In his short, incandescent life, Charlie Parker was an unmatched virtuoso of the alto saxophone who gave voice to a new form of jazz in the 1940s. The musician known as “Bird” was emblematic of the tortured genius whose addictions seemed bound up with his artistic struggle. In many ways, he was “the concentrated history of his art,” as Stanley Crouch puts it in his exuberant, stylish account of Parker’s early life, “Kansas City Lightning.”
When Parker died at 34 in 1955 after years of heroin addiction, graffiti artists painted “Bird Lives” in Greenwich Village, as if he were the immortal spirit of jazz. In all the years since his death, however, there has never been a satisfactory full-scale study of his life and music. Despite some shortcomings, Crouch goes a long way toward filling that void with “Kansas City Lightning,” which covers the first 20 years of Parker’s life.
A prolific cultural critic and a past recipient of a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, Crouch has composed an evocative, cinematic portrait of Kansas City’s jazz world of the 1930s, when young Bird was gaining his wings. It’s useful to note that Crouch’s book is subtitled “The Rise and Times” and not “The Life and Times” of Charlie Parker. In some ways, “Kansas City Lightning” is easier to understand if you think of it as a fact-based novel about Parker’s life, rather than as a conventional biography.
The first chapter is a long, loosely reimagined battle of the bands that took place in Harlem in 1942 — two years later than any other events in the book. But it also signals Crouch’s literary intentions: He has created a tour de force that is the print equivalent of a long, bravura jazz performance.
Like the bebop style that Parker helped invent, Crouch’s book seems discordant, verbose and a little off-key at first, but soon you find yourself nodding in time with his brash, improvisational bounce. His prose has the same characteristics that he ascribes to the music of Count Basie, which “traced the roller-coaster fate of the human heart: rising high, falling low, singing, joking, sobbing, reminiscing, dreaming, cursing, bragging, praying. Everything was in there.”
At times Crouch is guilty of what Parker was often accused of — packing too many notes into too short a space, and he never passes a side road he doesn’t take. The story gains context and dimension from his miniature essays on such topics as the settlement of the West, D.W. Griffith’s film “The Birth of Nation,” boxers Jack Johnson and Joe Louis, and the evolution of jazz from Buddy Bolden and Scott Joplin to “the silken mysterious lyricism of Lester Young.”
But Crouch always returns to Parker’s personal evolution, with extended profiles of his early musical mentors, his indulgent mother and the teenage bride he neglected in favor of pursuing his music and his vices. “The saxophone was all he really had: it provided him with the one constantly honest relationship in his life,” Crouch writes in a passage that he repeats virtually word for word later in the book. “What he gave the horn, it gave back. What it gave him, he never forgot.”
As with Parker’s solos, Crouch’s hyperbolic verbal flights are his natural form of expression. It’s hard to top his description of the late-night magic of jazz, when a powerful soloist drives the music and audience on the strength of his musical inventiveness, creating “more of a good-sounding time in rhythm and tune than the law allows. This lifts the band, the dancers, and the room itself into an invisible carnival of joy, up there somewhere, up there. . . . The people want to feel as if they were made for joy, and joy was made for them.”
In “Kansas City Lightning,” Crouch has given us a bone-deep understanding of Parker’s music and the world that produced it. In his pages, Bird still lives.
Schudel is a Washington Post staff writer who often writes about jazz.