with him in the Jay McShann orchestra, destined for the Savoy Ballroom in 1942.

It was at that time that I became aware of the central challenge to a biographer: to make the data come alive to the reader, which is something David S. Reynolds and I have discussed at length. The reader should not feel that he or she is looking through a fishbowl but feel like he or she is in the water -- that all of this life is going on around them, not just in front of them.

I found that I had to develop a technique that involved listening to a tape of someone speaking about Parker, and studying it over and over again until I could hear the rhythms of the way the person spoke, then take that first-person recording and turn it into a third-person narrative that still kept that person's particular voice. For instance, when you read about anything where Gene Ramey was there, traveling with Bird or playing in Harlem  at the Savoy, his voice and Jay McShann's voice dominate the rhythm of the narrative, give it a vitality. Or with Parker's mentor, saxophonist Buster Smith, and how he felt as a young man, that's him talking through the third person, as though he's become the omniscient narrator of his own life. I also used the technique of concentric circles that I learned from Herman Melville when teaching him in California at Pomona College, among the Claremont Colleges, lecturing three hours a week for four weeks. That time changed my literary life and thought.
 
I discovered that Melville wrote Moby-Dick as if the narrative's riding a train on the straightaway, moving up and down as the shape of the land changes. It's going where it's going, but it's constantly throwing things out of the train windows into water, forming ripples that symbolize different aspects of the entire story. The water creates these concentric circles of meaning so the reader goes "That makes me think of..." The shapes and nuances of the prose begin in the first person, and move to various persons for better angles of perceptions demanded by the free aesthetic will of Melville.

There are many different and intentional diversions in the book, small portraits of jazz greats like Roy Eldridge, Lester Young, and Count Basie, but they are all connected by certain words and certain themes and all relate back to Parker. Parker appears along the way or at the conclusion of each sequence.

I don't really believe that a straightforward biography actually gives you the feeling of what was happening to the person. In order to give a true narrative of someone's life, there's a fundamental approach, one that I actually got from Homer. Homer collected all of these vantage points from both the people his hero was in battle with and from the gods, so when each person is first introduced he's unknown, a blank outline in a coloring book. But then these various shades start filling in and you realize who the person is. I felt that it was very important for the Parker book to have as big a scope as it could possibly have to truly tell the entire story. I don't see Buster Smith, for instance, as somebody who was in a side pocket of Parker's reality. In Kansas City Lightning you read about Smith and tenor saxophonist Lester Young being forced to hop trains on their way back to Kansas City after being stranded in the South, and several years later, Parker started hobo-ing on the trains in order to make it to New York. Parker learned how to survive on those trains from Smith, how to prop open the freight car door so it wouldn't lock him inside and suffocate him. Without this knowledge, Parker may never have made it to New York and into the jazz scene there. Though I make many other associations and tell many other stories in the book, Charlie Parker is always there, no matter how far the narrative seems from him initially. Were he not there, the book would be a failure instead of the one I am now proudest of. That is natural because as Duke Ellington said, the new baby gets the most affection.

BNR: You mention that if the Kansas City political scene hadn't been so corrupt during the Great Depression, the city's musicians, Parker included, wouldn't have had as much freedom to play where and how they wanted to at nightclubs and other gangster-run venues. A similar thing occurred in Chicago and New Orleans, two other cities that helped to spawn what we know today as jazz. If the economic downturn and subsequent rise in crime hadn't occurred in the 1930s, would jazz be what it is today?

SC: No. Jazz needed that kind of proving ground for people to play. A musician playing concert music can learn how to become a concert musician without jamming: that's not especially important in that genre, because it's about playing the notes as they are on the page. In jazz it's different. I was talking with trumpet player Wynton Marsalis about how great musicians always have the same effect on listeners. They maintain a note in its actual notated value but it actually seems bigger in person. If you hear someone play a triplet, on the page it's notated as such, but it sounds bigger because of the intensity that the player brings to the notes. That kind of knowledge can only come through performance, along with learning phrasing, knowing how certain people interpret the beat, and other nuances of live playing. You can only learn these things in performance, not on your own. So the corrupt factor of Kansas City in the 1930s allowed people to play all the time, every night, and it led to jazz developing at an extreme velocity.

BNR: Kansas City Lightning is a book of hybrids. It reveals the mishmash cultural background of Kansas City from the Wild West Days until the 1930s, the components of jazz as a fluid mix of improvisation and composition, and even the makeup of the saxophone, which combines big brass sound with the delicacy of a reed instrument. You also write about a link between "the steady and unpredictable" that's "essential to the American soul." Can you explain what you meant by this?

SC: The American soul has seen, many times over, things happen that people said could not happen. Openness to the unusual develops. I was talking with Saul Bellow once, and I told him that I thought our national symbolic creature, the American eagle, actually needed to be replaced with the platypus. Bellow said, "I can see why you would think that."

The enormous vitality of American inventiveness helped to produce people like Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Chaplin because they developed in a world where new things were constantly being made. All those great figures lived through the Depression together, and it affected everybody, rich or poor. In the artistic sense, it didn't make any difference what class someone was in, because there was a curiosity, an appetite for adventure, and constant attempts to look over the horizon that became a common kind of experience. It's Americana, and everybody was touched by a vitality, mystery, and vivaciousness in America at that time. And that's why jazz is so American: it is an aesthetic version of "E Pluribus Unum" -- "out of many, one" -- the groove big enough to hold everyone with the talent and the discipline. You can have a very sophisticated and well-trained musician, and you can have an untrained musician with a good ear who can play, and you can have both of them playing together and not know which is which. That's another one of the miraculous ways that talent appears in so many guises and part of what made jazz work. You could have a well-trained musician, like tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and another musician, like Sidney Bechet or Lester Young, who didn't know any music theory, and you could put them on the bandstand together and people would say, "Man, those guys can play." You don't have this in European music or African music; in fact, you don't have it anywhere except in America, as far as I know.
 
BNR: Parker is commonly portrayed as a tragic figure mired in drug use -- but throughout Kansas City Lightning I got the impression that without these vices he may never have achieved such musical greatness.
 
SC: No, he was too talented not to rise above everyone. Trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie told me that he'd heard Charlie Parker play four or five times when he wasn't high -- and Parker was always high -- and he said that Charlie Parker with nothing in his system played so much better. It's important to know that Parker always played better than everybody else, but when he wasn't high he played even better than that. As many people existed who loved his music when they heard him playing while high, it's hard to say how many would have loved him if they had heard him playing sober. That was another talent completely.

Guitarist Biddy Fleet also talks about the fact that you didn't have to show Parker something a bunch of times. Once he knew what it was, he'd blow it right out the saxophone and then it was in there for good. A friend of mine even told me that if Malcolm Gladwell had read my book before writing Blink, his chapter on "thin slicing," or making quick but complex decisions, Charlie Parker would probably have his own chapter. Overall, this particular book is really about the triumph of Charlie Parker because you know what he had to get through in life. His triumph as an epic hero resulted in a proof that has never been intellectually and aesthetically embraced and made clear in a book about jazz. All jazz players do what we call "multitasking" because they hear their own note and all the other notes creating the context as they adhere to the form. This is super-fast conceiving, feeling, and executing art. Before America, it never happened to that profound an extent.

BNR: Addie Parker, Charlie Parker's mother, considered him her "little prince," spoiling and coddling him relentlessly during his childhood and into adulthood. Charlie's lazy behavior and dependence on his mother is contrasted with the incredible diligence that he had in mastering the saxophone; that ultimately "was the only thing that gave him exactly what he wanted and he gave in return." What do you think the saxophone gave Charlie that his mother, and other important figures in his life, could not?
 
SC: It opened the doorway to vitality. You have to understand that Charlie Parker was initially a silent child, who started to come alive when he discovered that he could mimic things. His first wife, Rebecca, talks about how she and Charlie would go to these shoot-'em-up movies, westerns, and when the names of the actors came on the screen, he would literally change his face to look like them. If he wanted to talk to you about Charles Laughton, he'd start imitating Laughton's voice and mimic his facial expressions. Later, he'd do the same thing with the saxophone: he could hear something and he would learn it instantly. He had what's called superior digital memory. This means that his fingers would forever remember where the notes were on the saxophone. There are all of these different things that lead to making you understand why he was such an impressive musician when he really began to focus on jazz.

Furthermore, the saxophone gave Parker what Rebecca thought she gave him. She felt that he existed at a distance from other people naturally, and that when he started playing the sax, he could actually express what he couldn't tell people. The person inside him who wanted to get out, could get out through the saxophone. The music liberated him, not the drugs, his family or anything else in his life. That's why I ended the book recounting a long-lost early solo recording of Parker. It's just him and the saxophone; no band, no real performance, and he probably forgot about it as soon as he did it. But it's the only evidence we have of this incredibly talented man at the point in time right before the flame touches the gasoline -- just before the explosion.

BNR: Since Kansas City Lightning ends with Charlie just beginning to make his mark on the New York music scene in the early '40s, do you plan to write a second volume that covers the alto saxophonist's later life and subsequent success?

SC: Yes. I now have all the material that allows me to connect different periods of his life and to deal with the bizarre ways that things happen in people's lives. I think that the major achievement of this book is to present to people the world of the jazz player, the atmosphere of the 1930s where people seemed to live in two different spheres, and also introduce the idea that Charlie Parker embodied more than just the American Dream -- he embodied the American dreamer. That is a specific type of person that appears in American life over and over again, a person who dreams, who sees something else, who wants to go someplace else constantly. Parker's first wife, Rebecca, talked about working in the school library as a teenager, and Charlie would sit outside on the steps and read books about religion, science, and different societies and customs. He was interested in everything, and that'll remain in place in the second volume. He was always curious, he was always looking, he did a number of things that let us see the kind of person he really was. In Kansas City, in Chicago, in New York, he remained enthralled by the life of the mind and the affirmative vitality of life itself. he learned to say all of that through the saxophone and the collective expression of the jazz band. Hermann Broch said, "The civilization of an epoch is its myth in action." If it must come down to one line, that is what Kansas City Lightning is all about: the book itself is the myth in action.

--October 24, 2013

 

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