Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch
In Kansas City Lightning, the first volume of his biography The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, the soul of Stanley Crouch joins the soul of the legendary jazz legend, with James Joyce giving his blessings from beyond the grave. Crouch recreates "the Bird" with his writer's talents at their peak and the result is magical.
As in Joyce's long short story "The Dead," Crouch evokes the urgency, the unbearable heat of adolescent desire. Much of what he centers on in this first volume is captured in the voice of Rebecca Ruffin, Charlie Parker's adolescent love (she later became Parker's first wife and mother of his son.) As monosyllabic as the Bird was during his entire life -- he talked through his saxophone -- Rebecca was loquacious. Crouch, who interviewed her, allows her voice space to spin their youthful narrative. Beckerie, as she was called, had moved with her family into Addie Parker's spacious sort of boarding house in Depression-era Kansas City. At a time when signs of affluence were carefully noted, Addie Parker considered herself to be middle class and the Ruffins one notch below. Addie spoiled her only son, providing him with money, smart clothes and eventually a saxophone; she nonchalantly let him skip high school and laze about. Crouch writes: "In Kansas City [in the early 1930s], most of the instrument's practitioners, including Lester Young, Ben Webster, Budd Johnson, Tommy Douglas... were the terrors of the territories -- those same territories that reached back to the Indian and desperado days, to a time that preceded all contemporary danger, when the repeating rifle had given rise to Plains War bloodletting much as the Thompson submachine gun did after World War I." (p62) Depression-era Kansas City was the central hiding place for these outlaws. Among them, Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the instigators of the horrific Kansas City massacre, all of whom flourished during the period of the laissez-faire corrupt Pendergast political machine. And Kansas City was the place where Rebecca and the Bird, when he was in the mood, attended Lincoln High School, smack in the middle of this prime gangster belt, where eventually a new type of jazz got its start -- Charlie Parker's bebop. Lincoln High School was also where Parker began his lifelong drug habit with cocaine.
Crouch describes his own heritage as including a grandfather who was a red-haired Irishman who owned a plantation in Atlanta and a father who was part time criminal--his multi layered heritage is part African, part Asian, part Choctaw, and part Irish. Yet for the longest time in the American mind, our history was related in broad strokes as being either black or white, with just whispers of our mixtures. Crouch changed all that -- he is one of the great innovative historians of the true history of our America. His iconic books include The All-American Skin Game, The Artificial White Man: Essays on Authenticity, and Notes of A Hanging Judge. His fiction includes Don't the Moon Look Lonesome?: A Novel in Blues and Swing. My favorite passage in Kansas City Lightning is when the Jazz bands from Chicago, New Orleans, Texas, as well as Kansas City (as varied in style and geography as Crouch's own background) roll into Manhattan. The Bird was one of the first to land in from the Midwest. The Kansas City boys were aiming for the high flying Savoy Ballroom on Seventh Avenue and 141st Street. This was the elegant Manhattan of Count Basie, Duke Ellington , Coleman Hawkins, and Johnny Hodges. The shabbily dressed Kansas City McShann Band was out not to strut but to win. They were the new guys on the block and they had Charlie Parker with them. As Crouch observes: "This unknown saxophone player was putting the world on notice that there was another way of looking at everything."