Parker, a.k.a. Bird, is an unnerving figure, profoundly talented and intelligent. He climbed as far and as fast in every way as could be done in thirty five years, the quintessential boy from the provinces. He was the bomb. From being thrown off the bandstand in his teens, he became the greatest horn man of his time, and he did it on the very unforgiving alto saxophone. From an obscure ghetto childhood in Kansas City he became a favorite of Nica de Koenigswarter, another legend, a Rothschild who was the patron of all time. Every jazz fan knows the melodrama of Bird’s death while watching TV in the apartment of the Baroness Nica, and instead of that, Crouch gives us his brief, brilliant, fated life: when he died, his work was truly done. People were scrawling Bird Lives! on walls for years afterward, and he did that – no reedman has ever been so influential, dominating, loved and imitated. Everyone wanted to play like Bird, and no one could. I spent years trying.
Jazz books, be they fact or fiction, tend to be on the thin side. Young Man With A Horn does embody some essence of the twenties, but it’s a white book, and jazz is a black music. No matter that Bix Beiderbecke was the Keats of jazz cornet, it was his good friend Louis Armstrong who was the virtuoso, doing impossible things night after night, decade after decade. Bird dominated the same way, picking up where Lester Young and Coleman Hawkins left off, playing with unheard of velocity, sophistication and pure beauty, fusing blues and those nifty mostly Jewish tunes from musicals into something strange and new, and incomprehensible to those for whom Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall Concert was the crowning achievement of jazz music. Bird and bop announced something as shattering to its world as abstract expressionism was to painting.
Crouch delves into Bird’s tortured self and meteoric life, bringing it to the reader as only great biographers can do. Gone is the contentious intellectual of earlier books, debates and forums, and the columnist for the Daily News. The novelist of Don’t The Moon Look Lonesome comes forth, twinned with a tireless, hypnotic researcher who hunkers down in Parker’s home town and tracks down the people around him in childhood and youth. And gets them to tell all. Crouch can be a tedious explainer, but he is so in love with the truth about his subject that this inclination is simply burned away.
Within a few paragraphs, Crouch conveys the feel of the thirties as experienced in wide-open Kansas City, where there was no Great Depression for jazz musicians. There were many bands, epic parties, and fierce proud competition. Kansas City was corrupt under Boss Pendergast, but it was a “boomtown for jazz, with mother lodes of style and gushers of swing.” It was a red-hot creative crucible, as New Orleans and Chicago had been before, with musicians living for the music and finding themselves as artists in the heat of the jams and the chilly woodsheds where they practiced. Bands battled, great rooms full of people danced, and Jay McShann had the boss band. In it was the skinny 21 year old Parker with his soaring, searing alto, about to reinvent the music. Only a musician can fully appreciate the taste and texture of that, and Crouch was one himself back before he became an American oracle – a jazz drummer on the New York scene of the sixties and seventies, later booking bands into the Tin Palace and making it a cultural nexus.
He captures Parker’s charm in talking a cop out of a ticket in Central Park as McShann’s battered band arrives New York on its way to the Woodside Hotel, immortalized in Count Basie’s Jumpin at the Woodside. In hardly any words at all he creates Harlem for us, a Harlem no less vivid than that of Chester Himes. Then he captures the junk-sick chill when Bird immediately leaves the hotel, a chill that haunted Parker almost all his life and created a generation of junky musicians who thought that was his secret.
Here and throughout, the book is a fascinating picture of the jazz life, of musicians eating and joking and hanging out, an uber-family in which Parker was both a legend and a notorious moneyless addict. The rich texture and detailing are amazing. Why were there two bandstands at the Savoy ballroom? So bands could battle without the distraction of one band leaving the stand and another setting up. Who went to the Savoy? Lana Turner, Greta Garbo, and, and, and… Did black real estate agent Charlie Buchanan own the Savoy ballroom where McShann would wipe out the Lucky Millinder band? Not really – it was two Jewish brothers re-named Gale. Does it matter? Definitely, because the music business and the music itself involves this ethnic relationship. The tens of thousands of black musicians schooling themselves on I Got Rhythm chords were studying George Gershwyn. Louis Armstrong’s career was crucially expedited and sustained by a Jewish manager who saved hin from the mob. Rich, relevant detail is a Crouch gift. Only academics dream of researching as he did, and this book is anything but academic. It leaps off the page.
How did Bird come to be? Who was he? Crouch infiltrates Kansas City as only a New York hustler on a mission could do. He goes back into the family bloodlines (totally hybridized, American style). He looks into the grandparents, and dwells a moment on Parker’s handsome, charming, hard-drinking hell-raising dad. And his mother, his all-important mother, who eventually gave up on his dad and put everything into her son, whose innocent promise is written into the shy, hopeful photograph that opens the book. He notes his Roman Catholic schooling, notoriously the best and most disciplined generally available, and details his upbringing as a kind of young prince, dressed to the nines, never allowed to take a part time job. But he also quotes people close to the family who felt there was no love at the core of her devotion. He delves deep into those childhood friends and neighbors, and how the neighborhood operated, and tells about his very serious relationship with first wife, with whom he was in love from boyhood, and about his very different half-white brother. It’s like Mark Twain on life in Hannibal, Missouri – pure America without much money to corrupt it.
There is very little Crouch failed to uncover about the nascent Bird, including his love of Sherlock Holmes (who was devoted to injecting cocaine), or about the grown man who who could never kick his habit for long. We see him in flush times, and we see him learning to hop a train, showing up in Chicago broke with no horn, half-starved, in funky old clothes. We see his chameleon ability to fit in anywhere very quickly through his gift for mimicry. And we see his inescapable genius as it evolved through intense creative relationships with musicians long forgotten. No one I ever met heard of Biddy Fleet, but Crouch did, and tells us how they shared an extended exploration of difficult tunes that other players avoided – which leads to his legendary breakthrough with Cherokee, a tricky tune that fascinated him and liberated him.
Crouch shows us a man changing his world as surely as Van Gogh in Arles or Beethoven in Vienna. We see him up close, and what he went through to do it. Kansas City Lightning is biography of the highest level, written about a musician, by a musician who also happens to be a very powerful writer. It’s also loaded with pungent history of all kinds. American history that jumps off the page and grabs you.