Bye Bye Birdland

What Made Charlie Parker Great? Reviewing Stanley Crouch’s Biography on Bird

The first volume of Stanley Crouch’s decades-in-the-making biography gets to the heart of Bird’s genius, but it will test your patience, says Stuart Klawans.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

The veteran jazz writer Stanley Crouch has a store of fresh information for you in his new book about Charlie Parker (1920–55), the genius of American music universally known as Bird, and invaluable insights to offer into the meaning of Parker’s achievement. It is imperative that you come into possession of this material, contained in Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parkereven though, to get at it, you will sometimes feel as if you’re swimming through a vat of Jell-O laced with industrial sludge.

There is an excuse for the ordeal, maybe. Solid documentation and reliable first-person accounts about Bird simply do not exist for major portions of the period covered in this book, the first of two volumes, which takes you from Parker’s birth in Kansas City through his career breakthrough at New York’s Savoy Ballroom, with Jay McShann’s band, in February 1942. Crouch, who is one of the most knowledgeable people in the bebop business, did years of research to fill in the blanks, gaining candid testimonies from a host of people who knew the young Parker, including his first wife, Rebecca Ruffin. It seems likely to me that these witnesses entrusted Crouch with confidences that they might have withheld from other writers.

Still, as Crouch is the first to say, this is a life story full of gaps. And so, to compensate for the missing information, Crouch has relied on an imagination that might be called novelistic, if novelists dealt in generic supposition and platitudinous bombast.

Unable to trace much of Parker’s brief career in Chicago, for example, Crouch pads his meandering paragraphs with old tag-lines (both “toddling town” and “city of big shoulders” make their appearance), canned accounts of the careers of Al Capone and John Dillinger and an assurance that the ever-acute Parker knew Chicago “would have its day life and its night life.” Similarly ignorant of what actually happened on the road when Parker drove with McShann’s band from Detroit to New York in early 1942, Crouch patches in the banal details of any and every winter car ride. (“They all knew the importance of driving carefully as they crossed snow or the slick melts…”)

Can Kansas City Lightning even be called a biography? For pages on end its guest of honor goes missing, and from a party that often sounds like nothing special:

“That was how law and lawlessness, convention and opportunism, mass media and manufactured reality worked together in ways that shaped the world in which Charlie Parker and everyone else in America lived, during and after the Great Depression.”

Welcome to the life and times of Bird, Shirley Temple, and your great-uncle Morris. The nerves splinter; patience cracks. And yet, if you can hold on, Crouch will show you a clearer and more affecting portrait of Parker than you have ever seen before.

At the beginning, it is the picture of a quiet, aloof and indolent boy, who was so spoiled by his mother Addie that he wore tailor-made suits during the worst years of the Depression. To Rebecca Ruffin, who moved with her family into Addie Parker’s boarding house and before very long married the teenage Parker, he seemed a prince, indulged in everything and yet fundamentally lonely and unloved.

His interest in music—or rather, at first, in the free and glamorous lives of musicians—began with much posing and woolgathering. Soon, though, he learned that in order to present himself as a jazz man in the Kansas City night spots, he would have to brave jam sessions that were conducted like a musical blood sport. It took only a couple of humiliations for Parker to develop an obsessive work ethic on the alto saxophone, and a corresponding lack of discipline in every other aspect of his life.

We know, with hindsight, that the young Parker’s search for mastery and innovation eventually drove him to the Savoy Ballroom and beyond, into the inventions that continue to this day to dazzle, exhilarate, and overawe any listener with ears quick enough to keep up with him, and a heart big enough to receive his floods of emotion. We also know that during the period Crouch will cover in volume two, the people who listened to American popular music (that is to say, everybody) believed Parker had broken away from jazz as it had been previously conceived, moving forward as decisively as the New Testament is said to have departed from the Old.

But just how new in fact was Parker’s music, and in what ways? What did it signify within African American culture—its place of origin and unshakeable frame of reference—and what did this music say to, and about, the larger American culture that black people had done so much to make, while receiving so little by way of thanks?

Kansas City Lightning reaches its considerable height whenever Crouch applies himself to such questions. The best reason to be patient with Crouch is that he understands, deeply, the link between the near-frontier ambience of Kansas City and the riffing, stomping style of blues that flourished there. He admires how well-schooled black musicians such as Buster Smith (known as Professor) used to serve as mentors to the self-taught ones such as Parker, and how those relationships could translate into the combination of heady logic and gutbucket wailing in Bird’s music. He feels the exuberance and the strain of an itinerant professional life, much of it necessarily spent in places on or beyond the law’s margins. He revels in the abundance of humanity found in the line-up on every bandstand, and to his credit can never mention a player, however glorious or obscure, without wanting to explore his experience for a paragraph or two.

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Perhaps most brilliant of all, Crouch considers the hard-edged timbre that Parker developed on alto—a sound that enabled his bursts of velocity—and connects it to the era’s infatuation with speed and shiny, astonishing new machines. It is a wonderful insight, and points up the shame that no editor had the cool mind and relentless will to focus Crouch’s writing for him, as Parker focused his tone. Still, the desire to soar is everywhere in Kansas City Lightning. Often—though not as often as Bird—the book does take off.