Kansas City Lightning...

Just finished Stanley Crouch's insightful and often moving book, Kansas City Lighting: the Rise and Times of Charlie Parker.  Now let's get this out right from the start:  I love the passion of this cat's prose. Not only does he know his jazz, but he knows why he loves it and isn't shy about telling you, too. He can wax poetic about American trains, the skill and finesse of a master jazz musician, the role of Kansas City in the development of jazz or what a groove means to those who love it.  
"The goal," he tells us, "was the groove, which felt like effortless perfection, a rhythm so right it was a refute from mistakes. The groove was the jazzman's definition of absolute grace: shit, grit and the highest imaginable level of mother wit. (My favorite line!) The groove could start anywhere - one brass phrase, a drum beat, a couple of commanding chords from the piano, some notes hat the boss of the saxophone unite started conspiratorially whispering through his horn that soon swelled to take over the reed section, which attracted a counter-statement from the brass, making for a seesaw effect that insinuated itself up the spines of the musicians and the listeners." (p. 22) 

In another place he puts it like this:  "One master jazz musician said to a young player, "It's not magic, but it should seem like it is." He was referring to the way professional improvisation felt to the listener - the sort of improvisation in which intellect, passion and technique all conspired to create a mysterious and irresistible momentum, perfectly formed, no matter the tempo. The master also said that the role of the jazz professional was quite close to that of the magician. No matter how much labor had been put into working out all the aesthetic details, the appearance or disappearance of material, the manipulation of form, the apparent creation of a new reality - all were supposed to seem like the work of a music prestidigitator, one so in touch with the very chemistry of the moment that he or she could pull love potions or explosions right out of the air. And yet improvisation was never truly accidental, never the result of the hot mess that was ignorance." (p. 175)

Like many white musicians, I've known that something happened in Kansas City - I've sung and played a LOT of tunes that mention that wild ass town - but I never fully knew WHY what happened mattered. My first clue came from the jazz wisdom of Ralph Ellison. Crouch builds on the older man's experience and puts the rise of "Bird" in context.  And along the way, he not only gives the Kansas City sound shape and form, but explains why it made jazz so exciting at just the right time in history. (A good summary from PBS can be found here: http://www.pbs.org/jazz/places/places_kansas_city.htm) In a word, without the wide open wildness that was normative in KCMO during the 20s and 30s, it would have been hard for the genius of Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams or Count Basie to boil off the dross that playing freely every night permits. And without the distillation of their sound, it is unlikely that the abandon and creativity that became Charlie Parker and Bebop would have blown so powerfully into NYC in the 1940s.
And one of the early pioneers of the KC sound was none other than Big Joe Turner - the one and the same who shook the world with his sultry "Shake, Rattle and Roll" in 1954 - who brought blues with a kickin' back beat to the front in the 1936 song "Roll 'Em Pete."  As Ralph Ellison makes clear in his essays:  the vitality and creativity of jazz as an art was intimately connected to the dance floor - and when jazz lost touch with the pulse of real people and become too cerebral - it was because the dance hall had been forgotten.

So, here's to Kansas City, MO - home of killer jump and jazz, the best barbque ever cooked - and a host of sweet soul women and man who pushed jazz into a true American art form.  Brother Marsailis gets it so right with this tribute to Joe Turner.


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