Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker
by Stanley Crouch (New York: Harper, 2013), 365 pp. Hardcover, $27.99.
A section of this biography, which documents the early life of the dazzling bebop saxophonist Charlie Parker, starts with a four-page meditation on "the truth and myth of railroads" in America: the figurative underground railroad that comprised a web of escape routes for slaves fleeing the South; the "black-smoke-puffing iron horse" that galloped into the West and "would eventually carry the brutal and legendary Apache chief Geronimo and his people . . . to Florida"; the trains "that inspired the legend of Casey Jones"; and the trains steaming through the blues tunes that echoed their melancholy nocturnal sounds.
Crouch views the train as "a vehicle and a dream source" in a culture where children were once tantalized by ads that pictured toy trains looping around "bright ovals of miniature track." As every jazz fan knows, Charlie Parker's playing traveled along bright ovals of its own. So does Crouch's prose, and his intellectual excursions carry readers well into the realm of African-American history, which is a significant dimension of this book.