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Kansas City Lightning, by Stanley Crouch

The book’s subtitle is The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, a reference to an alto saxophonist who ranks up there with Louis Armstrong as a pivotal influence in the evolution of jazz.
It’s not your standard biography, far from it. There are three odd characteristics that shift it out of the standard pigeonhole.

  1. Crouch’s prose style, which is far removed from what one might expect in a biography. Writing about jazz and its free-flowing improvisation, he appears to have opted for a “jazz prose” style. Hard to describe, except that it flows along easily and has the occasional little surprise here and there. Just like a jazz solo.
  2. The not infrequent departures from the story of Parker’s life. Crouch will interrupt the narrative to talk about the railroads, Buffalo soldiers and how the Spanish explorers brought horses to North America. Somehow, a great deal of it seems relevant, even the Buffalo soldiers.
  3. The story ends when Parker is about 20 years old, just on the verge of becoming a highly-respected musician in New York. Having spent almost his entire life in Kansas City, soaking up the music that is the heartbeat of the city, he is poised to fulfill his destiny in the Big Apple.

Then Crouch leaves us there with no hint about how Parker achieved success, blowing everyone off the bandstand year after year and re-making the language of jazz. Nothing. And no hint of a sequel.
What there is, is a wealth of detail about Parker’s early life. If you want to have a look at an iconic jazz musician as a human being, this is the book.
And Crouch goes beyond Parker and paints an engaging picture of Kansas City in the 1920s and ’30s, when it was a wide-open town with jazz being played in clubs 24 hours a day. In a sense, it’s a sociological treatise. He leads the reader into the world of jazz (very competitive at that time) with its “cutting sessions” where players did the best to out-play each other and the role those musicians played within the context of the city as a whole.
Crouch claims to have spent 30 years researching and writing the book. Time well spent.

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