A Tribute to Charlie Parker as KC Celebrates the Centennial of the Artist’s Birth

August Brings “Spotlight: Charlie Parker, A Citywide Celebration of his Life and Music”

Charlie Parker is revered as a jazz genius — a bold and brilliant innovator largely responsible not only for revolutionizing the music’s sound, but for transforming its image from that of captivating entertainment to incontestable art. In doing so, the alto saxophonist known for improvisational mastery entered the pantheon of American legends. And like quite a few legends, he has often been misunderstood.

Although Kansas City, Kansas, native Parker was a key figure in the creation of bebop — the high-speed, in-your-face jazz style that succeeded the more accessible aesthetic of swing — he didn’t invent it. And far too much has been made of his personal shortcomings, particularly a heroin addiction that has often been spotlighted to the detriment of his artistry.

But the perception of Parker as undisciplined junkie rather than as serious artist is in keeping with an American culture that has tended to recognize African American accomplishment only begrudgingly or not at all. Another jazz icon, trumpeter Louis Armstrong, continues to inhabit the popular imagination more for his rendition of “Hello, Dolly” than for establishing the basic vocabulary of jazz improvisation.

In a nation that pretends that a single month is a sufficient nod to the incalculable contributions of Black Americans, it’s not surprising that jazz is not considered essential to a well-rounded cultural education. Or that Parker, whose recordings are mandatory listening for jazz fans, is not necessarily on the playlist of the general public.

Yet it’s intriguing to speculate on whether Parker’s mythology would have endured this long if he hadn’t died at the age of 34. As a notable artist who ultimately succumbed to an unhealthy lifestyle, Parker has esteemed company — from Elvis Presley and Judy Garland to groundbreaking comedian Lenny Bruce and another highly influential jazz legend, singer Billie Holiday. As singularly talented but tragic figures, a certain romanticism has attached itself to each
of them.

Indeed, Parker — who put in time with pianist Jay McShann’s band before establishing himself on the New York jazz scene — represents the American ideal of rebellion for the hell of it. Of burning brightly but briefly, leaving behind admirers who scrawled “Bird Lives” on buildings and subway walls in memoriam.

Novelist Ralph Ellison (“Invisible Man”) noted in an essay that “between the beginning of his fame at about 1945 and his death in 1955,” Parker “became the central figure of a cult which gloried in his escapades no less than in his music.”

That Bird inspired a cult was a measure of the excitement generated by bebop, which pianist Thelonious Monk and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie played significant roles in developing, but which Parker took to the next level. As drummer Max Roach observed, the saxophonist “had a great mathematical mind, where he measured notes and could spin off profound thought musically.”

Parker himself put it this way: “I’d been getting bored with the stereotyped changes that were being used all the time, at the time, and I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.”

That is, until one night in 1939 during a New York jam session in which he was “working over ‘Cherokee,’ and, as I did, I found that by using the higher chords of a melody line and backing them up with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.”

Not everyone “got” what Parker was doing, as Kevin Whitehead notes in his book, “Why Jazz?” Particularly older jazz musicians for whom swing was still the thing. But younger players, Whitehead writes, “heard Parker and thought, This is how I want to play. Numerous altoists tried to sound just like him.” That proliferation of imitators prompted bassist Charlie Mingus to compose the wittily titled “If Charlie Parker Were a Gunslinger, There’d Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats.”

Parker’s place in jazz is such that his music has inspired innumerable tribute albums, from artists representing a range of stylistic sensibilities.

Three of the so-called “young lions” of the 1990s — trumpeter Roy Hargrove, pianist Steven Scott and bassist Christian McBride — teamed up for “Parker’s Mood,” a 1995 release on the Verve label. Perhaps tellingly, no saxophonist was enlisted to play on the recording, possibly to avoid comparisons to Parker’s approach on the horn. As might be expected, the trio’s renditions of tunes composed by or associated with Bird — including “Yardbird Suite,” “April in Paris” and the title track — are imaginative but in no way subversive.

In contrast, avant-garde alto saxophonist Anthony Braxton addresses the Parker songbook with open-eared abandon on the Hat Art release, “Charlie Parker Project 1993.” Leading a stellar combo — tenor saxophonist Ari Brown, trumpeter Paul Smoker, pianist Misha Mengelberg and bassist Joe Fonda, with Han Bennink or Pheeroan akLaff on drums — and taking on compositions including “Hot House,” “Dewey Square” and “Scrapple from the Apple,” Braxton delivers performances true to Parker’s exploratory spirit.

Parker left an indelible mark on jazz. His recordings — particularly those for the Savoy and Dial labels (featuring a young trumpeter named Miles Davis) are as essential to the music’s evolution as Armstrong’s Hot Five and Seven sides.

Perhaps trombonist, composer and MacArthur fellow George E. Lewis best captured Parker’s importance, as quoted in “The Penguin Jazz Guide.”

“It has become customary to say that Charlie Parker’s solos are ‘only’ collages of found materials, bits and pieces of music from all over, classical music, songs, things off the radio put together on the spot, but not original to him,” Lewis said.

“The really interesting point, of course, is not that the solos are assembled like that, but where those materials come from and how they came to be in Parker’s possession. That has implications for all of jazz.”

Spotlight: Charlie Parker, a citywide celebration of his life and music, Aug. 19 – 29, will feature jam sessions, tours, lectures, exhibits, panel discussions, poetry slams, workshops and concerts presented by KC Jazz Alive, University of Missouri Kansas City, the American Jazz Museum, Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Mutual Musicians Foundation, Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center and numerous other cultural and civic organizations. For a full schedule of events, visit spotlightcharlieparker.org/event-schedule.


To commemorate his centennial birthday, the American Jazz Museum is hosting a mini music series in the GEM Theater!

Doors open at 4 pm for 4:30 pm shows

Concert Line Up

Friday, August 21st @ 4:30 PM – Gerald Spaits Quintet feat. Charles Perkins & Jack Lightfoot, $15

Saturday, August 22nd @ 4:30 PM – #SearchingForCharlieParker, An Ode To Bird feat. Houston Smith & Morgan Faw, $15

Friday, August 28th @ 4:30 PM – Will Matthews Organ Trio, $15

Saturday, August 29th @ 7:00 AM – 12-Hour jam, FREE / $15


For more on the city-wide centennial celebration of Charlie Park, read Chuck Haddix’s piece in Flatland.

As the world celebrates the centennial of Charlie “Bird” Parker’s birth, Kansas City PBS presents a film looking back at the 21 years he spent at home in Kansas City and his long-lasting impression on jazz. “Bird: Not Out of Nowhere” premiered Saturday, Aug 30 on Kansas City PBS.

About The Author: Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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