Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
By Stanley Crouch
Harper, 448 pages, $31.99
Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington
By Terry Teachout
Gotham Books, 496 pages, $31.50
Of the making of music books (non-classical variety), like the making of music, there is no end. There are musical memoirs, whether propulsively readable, such as Keith Richards’s Life and Anita O’Day’s High Times Hard Times; eccentrically self-indulgent, such as Neil Young’s Waging Heavy Peace; or destined for the shredder, such as Celine Dion’s My Story, My Dream. There are books of theory and cultural criticism, Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train, or anything by the late Lester Bangs. There are reference books, such as Will Friedwald’s indispensable A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers. There are even books on individual works, for instance, Bloomsbury Academic’s excellent, if uneven, 33 1/3 series on individual albums of the rock era.
Most of all, there are biographies, superb lives such as Peter Guralnick’s two-volume life of Elvis, Robin Kelley on piano wizard Thelonius Monk, or David Hajdu’s Lush Life, about the undervalued Billy Strayhorn.
I mention jazz because it is widely thought a dying art form. On the stage, perhaps, but on the page, hardly. In fact, the two best music books this fall chronicle the lives and times of two jazz icons and indicate, one hopes, that rumours of the death of jazz are highly exaggerated.
By far the most anticipated music book of this season, indeed of many seasons, is the first volume of Stanley Crouch’s life of Charlie Parker, the indelible alto sax player who, give or take Dizzy Gillespie, invented bebop.
Kansas City Lightning is the first of two volumes on the life of the man universally known as Bird, and is the result of more than 30 years labour by Crouch, a distinctive American cultural critic who has been writing knowledgeably and volubly on jazz for more than four decades. The early start gave him a huge edge, allowing access to many early and influential figures, such as Rebecca Ruffin, Parker’s first wife, and bandleader Jay McShann.
But Crouch’s book is far from a straightforward life. Rather it’s an extended riff, a jazzy improvisation on Bird’s life that encompasses and links its brilliant and tragic trajectory with the struggles of black musicians, the lure of drugs and drink and the role of Kansas City in jazz history. It’s a book from which its protagonist is conspicuously absent for long stretches. Its closest comparison, in my experience, is Nick Tosches’s Hellfire, a brimstone-coated life of Jerry Lee Lewis.
As Crouch’s title suggests, Kansas City is itself a character here, a wide-open town run by corrupt mayor Tom Pendergast and an assortment of mobsters, and alive with nightclubs, speakeasies, brothels and the promise of danger, all colourfully detailed.
But it was also producing some of the greatest music in America – a jazz epicentre featuring the likes of band leaders Count Basie and Jay McShann and superb players such as Lester Young, Ben Webster and “Hot Lips” Page.
In musically inflected prose that ranges from relatively sedate to red-hot, occasionally shading into purple (the death of a friend and fellow screw-up was, for Parker, “like drinking a cup of blues made of razor blades”), Crouch builds a compelling case for the genius of Charlie Parker.
Crouch is the first Bird biographer to rely heavily on interviews with Rebecca Ruffin – Parker was 15 when they married; she was 18 – whom Parker betrayed with drugs and other women and whom he left with his doting mother, Addie, for long periods while he pursued a musical future that must then have seemed out of reach.
The testimony of Rebecca and others puts to rest the myth that Parker was an instant prodigy; at 15, he was laughed off the stage by more sophisticated musicians. It was that rejection, Crouch shows, that drove him to practice incessantly, though his progress was marred by unreliability, an increasing dependence on drugs and a distressing tendency to pawn his instruments.
Book’s end finds Parker, still just 21 (he was 34 when he died in 1955), in New York in 1940; and now musicians are already going out of their way to hear the young phenom. He is about to take wing. He is on the edge of greatness. And he is on edge of disaster. Both will come to him.