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Kansas City Lightning: Bird’s Early Years

Posted By Alex Belth On November 5, 2013 @ 8:44 am In 1: Featured,Arts and Culture,Bookish,Links: Reviews,Music | Comments Disabled

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Over at the New York Review of Books, Adam Shatz reviews the first volume [2] of Stanley Crouch’s long-anticipated Charlie Parker biography:

That Parker was a child of Kansas City swing should be obvious, but it has been obscured. The temptation to hear Parker’s music as a complete rupture with swing has been fed not only by his beatnik admirers, who saw him as a kind of natural wonder, but by Parker himself, who insisted that bebop was “no love-child of jazz” but rather “something entirely separate and apart.” Indeed, Parker’s work sounds utterly different from the music that preceded it, particularly in its unusual phrasing, and in its splitting of the four beats in a bar into eight. When Parker launches into his improvisation in “Ko-Ko,” his exhilarating reworking of Ray Noble’s “Cherokee,” he seems to be taking flight and bidding farewell forever to the Swing Era.2 To listen to the recordings Parker made for Savoy and Dial in the mid-1940s is to feel you’re witnessing the birth of modern jazz, with its eighth notes, flatted fifths, and breathless velocity.

No artistic movement, however, is born of immaculate conception. Thanks to the work of Albert Murray, Gary Giddins, and Scott DeVeaux, we now know that the music of Parker and Gillespie evolved from the big-band swing against which it rebelled. Murray, in his 1976 book Stomping the Blues, described Parker as “the most workshop-oriented of all Kansas City apprentices,” rather than a highbrow modernist “dead set on turning dance music into concert music.”

Crouch has praised Stomping the Blues as “the most eloquent book ever written about African-American music,” and there is a lot of Murray in Kansas City Lightning: the celebration of the battle-of-the-bands milieu of Depression-era Kansas City; the insistence that jazz is a proud dance music, rather than an aspiring art music pleading for admission to the concert hall; and above all, the evocation of what Crouch has called “the rich mulatto textures” of American culture. These Murray-esque riffs will be familiar to anyone who has read Crouch’s cultural criticism. But Crouch understands that Bird was more than a gifted exponent of the Kansas City style, and that his inspiration arose from a hidden place that cannot be located on any map. Kansas City Lightning is about what Parker owed to his native city, but also about why he had to make his mark elsewhere.

The glories of Kansas City big-band jazz, which Crouch describes in lush detail, are well known. The formidable leaders of the “territory bands”—Count Basie, Bennie Moten, Walter Page, and others—all plied their trade there. They clashed with one another in fierce, joyful “cutting contests,” and sometimes raided one another’s bands for members. The more than fifty cabarets between 12th and 18th Streets provided an education for young black musicians barred from attending the city’s musical academies. The pianist Mary Lou Williams, who later took part in the bop revolution at Minton’s, remembered Kansas City as a “heavenly” place. It was also a sinner’s paradise, where sex was easily purchased and clubs were supplied with Pendergast’s own brand of whiskey. (When the temperance advocate Carrie Nation came to Kansas City, she was shown the door and told never to return.)


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[2] Adam Shatz reviews the first volume: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2013/nov/07/bird/

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