Nonfiction

Young Charlie Parker

A peek at a legend's early days, by Stanley Crouch 


On December 18, Stanley Crouch appeared at The Center in conversation with Tom Piazza about his new book Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker. Watch the video here. Here's a taste of Crouch's book:


 

It was late autumn when Charlie Parker sidled up to one of the guys standing outside the 65 Club, on Fifty-Fifth Street at Michigan Avenue, and no one thought he might be dreaming about music. They gave him a look that was short on contempt but long on experience. These were night people, men in possession of the electricity, the anarchy, the pride, the suspicion, and the doubt of the times. They knew how it went. Whatever it was, they saw it coming. They lived in that part of the night known as after hours, when the streets were wandered by only the most intrepid party spirits, by musicians looking for someplace to pull out their instruments and jam, by johns ready to barter with some whores, and by the homeless, who had to keep in motion to hold back as much of the cold as they could.

 

One of the guys out in front of the 65 Club was a young Negro named Bob Redcross. Redcross, at that time, was a hustler by his own description. He worked hard at moving whatever he could and had a gift for clothing design that would come in handy later when he started suiting up entire dance bands. Light-skinned, thin, about five feet nine, Redcross had the spark of wit in his eye, but it was matched by an iciness that could be unnerving. When he went to New York in 1937, hustling the backside of the Apollo Theater with the notorious ruffians and desperadoes of 126th Street, people were heard to say: “Leave him alone. That’s a Chicago nigger. He’ll shoot you.”

 

Redcross also loved music. He was a serious collector, the kind who was there to help out famous musicians who were looking for a recording they’d made back in the day but which was no longer in print and was scarce on the ground. If it was good, chances were Redcross had it tucked away carefully in a brown paper sleeve inside a record-album book, practically brand-new. Records were easy to break back then—they were made of shellac—but in Bob Redcross’s collection, everything was in order and protected with a do-or-die attitude.

 

Though he was only in his mid-twenties, Bob Redcross had show-business roots going right back to the start of serious jazz in Chicago. From the time he first heard King Oliver and Louis Armstrong, sitting inside his mother’s coat in the Royal Gardens checkroom, he’d known them both on stage and in private—the musicians and singers, the dancers and comedians. A curious man, a voracious reader, and conversationalist who consumed Will Durant’s The Story of Philosophy as a young man, Redcross was also a sociable type who liked playing tonk with the guys at the 208, though he later admitted he didn’t always love hanging around with the unemployed.

 

When Charlie Parker approached the guys outside the 65 Club, looking to bum a cigarette—this kid’s pants would fit three people, Redcross thought—another who noticed him was Redcross’s buddy Billy Eckstine. A twenty-four-year-old singer from Pittsburgh whose good looks and high cheer masked a willingness to knock a joker out if necessary, Eckstine had a honeyed glow that was almost irresistible to the opposite sex. Eckstine could easily have been a pimp; he had plenty of street women offering to go out and lay down some love for sale on his behalf, content to do the sweating and squealing for a Negro that pretty—high brown with almost oriental eyes, with those football player’s shoulders and that good hair lying down like that. But: forget it. Too much hassle. Music was on his mind. He didn’t avoid street-corner banter about dancing the poontango, but the pimp walk wasn’t for him.

 

Eckstine’s show-business mentor from a distance was Duke Ellington, but his singing model early on was the bandleader and showman Cab Calloway. Eckstine used to imitate the Hi-De-Ho Man, whose perfect diction and high-powered Harlem jive sold many, many records, and even broke into the world of Betty Boop cartoons, where figures like the Old Man of the Mountain were animated to emulate Calloway’s dancing style. But now the young Eckstine was starting to close in on his own sound, a personal way of crooning that was rising out of his body more clearly every day. His real dream was to become a romantic balladeer, to use his low, dark baritone to liquefy the hearts and wet the underpants of the ladies. There was no place for that in the musical landscape of the time—not produced in the dark side of town, anyway—but that was what he wanted, and he sensed he could get it. Good male singers, from opera to pop, became the romantic force throbbing in the hearts of women. Young Billy Eckstine knew he was a good singer and was always ready to prove it.

 

Charlie stood there quietly for a while with Redcross, Eckstine, and the others, taking in the surroundings, looking for his opening. When the guys went back inside, he followed them. It was swinging hard in there, very hard, trumpeter King Kolax’s band riding through the air in musical triumph, laying down that Chicago momentum of strut and shuffle, colored by the taint of true blues. Charlie sized up the landscape in an instant, all that Kansas City groove within reach of muscle memory. He might have looked like something time forgot, but Charlie was in no way afraid to ask to play. When he told the guys in the band he played the alto saxophone, Goon Gardner, who was at a table flirting with a girl, turned around in his chair and slid a horn across the floor to Charlie, its neck and mouthpiece twisted safely up off the ground. Charlie picked up the instrument and turned the neck so that it was ready to play.

 


Excerpted from Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (Harper) by Stanley Couch. Reprinted by permission.

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The groundbreaking Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker is the first in a projected two-volume life of Charlie Parker.

 

A winner of the MacArthur Award, Stanley Crouch has been writing about jazz and the African American experience for more than forty years. He has twice been nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award, for his essay collections Notes of a Hanging Judge (1990) and The All-American Skin Game (1995). His other books include Always in Pursuit (1998), The Artificial White Man (2004), and the novel Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome (2000).