Writer Stanley Crouch

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The noted jazz historian unpacks his text, Kansas City Lightning—part one of his biography of jazz giant Charlie Parker.

Syndicated columnist, musician, novelist, poet, playwright, music and cultural critic, biographer. Stanley Crouch wears many hats. He's also a jazz enthusiast and has been writing about the music genre and the American experience for more than 40 years. He's served as artistic consultant at NY's Lincoln Center and co-founded the Jazz at Lincoln Center department. He's also written for numerous publications, and his books include Notes of a Hanging Judge, The All-American Skins Game and the novel, Don't the Moon Look Lonesome. Crouch's latest text, Kansas City Lightning, is the first of two volumes on the life of revolutionary musician Charlie Parker.


Tavis: Jazz great Charlie Parker’s brief, brilliant life comes into full focus in all of its complexity and an important new tome by cultural critic and jazz historian, Stanley Crouch, titled “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker.” This is the first of two volumes looking at this unique artist in a unique time in American history.

Stanley Crouch joins us now from New York. Before we get to our conversation with Stanley, first a look at the great Charlie Parker in concert from 1951.


Tavis: Stanley, I’m glad to have you on. Let me start by asking why it is, given his huge impact, that so little has been written about Charlie Parker. I’m glad you’ve done it, but why so little about him?

Stanley Crouch: Well, a lot of what has been written is basically what they call urban legends these days, which means exaggeration and fraud.

Tavis: Why exaggeration and fraud about Charlie Parker?

Crouch: Well, see, he provides for the average reader a lot of clichés about Black people and about jazz musicians, about drugs. And people tend to gravitate toward those things. And, see, when I started the book, I actually realized through my mother and my father, both of whom had grown up in the 1930s, that Black Americans looked at the Depression in a very different way than they were usually written about.

For instance, they knew that they weren’t the fools you saw in American movies, but they also knew that the people that they saw on the newsreels were actual people. Jesse Owens, Marian Anderson, Joe Lewis, those were actual people.

Tavis: Give me some sense of why it is you believe – I’m not naive in asking this, but why is it that that part of the story about Charlie Parker tends, at least up until your wonderful work, tends to overshadow his artistic genius?

Crouch: Well, as you know, Tavis, it’s always easier to focus on something that everybody else can do. See, everybody can get high. Everybody can become addicted. No one can play like Charlie Parker. See, because what I was trying to do in the book, as you know, I was trying to show that he’s actually an epic hero in that he had the will even when he was strung out on drugs.

He had the will to practice 10 to 15 hours a day. He was going to conquer that saxophone and he was gonna come to understand music and he was going to make himself into a person who could play, as he used to say, the pretty notes. He wanted to play beautiful music.

And all of these people in Kansas City, Black, white, but particularly in the Black section that is usually not assumed to have any taste or any culture or any ambition – it’s just, you know, they’re just statistical figures, see, all these people had a concept of beauty. They had a concept of worth. They had a concept of the life of the mind. And, in fact, the fundamental gift that Black American culture has provided to America is a nuance vision of the grandeur of the human heart.

See, Charlie Parker, he felt all of that because it was coming in him from every side, all of these people. You know, so the challenge is to actually provide the reader with a feeling of the era and a feeling of the grandeur of the people, and that they aren’t just some statistics that, you know, oh, that’s the lower class.

Because, see, the important thing, as Ralph Ellison used to always say to me, was that the people, they had their own dreams about life and they did not look at themselves in terms of the stereotypes that might have been had about them. So a lot of what the book is is the attempt to show why a guy could actually be that attracted to music at that time.

Tavis: Part of what comes out for me in the book is that what to some degree – maybe in large measure – drove Charlie to practice 10-plus hours a day was initially being booed off the stage by some of those Negroes you just referenced a moment ago. Am I misreading your text [laugh]?

Crouch: No, no. See, the thing was that Charlie was a very spoiled guy and he come to one of the bandstands with a saxophone thinking he could play, but he couldn’t play. So they laughed him off the bandstand and then he decided that he was gonna become the greatest saxophone player in the world.

He couldn’t really hear what was being played at first because his great achievement of jazz is that these people, they performed what we call multi-tasking then on the bandstand. They heard all the notes that were being played around them. They heard their own line and they made what they were gonna play fit with all the other notes, and everybody in the band did that. So it’s a supreme achievement in performing art that has never been recognized just perhaps of who did it, you know.

Tavis: Tell me about how you went about doing the research on this. As I mentioned earlier, this is the first of two volumes and this first volume deals with clearly the early life of Charlie Parker. But give me some sense of what you had to do to connect the dots on this story.

Crouch: Well, first thing is, I had to go to Kansas City. But I also had the luck of finding his first wife and giving her her first interviews, Rebecca Parker, who when she married was Rebecca Ruffin.

And she told me all kinds of things about Charlie Parker that set up the form of the book because she would say, like, “Well, Charlie would always ask you questions because at first he was very silent. He was very silent. He wouldn’t talk much. But after a while, we got around him and he started to have fun and then he started to ask questions about the world because he was a very curious person.”

And she said, “He had to ask me because his mother didn’t basically tell him anything, so he learned a lot of things by just being inquisitive.”

And she even said that, when she worked in the school library, Charlie Parker would set out there while she was working in the library reading all these books about religion, about different cultures, about stuff in Asia because he was interested in the world. And all of these guys were interested in the world in some kind of way.

And Charlie Parker, I found, always gravitated to somebody who would help him get closer to what he was trying to do. So by the time he gets to Chicago, he meets this guy named Bob Redcross and they sit up and they read a lot of books and they talk about philosophy and all of that. So Redcross told me, he said, “We were interested in thinking and we didn’t think there was something wrong with that.” So Charles…

Tavis: But how does his curiosity – and I love the point you’re making, Stanley – but tell me more about how his curiosity connects to his playing. How does the thinking come forth vis-à-vis the playing?

Crouch: Well, the first thing is, Charlie Parker mastered the saxophone and created another kind of rhythm that had not been played in jazz before.

And that rhythm was very intricate and his style demanded a high level of virtuosity and great precision. What he was always trying to do was, as Rebecca said, he was trying to get himself audible to you. The way he was, the person that he really was, he wanted you to hear that when he was playing.

So his – I mean, that didn’t make him different from any of the musicians, but he just had so much more talent than most other people that he could actually be kind of devastating when he learned how to play. I mean, people knew that they were hearing something.

Tavis: Part of that trying to get himself to us audibly, Stanley, resulted in his neglecting pretty much everything else. The one thing you have to love about Charlie Parker is that he was never unfaithful to the music, as you point out in the book. He dedicated himself to that. But juxtapose for me what he abandoned in lieu of dedicating himself full-time to his music.

Crouch: Well, see, there’s a bittersweet side to his story. But there always is a bittersweet version of an epic hero in mythology. Charlie Parker is as close to a super hero as someone can be because the way he could play was on a super hero level. But that didn’t mean that he was a perfect person because Odysseus, Achilles, all of these people, they’re very gifted, but they’re also very screwed up [laugh]. Now that’s a hard fact.

But, as we know, many people who are gifted are also messed up. So what I mean is, Charlie Parker, the only way he could redeem himself to you, Tavis, or anybody else was to play so beautifully that you would see the essence of him as opposed to his shortcomings.

And the way he could play, you know – ’cause like my father told me, he saw some women who were so hung up by what Charlie Parker was playing, they wet their seats rather than go to the bathroom while he was playing [laugh].

See, what I’m saying is, all of these people, it’s just like my mother. She told me – I’m talking to her about Bonnie and Clyde once, and she said, “Yeah, I know them.” I said, “What do you mean, you knew them, Mom?” She said, “They used to stay across the street from me, Bonnie and Clyde.”

I said, “Wait a minute. Why?” She said, “Well, it was segregation and the police apparently didn’t think that these two outlaws would stay in a Black community in East Texas, but they did. And I saw Pretty Boy Floyd too.”

So, what I’m saying is, you’re talking to people who were there and then you get a completely different sense of the world than what you’ve seen in newspapers or books, you know, or stories.

Tavis: As I said before, I know this is the first of two volumes. And when you have the second volume out, I suspect you’ll come back on again and we’ll talk more about it. But to advance the story while this, again, volume is about his early life, Parker’s dead at 34.

Does he have any knowledge by the time he passes away of the impact that he is having, has had, on jazz or is that something he never is aware of? He’s just trying, again to your point, get the best of himself to us audibly, but without any real knowledge of what he’s doing with the music?

Crouch: No, he was very aware. He was a very aware man and he knew what he was doing. But he also told some guys at one point when they were talking to him about using drugs, he said, “Well, perhaps I will be the best example of why not to use drugs.”

And the other thing, he told one guy, Walter Davis, at one point, he says, “You know, they’re gonna end up putting you in a can.” He said, “What do you mean, a can?” He says, “You know, they’ll be able to take your sound as much as they want and put it in another place and then put your sound back in the can.” So he said, “Your future, my friends, is in a can.”

So he was talking about sampling and it didn’t even exist at that time. He could see already because he paid so much attention to technology and to innovation that, at some point, your sound could be taken out of its context and put in another context and then put back.

Tavis: What did the other musicians who were notable in his era – obviously, there are many. I won’t even start to run the list. But how was he regarded by the other players?

Crouch: Oh, he was [laugh], I mean, he kept them so in awe because he could play so well, you know. See, they hadn’t heard anybody – he had a new style, but he could play so well that it actually intimidated most people.

Tavis: So let me take – that’s a powerful point. Let me split that up and take it in two parts. So you intimidate people and you inspire people. Let me start with the intimidation. How does one go about perfecting one’s craft when jazz is obviously an ensemble effort?

I mean, everybody has to hear themselves and play their note. When your moment comes, you do your thing. It’s all improvisation. But how does one improvise when one knows that he’s intimidating other people?

Crouch: Well, he didn’t think about that. He was trying to find people who wanted to play with him because he wanted to play with them. So the thing is, that the collective achievement of jazz is that everybody figures out how to make empathy the strongest part of their playing. See, because to me, that’s the grandeur that comes out of Afro American culture. That is, that empathy is the strongest force between human beings.

So what I mean is that, when somebody wants to play with you, they’re gonna try to figure out how to sound good with you. And Charlie Parker did that, everybody else did that. That’s what all of them together were trying to do. Let’s make a sound that is good.

That’s why I say that jazz is aesthetically the meaning of e pluribus unum. Out of many, one. And that’s the groove. That’s what everybody is seeking. Can we make this thing groove? We wanna get this groove. So what I mean is, all of these individuals, they remained individuals, but they knew how to play together.

Tavis: Right. So that’s the intimidation part. Tell me more about the inspiration. How did Charlie and his gift inspire others?

Crouch: Well, the first thing is, see, in music, you basically cannot explain where a melody comes from. You can follow the logic of a melody, but it’s not like harmony where, you know, in harmony, you can figure out different things to get certain results. But to make a beautiful melody, it almost has to come out of nowhere or seem to come out of nowhere.

Tavis: Right.

Crouch: And Charlie Parker was so melodically gifted that people would sit and they would just – he was like the greatest improviser since Louis Armstrong because that was what Louis Armstrong did to people. Because, you know, here he is, country boy from New Orleans and he’s playing all these beautiful phrases, you know.

And the thing to me is that jazz musicians actually figured out how to put what they call an ear musician, an uneducated musician, together with a sophisticated musician and sound good. See, that doesn’t happen in European music.

See, also, as you know, from (inaudible) and all these people, they always had to figure out what does the Black lower class actually mean? What is its potential? What is it dreaming about? What does it tell us that we could all learn from? And that in jazz is always the issue, you know, that the power of the human being is greater than the obstacles.

Tavis: Is there, Stanley, a spiritual dimension to Charlie Parker’s playing, to his gift? And I don’t mean spiritual in terms of religiosity. You know what I mean by that, of course.

Crouch: Right. Oh, yeah. Well, see, he was in reality a very spiritual guy because the first thing is, see, he knew that the notes don’t care who plays them. And he knew that all music came from somewhere inside you, that the high road to yourself is inside you. It’s not inside somebody else.

So all of these things that he experienced when he was a kid in Kansas City, all of the different situations that I show him in, he was constantly seeing people do things and produce things. And their obsession with beautiful things was something that he took very, very seriously. Duke Ellington took them seriously, all of the guys did. So there’s a value that comes out of the music that is always kind of like family. It’s kind of familial, you know.

It’s like, well, as you know, see, whenever you hear the word mother, that makes you think about something that’s not trivial because of your relationship to your mother. See, that’s so heavy that, see, what I was trying to do in the book was just use different words again and again or use them or structure them in so that they would connect you to different times in this man’s life.

I was also trying to get the feeling of the time that the people were so optimistic, see. And that’s why, when Charlie and Rebecca sitting in the movies or looking at Marian Anderson on the newsreels, that was a major event.

So some people say, “Well, how do you know that Charlie Parker even saw that?” I say, “Wait a minute. Charlie Parker was interested in life. Do you think that a guy as bright as he was would not notice if Marian Anderson was singing in Washington, D.C. to 75,000 people that would just go by and he wouldn’t even notice?” That’s kind of dumb.

Tavis: Does Charlie Parker, Stanley, become Charlie Parker if he’s not raised in Kansas City?

Crouch: Well, we can’t imagine that. Now he would have been a superior musician if he had stayed in any other city in the world. But Kansas City was so corrupt that you could actually play all the time.

So Charlie Parker would be playing and then he’d go to jam sessions and then he’d go to the park and play and then he’d end up sitting on the bench by himself playing the saxophone and everybody had gone home and then he’d go out and wake them up and get them back to playing again.

So you could do that in Kansas City ’cause they could actually sit up and play in Purcell Park and the cops never bothered them, the neighbors never bothered them, the community. So the people were like so oriented to serious music that you could be playing all the time.

Tavis: Here’s the exit question, I got about 30 seconds to go. Say a final word to me ’cause I love this about him. Say a word to me and to the audience about the abiding lesson to us that we can learn from Charlie Parker about the dedication to craft.

Crouch: Well, the thing that he showed you, that shows all of us, is how powerful the individual actually is, that no matter what obstacles are, if the person actually fundamentally decides to do his or her best, they can get far above many of the obstacles.

And that’s the basic thing that we’re trying to get through to young people now. You don’t have to be a jerk. If the music tells you to be a jerk, if the movies tell you to be a jerk, you don’t have to do that. You don’t have to be any of that.

You know, ’cause I’ve often thought about people like you and Ben Carson. If anybody had thought about you all at the start, they could never have imagined where you all would end up. See, that’s a basic American story. All of the stuff that we complain about and dislike, that’s true too.

Not all of it, but there is something that a Tavis Smiley, an Oprah Winfrey or Ben Carson or Duke Ellington, all of these people can do what they did. That’s not a joke. That’s a fact. And that’s something that we can see and we can move forward on the basis of that knowledge about the power of human beings, see. That’s what I think.

Tavis: He worked on this book for 32 years. It is the first of two volumes and it’s about time that Charlie Parker get the respect in print that he deserves.

The book is called “Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker” written by Stanley Crouch, and nobody turns a phrase like Stanley Crouch and I’m honored to have him on the program. Stanley, congratulations on the text.

Crouch: Thank you very much, Tavis.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: November 18, 2013 at 12:02 pm