Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Buddy and Bird (Kansas City Lightning)

Earlier this month I read Kansas City Lightning, a new biography of the great Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch.

Stanley Crouch
Right away I decided to write a little bit about Crouch's book, because I love Charlie Parker and his music. I'll still write about Kansas City Lightning, at least a little bit. But the idea has morphed into something else. Reading this book became one of those pleasant experiences where one thing links to another; it led me into other stuff.

I enjoyed Kansas City Lightning quite a bit. I can’t remember now where I first heard of it, but when I did I immediately requested it via interlibrary loan. I expected a rather straight-forward biography. Kansas City Lightning is not straight-forward.

Crouch performed a great deal of primary research over many years, including interviews with Parker's first wife. Perhaps the first thing to note is that this book focuses almost exclusively on Parker’s early life. It ends just as he begins to establish himself in New York, where he became the Bird we know and love. I saw no indication that Crouch intends a second volume. He may, and I hope he does. Crouch is a jazz authority and an incisive social commentator, and a follow-up would be invaluable. But with several other Charlie Parker biographies already extant, Crouch may think his later life is a well-worn trail.

In any case, my interest in Charlie Parker was renewed. I picked up copies, again via interlibrary loan, of Celebrating Bird by Gary Giddins, and Charlie Parker: His Music and Life, by Carl Woideck. Crouch’s text directed me to both. It is plain that Stanley Crouch has not only researched Charlie Parker extensively; he also shared his research with Giddins and Woideck, both of whom acknowledge this generosity.

If I have any criticism of Kansas City Lightning, it’s that Crouch indulges in extended digressions that aren’t always completely relevant. I don’t really mind, though. They provide context, and have gotten me interested in, for example, checking out Jack Johnson, the boxer.

Buddy Bolden
One of these digressions got me looking further into the legendary Buddy Bolden. Crouch discusses him over some four pages, and references In Search of Buddy Bolden by Donald Marquis. (This meant another trip to the library.) Bolden was a New Orleans cornetist active in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is considered among the first, if not the first, to play the style of improvisational music that evolved into jazz.

If only we could hear Bolden’s sound! But Bolden ceased playing around 1906. Marquis describes a near-mythic recording by Bolden and his band, said to have been made on one of those old-fashioned cylinders. In 1939, one of Bolden's former sidemen told journalist Charles E. Smith that the recording “had been made before 1898, and Smith ... began an extensive search for it. [His] leads met frustrating dead ends...” By this time Bolden was dead. The cylinder was supposedly made by one Oscar Zahn. A revised edition of the Marquis book reports that in 1999 Marquis got a letter from Zahn’s niece, who wrote that a shed on her property, containing many of her late uncle's old cylinder recordings, was torn down in the early 1960s – and the cylinder collection destroyed along with it.

There is only one known photograph of Buddy Bolden. It's the group shot at the bottom of this post. Bolden is second from the left, in the rear, holding the cornet. The other Bolden image on this page is a painting thought to be made around 1895.

The apparently lost-forever cylinder is listed on a Library of Congress site.

There’s an interesting article from 1957 about Charles E. Smith’s search for the cylinder.

I found a curious, semi-official Buddy Bolden web site.

And Charlie Parker? Bird lives. Check out the video below. Coleman Hawkins plays off the top; Bird comes in at 1:12. A remarkable contrast in styles!

And be sure to read Kansas City Lightning.

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