Described by the New York Times as a “bebop Beowulf,” Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Life and Times of Charlie Parker is a love song to the life and times of Bird, one of jazz music’s most critically important figures. Mr. Crouch, himself an essential participant in both contemporary criticism and in the delivery of live performance (through his work with Jazz at Lincoln Center), discusses his long-anticipated biography with Jerry Jazz Musician in a recently conducted interview.
Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker is the first installment in the long-awaited portrait of one of the most talented and influential musicians of the twentieth century, from Stanley Crouch, one of the foremost authorities on jazz and culture in America.
Throughout his life, Charlie Parker personified the tortured American artist: a revolutionary performer who used his alto saxophone to create a new music known as bebop even as he wrestled with a drug addiction that would lead to his death at the age of thirty-four.
Drawing on interviews with peers, collaborators, and family members, Kansas City Lightning recreates Parker’s Depression-era childhood; his early days navigating the Kansas City nightlife, inspired by lions like Lester Young and Count Basie; and on to New York, where he began to transcend the music he had mastered. Crouch reveals an ambitious young man torn between music and drugs, between his domineering mother and his impressionable young wife, whose teenage romance with Charlie lies at the bittersweet heart of this story.
With the wisdom of a jazz scholar, the cultural insights of an acclaimed social critic, and the narrative skill of a literary novelist, Stanley Crouch illuminates this American master as never before. (# text from publisher)
On November 22, 2013, Crouch joined Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita for a conversation about his book.
“To [bandleader Jay] McShann, Parker seemed to have a crying soul, a spirit as troubled by the nature of life as it was capable of almost unlimited celebration. But the saxophone was all he really had: it provided him with the one constantly honest relationship in his life. What he gave the horn, it gave back. What it gave him, he never forgot.”
– Stanley Crouch
JJM In the acknowledgement section of your book you wrote, “I can reconnect with my entire family, all of my neighborhoods, everything I’ve ever done or imagined, whenever I hear any jazz band heat up and ‘put the pots on,’ showing how well it can struggle for joy together. No art says ‘I want to live’ better or more forcefully than jazz. From the whisper, to the mysteriously artful noise, to the exultant and affirmative cry or scream, ever unwilling to be held down, every page of this book is a testament to that.” In addition to being a terrific biography of a historic musician, this book seemed like a very personal endeavor – a labor of love. When did you first conceive of this book?
SC I began to conceive it after Clint Eastwood — whom I respect and admire as a director in more cases than not — made what I felt was an extremely bad movie called Bird, in which I didn’t see the Charlie Parker whom I knew of or had heard of. I saw Forest Whitaker playing Charlie Parker, and I saw an actress playing Chan Parker in a role of importance far beyond what she actually had in life. In fact, when I did interview Chan the story she told about herself and Charlie Parker was much heavier than the one that they had on the screen, which was the story of the unfortunate woman captured in a marriage with a guy who is a heroin addict, which was definitely true, but she told me many things about Charlie Parker that were not in the film or in the screenplay perhaps — and these were things that wouldn’t have taken long to communicate to you but they weren’t there.
JJM Much of the primary source material you used for the book consisted of interviews that were conducted in the early 1980’s with many of the people — long since deceased — that had touched Parker’s life personally and professionally, including the musicians Buster Smith, Jay McShann, his mother Doris Parker, and his first wife Rebecca. Who was your most valuable resource from among the people you interviewed for the book?
SC Well, in a certain sense Rebecca Ruffin — which was her maiden name when she married Charlie Parker when he was 16 and she was about 18 — was the biggest find for me. She told me many things about Charlie Parker and about Kansas City and how it felt and the way people actually lived during that period. This broke free of a lot of stereotypic and statistically purported information about the lower class during the depression, because, what I call in the book “heroic optimism” was very fundamental to the way that the people looked at life during that period. And, Rebecca’s description of her own graduation and Charlie Parker coming to the reception to see her and dancing all night with her was a very big deal to me because it added a kind of teenage romance to the Charlie Parker story that was not imagined by me before. It made me realize that Charlie Parker and Rebecca Ruffin were just like all American teenagers who had a romantic Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland sort of teenage experience. That kind of human quality of Charlie Parker’s life is what I was actually most interested in because I don’t think we get much of that from other books about Charlie Parker.
JJM Rebecca shared a very personal story with you about the time she discovered Charlie was using drugs. It was really sad and somewhat painful to read, honestly. What was it like for Rebecca to tell you that story?
SC Well, the first thing is that when you’ve interviewed a lot of people your ear kind of gets tuned to whether or not they’re telling you the truth or whether they are making up what is today called “urban legends.” I could tell that what she was telling me actually happened, not only by the way she looked but also because she tended to talk in the first person. That world was extremely alive to her, and in the instance you bring up, she describes it by saying, “Charlie’s upstairs. He calls me, and I go upstairs. I open the door and I go in, and Charlie tells me to sit on the bed.” She then describes herself as seeing him shoot-up the drugs — he took one of the ties hanging on the mirror, put it around his arm, and then he shot up the dope. She then got scared, gets the kit that the drugs came out of and then took them to his mother. The story goes on from there.
But at that point in the book I wanted to tell her story in a very straight way that was not melodramatic and didn’t use a lot of adjectives, because the power is in what actually happens. One of the things that Hemingway taught American writers is that some things are felt stronger when you get out of the way of the story. The feeling you got while reading the story was what I hoped readers would experience — as if they were standing right next to Rebecca, seeing this happen — and not as though it were “Stanley Crouch telling us how horrible it is that Charlie Parker was beginning to use drugs.” It’s a feeling of actually seeing it and responding to it.
JJM What this story demonstrated very clearly is how his drug use affected those who loved him, and that’s something that you don’t really think about when you’re engrossed in his greatness as a musician. We know how the drugs impacted his life, but they also devastated important personal relationships with his wife, mother and son. Did Rebecca indicate to you what Parker’s mother Addie may have done to help him with his addiction?
SC Well, his mother was dead when I began the book so I couldn’t find out what she did, but Rebecca did everything she could do, and she became accustomed to the life that Charlie Parker began to live after he became addicted. There’s much detail in the book about the shift in his life that came about, and also about the resolve that Rebecca had to be a strong wife — she understood that she was in a very terrible situation and so was he, but at that particular point she didn’t feel that she should abandon him or abandon their marriage. She just felt that she should figure out how to live up to the problems that they were faced with, and I think that in today’s atmosphere of constant self-obsession and ideology Rebecca Parker would not necessarily be understood because the empathy that leads to what is dismissed as self-sacrifice today would not actually be understood.
JJM You describe Parker’s father as “an incorrigible whisky head who left home when Parker was nine.” Did he have any contact with his father after that?
SC He didn’t have any that Rebecca saw except that his father turned up at their reception after they got married. She said that no one would actually know what Charlie Parker was doing or what he and his mother were doing unless they wanted you to know. So we don’t know how much Charlie Parker saw his father or how much time his father took visiting him or how many places his father took him to and how much time his father spent with him when he was a younger guy. But we do know that on the day of his marriage to Rebecca his father turned up, and she saw him and she describes him, and talks about how she could tell what kind of work he did by the way his shoes were polished. She explained that he was a charming, good-looking guy like his son.
JJM Who were the influential adult male role models during Parker’s youth?
SC Buster Smith was a very big influence as a saxophonist and also the way he carried himself, which is described in the book by Orville Minor, Clarence Davis and Jay McShann. They all remembered Buster Smith very vividly because he was the guy who didn’t constantly pat himself on the back as a highly respected jazz musician could have. Orville Minor describes him as always being a shirt-and-tie guy who didn’t talk a lot of “stuff.” He was interested in talking about things that were going on in the world, and about the culture of America. So, he did all that, and he could play so well that people felt that they should call him “Professor Smith.” As Orville said, “If you didn’t believe that he was a professor, if you were on the bandstand with him you found out very quickly that he was because he was ‘bad’ on that saxophone. You would say, ‘Oh, well, he does know a lot of music.'”
Charlie Parker was mentored by Buster Smith and he was the kind of guy, like most young guys, who picks up as much as possible from an admired influence as they can. So the way Charlie Parker spoke, and given his interest in the world, I’m sure he got those things from being around Buster Smith because he would ask questions a lot. If he was around Buster Smith, who liked him and knew he was very talented, he would have told him things that he asked him about Smith himself, and about Smith and Lester Young and some other members of the Blue Devils hoboing back to Oklahoma City after being stranded in the early 30’s during a tour of the East Coast.
Some naïve people who reviewed the book didn’t understand why I wrote so much about Buster Smith, but they didn’t realize how connected he was to Charlie Parker. He was connected to him as a saxophonist and as a person, and as Buster Smith was telling me about his life I’m sure it was a life he told Charlie Parker about.
JJM Parker actually called him “Dad” at times…
SC Yes he did.
JJM On Kansas City, where Parker grew up, you wrote “It was a city where corruption sprawled in comfort and a child could get the idea that right was wrong and wrong was right; the mayor was a pawn, the city boss was a crook, the police were corrupt, the gangsters had more privileges than honest businessmen, and the town was as wild with vice as you could encounter short of a convention of the best devils in hell.” How did this environment help shape the decisions Parker would make?
SC Well, the ongoing irony of that much corruption is that you could also have an artistic community that Mary Lou Williams herself described as “heavenly.” She described it as a “heavenly city” because a musician could actually play all of the time, and Charlie Parker, Buster Smith, Lester Young, Gene Ramey, Jay McShann and all of these guys developed from playing their instruments all of the time in all kinds of situations, in all kinds of styles, all kinds of tunes and in all the keys. They learned how to improvise on the spot, and they learned how to deal with modulations — the changing of the keys. They went through all this stuff all the time, all day.
They could play jazz at night, and then go out to the jam sessions, and they could end up in the park with a bunch of other musicians. Eventually, Charlie Parker would be sitting there on the bench by himself, still playing the saxophone until he felt that it was late enough in the morning for him to go get the other musicians and wake them up and play some more. So this was why all these guys could play and that was where their reputations came from, because they met the challenge of improvising, making sense on the spot, figuring out how to handle all the notes that were going on around them, and how to make artistic objects at high speeds. All of those beautiful melodies that Charlie Parker was able to play are the result of the kinds of decisions that he learned to make, and he learned how to fit in.
Sonny Rollins told me once that a musician can practice by himself a lot — as they do — but one long night on a bandstand will teach you many more things than you can learn by yourself because you’re playing different songs, you’re playing with different sets, you’re playing in different keys, and you’re playing different emotions that all get worked out on the bandstand. Kansas City was that kind of atmosphere, all the time.
JJM You point out in the book that the saxophone was central to the sound and character of Kansas City jazz…
SC Oh, without a doubt, and Kansas City musicians loved to bushwhack musicians from the east coast who thought that they were going to come through this “country-boy-town” and stomp all of the local guys like they were grapes being prepared for wine. But usually, when they came to Kansas City they ended up playing the role of the grape, not the local guys. Buster Smith describes in the book how Chu Berry started playing “Body and Soul” at medium tempo and then played all those combative and advanced chord changes. Lester Young and all these other guys heard that and slipped out of that club quickly, and then Buster Smith stood up and said, “I told you all not to mess with that man!” They weren’t invincible by any doubt, but…
JJM There’s a great story you tell in the book about Benny Goodman coming through Kansas City and challenging Buster Smith on stage at one of the clubs. Someone described it as if Smith “chewed him up and spit him out.”
SC Yes, Jay McShann told that story.
JJM A well-known story in Parker’s biography is the time that he decided to test his mettle on the bandstand of tenor saxophonist Jimmy Keith, in which his playing caused the musicians to laugh him off the bandstand. In a 1950 interview with Marshall Stearns, he said that they “laughed so hard it broke my heart.” How did this event change Charlie Parker’s life?
SC Well, it made him confront what every jazz musician has to confront at some point, which is finding out how much he knows and how much he does not know, and Charlie Parker thought he could play but he actually couldn’t play. Bassist Gene Ramey was there the night that they laughed at him and threw Charlie Parker off the bandstand, and he said they talked about how Parker got turned around in the song and didn’t know where he was, but that he would figure it out, and that they weren’t going to stop him forever.
JJM It was a real turning point in his life because a lesser man probably would have quit after having this experience. Instead it may have revealed his true character…
SC You’re absolutely right. That was the point in which he decided how good he was going to be. Now anybody could have said, “I am going to become the best saxophone player in the world,” but doing it is a little bit harder than saying it, and Charlie Parker was prepared to do whatever he had to do to become the best saxophone player in the entire world, and he did become that in a very short time.
JJM It was important to him to be a great saxophone player, but he also wanted to be different. He wanted to stand out.
SC Oh, yeah. Well, he couldn’t get the kind of recognition he sought if he didn’t have something that was unique to him. All of the people he admired — people like Buster Smith, Lester Young, Chu Berry — were musicians who had something very unique about their playing, and he sought that uniqueness in his own playing. As we know, he finally got it.