Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie ParkerLast night I finished Charlie Parker’s biography by Stanley Crouch.  A great book.  The problem was that it ended – I thought – prematurely, just when Parker was about to become a major artist.  I’m not sure I recognized any sort of turning point or significant event that marked where Crouch chose to end the book.  It just seemed to stop.  I wonder if Crouch is intending to some day continue the story.

Crouch has written a book that describes not only Parker’s early life but also the early life of jazz.  He describes jazz and its development in easily understandable, gritty, and interesting ways.  He describes the dichotomies that are at the heart of jazz (e.g. the visceral v the intellectual).  He describes the feed back between dancers and musicians when jazz was popular dance music, good time music.  The book ends before the birth of Be-pop and the divorce of jazz from popular dance.  I would have been very interested in what Crouch would say about bebop and the direction that jazz took starting in the 1940’s.

I’m going to finish by quoting extensively from Crouch.

The point was to work at it and think about it and think about it until you’d produced a tone as recognizable as the texture of your voice.  Just as an outstanding individual has a walk, a way of carrying the body through space, or a way of adding unique particulars to a dance, an outstanding player had to work till he developed his own phrasing, his own rhythm.  Like a cook who can reinvent a familiar meal, he had to know how to mix his own musical batter, how to balance his own spices, how to fry an idea on one side before turning it over.  All those things formed your style, and style was what led to recognition.  It was the difference between being an artisan and an artist.

. . . Either you got yourself some discipline, Charlie had learned, or humiliation would follow.

. . . You just stood there with your mouth open and listened to him [Parker] discuss books with somebody or philosophy or religion or science, things like that.  Thorough.  A little while later, you might see him over in a corner somewhere drinking wine out of a paper sack with some juicehead.  Now that’s what you hear when you listed to him play:  he can reach the most intellectual and difficult levels of music, then he can turn around – now watch this – and play the most lowdown, funky blues you ever want to hear.  [Earl Coleman as quoted by Crouch]

. . . In jazz, the myth in action was the discovery of how to use improvisation to make music in which the individual and the collective took on a balanced, symbiotic relationship, one that enriched the experience without distracting from it or descending into anarchy.

. . . In Kansas City, in the 1930s, the blues got shouted, purred, whispered, and cried in such inventive style that the city became the third great spawning ground for jazz, after New Orleans and Chicago.

. . . the combination of the sophisticated and the primal that would be central both to jazz and ragtime, its immediate predecessor.

. . . the unexpected amalgamation of these two attitudes – the discipline of instruction and the salty posture of the streets – led to the creation of ragtime.

. . . Initially a sophisticated piano music, ragtime was first performed in honky-tonk situations where Negroes as low as snakes in wagon tracks were the rule – pimps, hustlers, whores, gamblers, thugs, and murderers, either primped up bright and gaudy or as soiled on the outside as they were in their lowdown, froggy-bottom souls – and the music that emerged in their midst was a remarkable combination of high and low.

. . . The ragtime masters brought folk elements to celebratory, high-minded refinement by taking tunes they heard in the street and mixing them with the formal elements they had learned from private teachers and in schools.  Another element in the mix was the era’s marching band tradition – a part of street culture that was as respectable as it was popular – and the pioneers of ragtime borrowed both the exuberance of march music and the form’s traditional three- to four-part structure.  Since many of the original ragtime pieces were premiered in the red-light districts, and since the music lent itself naturally to the steps of the cakewalk, it’s no surprise that much of the music was marked by a bittersweet joy.

. . . There’s another reason the music was so joyous:  it was created in recognition of freedom.

. . .  His [Scott Joplin, ragtime composer and performer] work exhibits a pensive but active melancholy that counterpoints the joy of the beat, a precursor of the double consciousness so fundamental to jazz:  the burdens of the soul met by the optimism of the groove – the orchestrated heartbeat, tinkling or percussive.

. . . The Creoles [of New Orleans], meanwhile, discovered that their formal training, their “legitimate techniques”, meant nothing to an audience that had grown fond of the guttural lamentations and sensual celebrations of King Bolden [first jazz player?].  And slowly but surely a remarkable synthesis took place:  as the Creole bands migrated back into the black community, and encountered the competition of the Bolden-style black bands, the two Negro classes – long separated by skin-color prejudices promoted in the Haitian community – underwent a gradual musical integration.

The uptown arrival of the Creoles marked the beginning of the transition from ragtime and marching band music to the art later known as jazz.  As the sophistication of the Creoles fused with the earthy innovations of form and technique pushed into the air by men like Bolden, the uptown musicians learned in turn from the Creoles – commencing a musical integration of profound cultural import.  Aesthetic integration is what it was; it came through the mutual respect that can happen when people are forced to deal with one another – to like or dislike one another as individuals, not as good or monstrous myths told at a distance.

. . . The golden link that bound the jazzmen to the blues tradition was the concept of vocalization.  When the jazz musician  understudied the blues man, observing the great variety of devices at the disposal of his model – vibrato, variable pitch, microtones, fast turns, and the many sliding, slurring, leaping effects – he found it only natural to try to reproduce these efforts on the instrument of his choice.

. . . It was in New York that the complexities and subtleties of show music were combined with the instrumental and compositional innovations of [King] Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, and Jelly Roll Morton.

. . . The development of the improvising rhythm section separates jazz from both African and European music, because the form demands that the players individually interpret the harmony, the beat, and the timbre while responding to one another and the featured improviser.  To play such music demands superfast hearing – a component of genius that is one of the greatest stands against the mechanization of pop music, in which the players send in their parts to be mixed by producers and engineers.

. . . In time, Charlie Parker would combine both orientations – melding the visceral with the intellectual, the freedom and force of swinging the blues with an extraordinary conceptual appetite and capacity for intricacy.

The trumpeter [Roy Eldridge] embodied the audacity of jazz music, the combination of moxie and technical command that gave him freedom in every direction – in his range, his conception, his coloring of notes, and his rhythm.  All of those elements Charlie Parker would eventually work into his own style, steadily achieving greater and greater comprehension of the details every jazz intellectual has to master, then feel, in order to attain greatness.

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