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Stanley Crouch recounts rise of jazz giant Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker

October 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jazz great and sax player Charlie "Bird" Parker was remarkable for his speed, listening and improvisational intuition. Jeffrey Brown talks to author Stanley Crouch about his new biography, "Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker."
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GWEN IFILL:  Finally tonight: one of the most innovative jazz musicians of the 20th century. 

Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation. 

JEFFREY BROWN: In his lifetime and since, he has been the stuff of legend.  His playing and recordings on the saxophone remain influential to this day. 

The man, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, was the product of a very particular place, Kansas City, who in a few short years would help change the sound of jazz before his death at age 34 in 1955. 

His story is told in the new biography “Kansas City Lightning.”  It’s the first of a planned two-volume biography by writer and jazz scholar Stanley Crouch, who joins me now. 

Welcome to you. 

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STANLEY CROUCH, “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker”:  Welcome to be here. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Who was Charlie Parker?  Why was he so important? 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Well, he actually embodied the word genius, which is now used as just an advertising term, but he actually was that. 

JEFFREY BROWN: He was the real thing? 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Yes, he was that. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Which mean what? 

STANLEY CROUCH:  He had a very, very superior, extremely sophisticated mind.

And he could act — he could react musically, doing improvisation at a high speed with an incredibly high quality of melody-making, because that was what he really wanted to do.  He wanted to make melody on the spot very fast. 

JEFFREY BROWN: And why did he come to the saxophone?  And when did he — was there a moment where he not only realized that music was his life, but that he might aspire to do something important with it? 

STANLEY CROUCH:  He went to a jam session and wanted to play, because he just thought he could play.  And he got laughed off the bandstand. 

And that made him so mad that he told somebody, he said, I’m going to become the greatest at the saxophone.

JEFFREY BROWN: The book begins with this wonderful scene of when the Kansas City band he’s part of come to New York, to the Savoy.  And jazz is a competitive sport there, right? 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Right. 

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a combat sport, almost, right? 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Right, right. 

JEFFREY BROWN: And they come into town.  Nobody really thinks much of them, and they do a pretty — they do pretty well.  And suddenly there’s this comet that’s burst, right, Charlie Parker. 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Right.  Well, see, the jazz story, as far as I can see it over and over and over, it’s the American story, in — in the sense that American history and American culture is just compressed in the individual lives of people and in the context, because, see, to actually play jazz, you have to be able to hear. 

And Charlie — and as great a talent as Charlie Parker had, he couldn’t hear at the start of his career, because he had to learn that, to play jazz — jazz is the only art that I know of that actually moves at what we call digital speed. 

So, when Charlie Parker is playing, when you hear him playing, he’s hearing his note that he’s going to play in relationship to three or four other notes that are around him. 

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, you know, that’s a good introduction.  We have got a little clip that I want to play now. 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Right. 

JEFFREY BROWN: This is from the peace “Hot House.”

(MUSIC)

STANLEY CROUCH:  That was a perfect example of the way he could play, because, when you listen to that over and over, you actually realize that he’s playing off the drummer, he’s playing off the piano player, he’s playing off the bass player, and he’s hearing another set of notes. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. 

STANLEY CROUCH:  So he’s relating to all of them at the same time. 

JEFFREY BROWN: He’s listening to them all, but he’s also…

STANLEY CROUCH:  Playing. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Playing. 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Right. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. 

STANLEY CROUCH:  And so the speed with which he plays these notes, that is a digital speed. 

See, we live in such a movie-like world, we think — we don’t really understand what real speed is.  But when you listen to players like Charlie Parker, or any jazz player who’s great, they all play the same way, not style-wise, but they all do the same thing. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. 

STANLEY CROUCH:  They learn to listen to the whole context. 

JEFFREY BROWN: This book is just part one of a life.  It was a short life… 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Yes.   

JEFFREY BROWN: … and a difficult life in many ways.

STANLEY CROUCH:  Right. 

JEFFREY BROWN: There were nervous breakdowns near the end.  There was drug addiction. 

What in the man allowed him to accomplish so much as an artist, but not survive? 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Well, the thing is, see, he — see he had a — he had enormous discipline.  When he focused on something, he would do it. 

Now, he even kicked the drug habit a number of times.  He wasn’t completely incapable of getting off drugs, but the influence of the situation that he was in was a little bit too heavy for him.  But, like — well, see, the other thing that’s very interesting about him is that he always had very intense intellectual pursuits in his personality. 

And so, throughout the book, you will find that he gets with different people.  And they actually are interested in the life of the mind, as they call it.  Now, most people today don’t think that black jazz musicians did that.  They definitely don’t think hip-hop musicians — well, calling hip-hop musicians musicians is a little bit too much. 

(LAUGHTER)

STANLEY CROUCH:  But what I mean is, today, people don’t really realize that truly sophisticated artists thought a lot, you know? 

And a lot of times in the book, you see Charlie Parker’s relationship to Lester Young, to Duke Ellington, to Louis Armstrong, to all of these different people, because of what they meant to him as a player, and because they kept setting up — they kept setting his expectations for himself higher, see, because he wanted to be up there with the guys on the top shelf. 

And their attitude is, if you can climb up here, just climb on up.  

(LAUGHTER)

STANLEY CROUCH:  They weren’t standing there stomping his fingers.  When he got — when his fingers got up, there they said, oh, another one coming, come on. 

JEFFREY BROWN: Right.  Come on and join us, huh?

STANLEY CROUCH:  Right. 

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. 

The book is “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker.”

Stanley Crouch, thanks so much. 

STANLEY CROUCH:  Thank you very much.