Monday, October 14, 2013

Stanley Crouch - Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Legend of Charlie Parker (HarperCollins, 2013)

Three decades plus in the making, The first volume in Crouch's biography of Charlie Parker is a curious, but enjoyable read. The opening chapter of the book finds Parker at the cusp of the breakthroughs that would catapult him to immortality, getting ready for a battle of the bands with the Jay McShann Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom in 1940. Then we snap back to the beginning, where the young Parker is growing up in Kansas City, having his head turned around by the famous musicians of the city. His indulgent mother buys him a saxophone and his obsession had begun. There were many bumps on the road: being laughed off the bandstand for not being able to play in the proper key, drug addiction from an early age, a teenage marriage that he was ill-equipped to deal with and more. Charlie Parker wasn't born a genius, he didn't sell his soul to the devil at the crossroads for talent, he got there through sheer pigheaded practice and determination to the exclusion of all else. Crouch tracks his progress through local bands, territory orchestras, and hoboing all the way to New York for his aborted first crack at stardom. He would return to Kansas City one more time, before lighting out for New York again to co-lead the bebop upheaval and revolutionize jazz. Crouch writes very well and the book is very readable. Despite the number of interviews he conducted in his research, large parts of Parker's early life are unknown, which is not unusual for the biography of a black man living on the margins of a racist society. Crouch indulges his inner novelist, fleshing out the relationships Parker held with his family and fellow musicians. To pad the book out to full size, he also goes on tangents on a dizzying array of topics of the 1930's, anything from Joe Louis' fighting style to mini profiles of musicians like Roy Eldridge and Buster Smith. So what we wind up with is bit of a scattershot amalgamation of fact, speculation, legend, lore and digression. It suits Parker well, he remained and enigma to the end and continues to be so. Kansas City Lightning -

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