If anyone is up to the monumental task of writing a proper biography of Charlie Parker, it would undoubtedly be America’s foremost jazz critic, Stanley Crouch. In Kansas City Lightning, the first of a projected two-part biography on the saxophonist everybody called Bird, he tells Parker’s story in vivid detail, with a historian’s eye and Crouch’s unwavering love of the art. All of these elements coalesce into one engrossing account of an American legend that is a must-read for music fans.
Crouch took some time to talk with Flavorwire about the music he loves, the process of writing a biography, and his connection to Parker’s life and work.
Flavorwire: I’m curious about what made you want to write a biography of Charlie Parker. Was it his story that drew you to the subject, or had you not seen any biographical work on him that you felt paid him the proper tribute?
Stanley Crouch: All of those things came to me over time. because Charlie Parker was both a challenge and an affirmation to my writing ability and my sense of life and its meaning. This was a man who embodied and personified human possibility in all of its ways, from the mountain top to the footprint so far away it seemed invisible to the eye but was there, mega to micro. Charlie Parker could do and be what genius most truly meant and means. He never became trivial over the long time I thought about him or learned about his art and art itself.
I tend to focus on a number of things at the same time, but some maintain a high place when it comes to concern. Charlie remained in place for reasons much deeper than deadlines, which I had to ignore as flesh began to appear on the dry bones of data. All individuals are mysterious, but any genius is, perhaps, the most mysterious, especially if the person is a performer in the flesh who does it right up there on the stage with such power both lay and professionals are touched.
Until I finished Kansas City Lighting, I was proudest of Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome. It was a long novel with a white woman as the protagonist and allowed me to go into what I felt and still feel is the frontier for a male writer, meeting that challenge of massive sensibility and trying, in my case, to bring together Leopold and Molly Bloom, intellectual curiosity to the point of brilliance, and an earthiness and sensuality that are as natural as I have seen it all my life, but rarely read of female characters like that.
Charlie Parker kept incubating, and various sides of him kept arriving over a long time of contemplation. One thing remained stationary and rock hard: the desire to make fact come alive without fudging it. That was the formidable challenge because complexity and what we think of as public, private, or secret integration has previously arrived in few models. Just developing the material means something more than simple, more than slogans, and more than predictable ideology. One has to grapple with the accumulated consciousness of Parker’s world and its deep empathy, grace, and subtlety, as well as furious belly laughs. These things are usually thought of as beyond the subject of the black American, but they are all there, profoundly alive and vital. All of these factors were essential to Charlie Parker’s life, his world, his talent, his feeling, and his expression of it all in the invisible force of music. In my book, we see this force of life expand as he grows and finds himself by going after the art of music during the 1930s. A big laugh is possible when the reader comes to the point that Parker and a fellow band mate go hunting a rabbit, quite well armed with a double barreled shotgun and a Luger as they wade through waist high snow.
This was a time of much bittersweet Americana that crossed all of the lines, primarily because our identity as a national species is, culturally, the result of miscegenation, but much more than simply race-mixing, as bigots once loved to call it.
We understand much more together than separated, whether or not we admit those many human things. I began to understand what was going on when a former black soldier told me that during certain comic moments in American films showing in Europe during segregation, something illuminating happened. This was during the doomed posturing of rednecks who loved to pretend that they could only accept shoe shines and house cleaning from “darkies” who were too much like monkeys or other lower creatures to be taken seriously.
In the movies, at certain points only the Negroes and the rednecks laughed because much American comedy came out of minstrelsy, not Europe. Black and white men saw the same things as funny, and even those Europeans who were sympathetic to both groups did not understand where the laughter was coming from.
Humor always implies a closeness that has to be investigated if the human mystery is to be solved. One can never solve that mystery, but that doesn’t mean one should not try.
I also learned much at home because my father knew Charlie Parker as a living man up on the bandstand, and I had guys in junior and high school who swore by him, either logically or fancifully.
I was born in 1945, but did not become aware of him until my mid teens. When I heard him, I could not grasp anything of what he played that made sense, because it went by too fast. But I was deeply touched by the beauty of his improvising on Just Friends — it was quite breathtaking because the notes seemed to slide out of the saxophone, but also be pushed firmly, or cleverly pulled off branches of silence like grapes; they still possessed and projected a mood with a tender hesitance that gave the improvised moment a distinct quality of romantic memory or dream. I did not know it then, but jazz improvisation is always about bringing control to the chaos of the present, with technique and comprehensive hearing made possible empathetic hearing.
At that point of listening, I was caught then by Charlie Parker’s personal access to what we usually call “magic,” the feeling of perfection that can only come through art and rise above technique, mere virtuosity, and make all of its masterful mechanics become vital. Parker played that way so often it seems natural, but it was much more because art is always much more. It is so close to the spiritual we do not know what to call it. Andre Malraux was neither a religious nor spiritual man, yet he felt the emotion brought about by great religious art was as close to prayer as one could experience. It was, perhaps, the emotion of mysticism that one did not have to be a mystic to feel. Profound talent can do that because the profound cuts through all barriers. What Harold Bloom said about Walt Whitman is true of American artists like Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Fred Astaire, and Charlie Parker, to name only some. This is the international and eternal rhythm and dance and bittersweet melody of the blues and of swing, something so alive that affirmation and elegy fuse into supreme synthesis. At the top of his talent, Charlie Parker was a purveyor of all of that.
In Kansas City Lighning I strive to make the reader feel the presence of a magical, improvised reality, a presence that is not illusory but a fact of life as it was lived. I felt that was my responsibility because so many people came to me who did not have to but wanted to help me get close to what Charlie Parker and his world were like.
I wanted to give the reader the dance halls, the clubs, the jam sessions, the audience, and all of the individuals, players or listeners and dancers, every type from the Red Caps to those at the top of society and influence, from the endless American frontier of human beings and machines that human beings so often chose to humanize. In fact, the perfect relationship between humanity and technology is heard when Charlie Parker blows life into a metal machine made of brass, keys, and a mouthpiece.
That can only be done if the reader feels everything read is actually alive, not made up, not contrived, whether nice or naughty or both, always as normal and casually complex as air itself. Both David S. Reynolds and I agreed in a recent conversation that reality is the challenge facing all biographers. Can the writer go past dullness and allow the data to come alive for the reader the same way it does for the writer when the revelation of reality comes forward. All biography that is successful must somehow get to the revelations of reality, of truth coming alive and standing alone.
One part of the book I especially enjoyed was Parker arriving in Chicago; you paint a picture of a setting that other biographers might not pay attention to, and it’s parts like that which makes the book richer and even more enjoyable to read. How much thought do you put into how you tell another person’s story? Is it a natural process, or did you find yourself revising a lot to make sure you got a certain tone?
Most of actual writing takes place during rewriting, editing, reaching for that feeling arriving from the unknown and the known. It seems to want to come forward and exist as an independent force, free of the writer and the reader, living the life of words alone, in a secret world between covers or pages on computer screens. Actual writing is not satisfied until it can live apart from everything other than itself. Like everything else it seeks freedom and the chance to make one statement, “I want to live.”
That can be heard in every note of Charlie Parker’s music and every tale told about him and about the Kansas City in which he grew up. The meaning of freedom is the ongoing American question, and it is the essential question asked by improvisation. We need to understand that about the profound achievement of jazz improvisation. It never fails to attempt to become e pluribus unum, which is the meaning of the groove, of swinging: Let us express ourselves individually but so empathetically to one another that we become one.
I find the process of writing a biography fascinating. How long did it take you to do the research for Kansas City Lightning?
From 1981 until last night, because information, or thoughts about Charlie Parker and Kansas City, never stop coming to me, from within and without. Human information is a living thing and one has to be ready for it.
Kansas City Lightning is part of a “projected” two-volume biography. It made me think of what Robert Caro is doing with his Lyndon B. Johnson biography. Why did you decide to break up Parker’s story into two parts?
As a book, it was a case of meeting all of the data and making it feel alive. When anyone says it feels alive, that is proof I accomplished my goal. I do not want someone in the aquarium of existence looking through thick glass at the fish; I want the experience to be in the water with all of the life swimming by, up close and personal whenever necessary.
This interview was compiled from a phone call and subsequent email correspondence, and edited for length.