For much of the last 40 years, Stanley Crouch, the Los Angeles–born, New York–based author and journalist, has been writing about jazz, race, politics, and culture. Often, in public appearances, he would mention—and occasionally read from—“the book”—his much-anticipated biography of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, the legendary alto saxophonist who was famous for the lightning-fast improvisations and mind-boggling chord changes that helped give birth to bebop in the 1940s.
But just when many of Crouch’s fans feared that “the book” would never appear—it was first announced sometime in the 1990s—it is finally set to arrive. Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, the first book of a two-volume work, will be published this month by HarperCollins. For Crouch, a recipient of a MacArthur Award, a columnist for the New York Daily News, and a commentator in three Ken Burns documentaries (The Civil War; Unforgivable Blackness; and Jazz), this seminal biography deserved a lengthy incubation process. “My job was to present Charlie Parker as a person in the round, but not diminish any of the rollercoaster-like realities that made him,” Crouch says, in his trademark, raspy voice. “I started working on the book in 1981. It took so long because I had to absorb so much information,” he explains. “And I had to put these various contextual elements in place, and make them have a rational feel, which is not easy to do when you’re trying to talk about a guy whose life actually sums up the history of the country, the Midwest, and jazz [as well as the] ethnic relations that played out in his life.” In addition to drawing on dozens of interviews with musicians, friends, and family members—including Parker’s first wife Rebecca Parker; bandleader Jay McShann; drummer Rashied Ali; bassist Gene Ramey; and trumpeter Joe Wilder—who knew Parker from his early days growing up in Kansas City and later in New York, Crouch deploys his own powers of literature-influenced musicology to render a vivid word-portrait of the great bebopper.
Crouch traces Parker’s life from a middle-class childhood with the doting mother who indulged his musical passions and quirks, to his marriage to his childhood sweetheart, to his early forays into jazz with such mentors as pianist/bandleader McShann and saxophonists Lester Young, Leon Berry, and Buster Smith. In Homeric fashion, Crouch follows Parker’s tumultuous odyssey from a subpar regional saxophonist who was run off the bandstand (a cymbal hurled at him for good measure) to perhaps the greatest musical innovator in jazz history, a man who developed a heroin habit at age 17 and who made his way from his hometown of Kansas City to Chicago and New York to fulfill his artistic destiny—only to succumb at age 34, worn down by drug abuse.
Parker, Crouch writes, was “basically a melancholy and suspicious man, a genius in search of a solution to a blues that wore razors for spurs.” Crouch also beautifully recreates the hot-house atmosphere of spectacularly corrupt, Depression-era Kansas City, where mob-run venues like the Reno Club hosted gladiatorial musical jam sessions that thrived on the musical Darwinism—be good or be gone—that created Parker.
“All of those people I encountered in Kansas City were very dedicated to Kansas City,” Crouch says. “They really believed something important had happened there.”
The author of such critically acclaimed nonfiction works as Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990), The All-American Skin Game (1995), Always in Pursuit (1998), The Artificial White Man (2004), and Considering Genius (2006), Crouch is also the author of the novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome (2004)—a blues-tinged work of fiction with a white singer from South Dakota as a major character. But Kansas City Lightning affords Crouch the space—both literal and cultural—to construct a long-form narrative that is as labyrinthine and as distinct as a Bird solo. “I was very conscious in the writing of the sentences, to make them stand up and stand out as a development of a theme,” Crouch says. “I used certain kinds of motifs, images, rhythms, certain accentual things to create a form in which every sentence actually points toward the end.”
Crouch’s personal story is as complex as his sentences. Born in 1945 to a mother who worked as a domestic (she also encouraged him to read at an early age) and to a substance-abusing father who was no stranger to law enforcement, Crouch was an avid jazz listener who came of age during the transition from the civil rights movement to the era of Black Power. Crouch became a drummer, playing primarily in avant-garde jazz groups in Los Angeles; he attended East Los Angeles Junior College and Southwest Junior College; taught Black Studies at Pomona College; and later worked as a playwright, poet, actor, and director. In 1972 he recorded an album version of his book of poems, Ain’t No Ambulances for No Niggahs Tonight, and he also acknowledges the influence of poet and activist Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), one of the founders of the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and a mercurial political personality, though later the two became staunch literary foes.
“I was attracted to LeRoi Jones because of the questions that he was asking in his essays, and the things he was writing, before he got repulsively involved in the tar pit of Black Nationalism,” Crouch says. “He got involved in agit-prop ideology and never got out of it.”
As a writer, Crouch was intrigued by the literary concepts of the late Chicago novelist Leon Forrest, as well as the work of Cuban writer Alejo Carpentier, who critiqued the narrowness of nationalism. But by the time Crouch moved to New York in 1975, he had come under the full influence of two African-American “militant integrationalists”—Ralph Ellison and the late Albert Murray—who insisted on looking at black American cultural life as the central component of American culture.
“Ralph Ellison had always been a major influence,” Crouch fondly recalls, “and I was reading Albert Murray’s first book, The Omni-Americans, when it came out. I met him on a visit to New York before I moved there from California. [The late author, editor, and poet] Larry Neal said Murray was a friend of Ellison’s who had high literary standards, and took me to his house. I started calling him from Los Angeles.” Murray, Crouch says, “was interested in me as a young writer because I was very involved with Herman Melville, and I was interested in the use of classical sources and recasting them through various techniques into purportedly new styles. Murray and Ellison were exploring those literary possibilities, too.”
Crouch’s expanded literary and social worldview was also reflected in his musical vision. As a drummer and onetime proponent of avant-garde jazz, Crouch began writing about the classic elements of jazz composition, improvisation, and its musical lineage—4/4 meter, the blues, Tin Pan Alley ballads, and Afro-Hispanic rhythms. He formed a lasting friendship with trumpeter and fellow Murray fan Wynton Marsalis, who, along with Crouch and Murray, cofounded Jazz at Lincoln Center in 1992. Crouch has developed a passionate and often nearly pugilistic literary voice focused on exposing (and lampooning) the fallacies of racism and political cant—whether from the right, the left, black, or white—while reaffirming the rich mulatto cultural makeup of our democracy.
Kansas City Lightning paints a profound portrait of a great American musician, but also features Crouch operating at the top of his game. “My every achievement as a writer... what I understand about form, sentence structure, the development of character, and how to clarify a point without making it simple,” Crouch says, “it’s all in the book.”