Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and TImes of Charlie Parker
Stanley Crouch’s much-anticipated biography of Charlie Parker is finally here. Or rather, the first of two scheduled volumes has arrived, this installment bringing Bird from his Kansas City roots to the cusp of stardom and the creation of bebop in New York City. In Crouch’s hands, that relatively short period makes for a riveting read.
This certainly isn’t the first Parker biography. In fact, in September the University of Minnesota Press brought out a revised edition of one of the earlier ones, Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker,by Crouch’s onetime Village Voice colleague Gary Giddins. The two books complement each other nicely. Giddins’ is lavishly illustrated and focuses on Parker’s music; Crouch’s digs deeper into the narrative of Parker’s life, both its professional and personal sides, and pays closer attention to historical and sociological context. It’s more of a storyteller’s take than a critic’s, and so we’re given adroit sketches of jazz history, of Kansas City corruption under political boss Tom Pendergast, of boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, of Chicago post-Al Capone. We witness Parker being spoiled by his mother, and follow his courtship of and marriage to one of her boarders at age 15. We read of his better-known musical influences: Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Chu Berry, Roy Eldridge. But we also witness Parker’s encounters with the more workmanlike and obscure musicians who helped shape him.
His bassist buddy Gene Ramey, for instance, was there the summer night in 1936 when Jo Jones humiliated young Parker for losing the beat during a jam session by heaving a cymbal at him. But Ramey also later persuaded Jay McShann to overlook Parker’s misbehavior and hire him for his big band, which led to the battle-of-the-bands triumph at Harlem’s Savoy Ballroom in early 1942. (Crouch opens his book with that scene.) Buster Smith, an early Parker alto sax inspiration (and, reports Crouch, the composer of the Count Basie hit “One O’Clock Jump,” which began life with the too-risqué-for-radio title “Blue Balls”), shows up at a couple of key points, too: as a boss and mentor during Parker’s apprentice years in Kansas City, and later as Parker’s host during his first extended stay in New York in 1939. Parker worked his first and only non-musician job that year, as a busboy at Jimmy’s Chicken Shack (where rumor has it he may have watched Art Tatum perform). He also temporarily kicked his drug addiction and woodshedded at that time, experimenting with sophisticated harmony with the likeminded guitarist Biddy Fleet.
About that drug habit. Parker became addicted to morphine as a teenager, the drug possibly supplied to him by a woman employed by a local hospital. Heroin didn’t come to Kansas City until 1940, according to a hustler from the period cited by Crouch, and jazzmen stuck to booze or marijuana. Crouch speculates that Parker’s fondness for Sherlock Holmes may have whetted his appetite for morphine, but Parker was without question an early and dangerously enthusiastic adapter of narcotics. When his first wife, Rebecca, miscarried their second child in 1938, her physician—J.R. Thompson, the same doctor who had delivered Parker not quite 18 years earlier—presciently warned her, “If he keeps using that stuff, I give him only eighteen to twenty years at the most.”
Details like these don’t come easy, especially with a mythologized life like Parker’s. “Like Gene Ramey,” Crouch acknowledges in his epilogue, “anyone who spends time investigating the life of Charlie Parker must come to terms with the mysteries that decorate his story.” Crouch, through years of research, has done an exemplary job of that here.