Richard Williams on a pungent life of the jazz saxophonist, told from a black perspective
Anyone intending to write a proper biography of Charlie Parker must eventually get to grips with the nature of genius itself. Very late in this, the first of two long-awaited volumes on the life of the great modern jazz saxophonist, Stanley Crouch comes close to the matter during a conversation with William "Biddy" Fleet, an obscure guitarist with whom Parker shared experiments in music after his arrival in New York in 1938, while still in his teens and groping his way towards his own style and a new conception of what jazz might become. "The thing I loved about Bird (Parker)," Fleet tells the author, "is this: he wasn't one of those who's got to write something down, go home, study on it, and the next time we meet, we'll try it out. Anything anyone did that Bird liked, when he found out what it was, he'd do it right away. Instantly. Only once on everything."
If that suggests an intuitive genius, consider the lengths to which Crouch goes to establish just how carefully Parker studied his craft before launching himself as a fully fledged professional musician. The terms of Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000-hour rule are fully met by the boy from Kansas City. He did not take music seriously until the age of 15, but he was no ordinary student: his mind worked at a different speed, with gifts of analysis and construction unavailable to others.
Biddy Fleet, 10 years older than Parker, is a fugitive figure in the history of jazz; his death in 1994 went all but unnoticed by the music world. Crouch talked to him in 1985, three years after he began to track down and interview many of the surviving witnesses to his subject's early life: school friends, his first wife (they married when she was 18 and he was 15), musicians who heard or worked with him during his apprenticeship in the clubs of Kansas City and the surrounding territories. One by one, in the 30 years it has taken him to deliver the first half of his biography, those witnesses have disappeared, making this testimony all the more valuable.
Not all of it is exactly fresh, however. A few years after beginning work on the project Crouch made his research available to a fellow author, Gary Giddins, then the jazz critic of the Village Voice, for use in a substantial monograph titled Celebrating Bird, published in 1987. That unselfish act gives the clue to Crouch's intentions: even though, like Giddins's volume,Kansas City Lightning serves as a necessary corrective to Bird Lives, Ross Russell's commercially successful but largely fanciful 1973 biography, this new work was never going to depend for its impact and value on a recitation of the facts and first-hand witness statements alone.
Once upon a time jazz history was written by white enthusiasts: critics, historians and musicologists, mostly men, often with European origins, inevitably existing – no matter how empathic – at a remove from the musicians and their way of life. Crouch, born in Los Angeles in 1945, is an African American. An essayist and polemicist, a novelist and poet, a co-founder (with his friend, the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis) of the Lincoln Center's jazz department and the recipient in 1993 of a MacArthur Fellowship "genius" grant, he has attempted to bring his own experiences and cultural references to bear on his subject. This is the first full-length study to view the life of Parker, a uniquely significant musician, from a black perspective.
It is Crouch's admirable intention not just to interrogate the familiar lineaments of Parker's life – absentee ne'er-do-well father, doting mother, four marriages, leadership of a musical revolution, career disrupted by unruly appetites, death in the apartment of a Rothschild heiress at 35 – but to set it in the context of his time. Having secured our attention with a lengthy opening sequence describing the young saxophonist's debut at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom in 1942, the author returns to the beginning of the tale but frequently branches away into short essays on a variety of related and tangential topics, from the notorious free-for-all of Kansas City's nightlife under the jurisdiction of Mayor Tom Pendergast to the invention of the saxophone, the significance of the railroads in mid-century America, the early origins of jazz and a short history of mob involvement in Harlem nightspots.
Crouch also makes extensive use of the appropriate vernacular, studding his paragraphs with phrases from blues lyrics. The boxing champion Jack Johnson marries a woman with "a fine brown frame", while the bandleader Buster Smith, Parker's early mentor, leaves Kansas City for New York and "had to get up and dust his broom, move on farther down the road". Sometimes Crouch's attempt to immerse himself in Parker's world leads him into the terrain staked out by Walter Mosley. "As if loving all the deep notes of a particularly lowdown gutbecket song," he writes of Johnson, "this uptown ruler barreled downtown behind the wheel of an aggressively stunning car with mufflers loud enough to wake the dead". The mobster Dutch Schulz gets a "finalising lead nightcap" – is shot dead. The consistent use of the term "negro" seems entirely appropriate, given the desire to portray a particular time and place.
Some of the material relating to Parker's early life, much of it gathered in the first interview ever given by Rebecca Ruffin, his first wife (also now dead, like her successors), is strikingly intimate, particularly in the description of the miscarriage of what would have been his second child when he was not yet 18. The story of his early musical struggles is told through first-hand memories from such associates as the guitarist Efferge Ware and the trumpeter Orville "Piggy" Minor, who tells Crouch: "Charlie Parker was a guy who didn't like anything according to Hoyle" – ie to the rules – "and if he could bend it, he would bend it quick."
If the digressions occasionally push Parker into the background of his own story, eventually the flow gathers strength and purpose; the sense of destiny, shaded by unmistakable hints of impending tragedy, has become compelling long before Crouch breaks off, leaving Parker on the verge of the discovery of bebop, the revolution with which he would become synonymous.
In Orville Minor's words, the young Parker "hated a dull moment". He was still in his mid-teens when he began warding off the threat of such moments through the use of marijuana, benzedrine and morphine (the last of which may have been legitimised in his mind, Crouch suggests, by his devotion to Sherlock Holmes, for whom it was the opiate of choice). Here the author observes: "It was during this period that Charlie began to notice that his appetites were larger than those of others, that he started to sense that he was somehow a danger to himself." The extent of that danger will no doubt be revealed in the sequel – expected in two years' time – to this occasionally irritating but pungently evocative and undeniably important work.