An excerpt from Stanley Crouch’s recently published Kansas City Lightning, The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
As the young Charlie Parker practiced and practiced, his life began to dovetail with the long story of Negroes in American music, dance, and show business. More and more often, even though it wasn’t working for him yet, he was going out there into the night of the professionals, where there were joys and dangers, potential regrets and moments of imperishable triumph. As he packed up his horn and left Olive Street looking for music — showing up to play with Oliver Todd or to attempt a jam session victory, never sure whether or not he was going to be laughed at again — Charlie was beginning to hear the call of a world that respectable parents worried might chew up their children and spit them out as drunkards, hopheads, perverts marked up by venereal disease. Even if their health wasn’t destroyed by wild living, those who aspired to be performers were always at risk of joining the ledger of statistics documenting the violence of ruthless police or jealous locals — or of being mutilated or burned to death in some cheese box of a dance hall as an evening of drunken revelry turned calamitous.
Even if he’d been warned, though, there was no stopping Charlie. The nightlife of those Kansas City joints he and Rebecca used to stare into, and the feeling he got from the men who collaborated and competed on the bandstands there, were too far and wonderfully removed from the regular world for him to ignore. Charlie, no matter his faltering, was on the verge of becoming a Kansas City musician, one more young man drawn from the straight and narrow into a universe of nearly mythic sensations and extraordinary invention.
It is understandable that Charlie Parker would find himself awed by all this, for though a good number of myths are as porous as Swiss cheese, there is no more deservedly mythic city in the jazz story than Kansas City, Missouri. After the smoke and dust storms of exaggeration and outright lies blow away or settle down, the facts of Kansas City rise so high in the national artistic pantheon that it proves the wisdom of Herman Broch’s axiom: “The civilization of an epoch is its myth in action.”
In jazz, the myth in action was the discovery of how to use improvisation to make music in which the individual and the collective took on a balanced, symbiotic relationship, one that enriched the experience without distracting from it or descending into anarchy.
As the youthful Charlie Parker absorbed the performances he saw in the clubs every night, he was watching his hometown in the process of becoming the swing capital of the land. Kansas City was a kind of experimental laboratory where the collective possibilities of American rhythm were being refined and expanded on a nightly basis. Musicians were learning to navigate a constantly shifting context of complex harmony and propulsive rhythm, to absorb and respond to it within split seconds. This was long before the digital age; before technology revealed how the mind and body could serve the sensitized aesthetic response at such high velocity — in seconds and milliseconds — allowing musicians to create high-quality jazz, an improvised creation of form and response. But it was happening. In Kansas City, in the 1930s, the blues got shouted, purred, whispered, and cried in such inventive style that the city became the third great spawning ground for jazz, after New Orleans and Chicago.
Stanley Crouch is a cultural critic, novelist, essayist, poet and biographer
To read a Jerry Jazz Musician-hosted discussion with Crouch, Gerald Early and Kitty Margolis on his novel “Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome,” go here.
To view our photo exhibit, “Kansas City Jazz: A Pictorial Tour, go here