Kansas City To Host Charlie Parker Celebration Aug. 14–31
Posted 8/6/2014

There’s a line in the New Testament—“A prophet is without honor only in his hometown”—that could describe the way Kansas City has sometimes regarded its most famous musical son, Charlie “Bird” Parker.

His boyhood home was bulldozed. The Charlie Parker Academy of jazz died before its founder—trumpeter, pianist and bandleader Eddie Baker—did, in 2001. Even the annual 21-sax salute at Bird’s gravesite in Lincoln Cemetery, which Baker pioneered in the 1970s, failed to happen last year on the bebop trailblazer’s Aug. 29 birthday.

But this year, two of the entities that Baker was instrumental in founding are among the sponsors of a series of events from Aug. 14–31 that will give Bird his due. The celebration will include concerts featuring Parker’s music at venues around town, a tour of sites associated with the man and two 21-sax salutes on consecutive days.

This has been a big year for Bird, who died in 1955 at age 34. The jazz icon is the subject of two biographies published in the past 12 months: Stanley Crouch’s Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker (Harper) and Chuck Haddix’s Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker (University of Illinois Press).

In addition to being an author and jazz historian, Haddix is a Kansas City music librarian and radio DJ, and he will be the featured guest in a panel discussion that kicks off the two-week celebration. At 6 p.m. on Aug. 14, at the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine streets, Jazz Museum CEO Greg Carroll will moderate a discussion with Haddix, saxophonist and educator Bobby Watson and veteran Kansas City saxophonist and flautist Horace Washington. The title for the discussion is “Bird & Bebop: The Genius of Charlie Parker.”

Haddix will be the host and the Jazz Museum will be the jumping-off point for “Stories from the Vine: A Charlie Parker Historical Tour & Musical Salute” starting at 1 p.m. on Aug. 16. The event will culminate with a reception and performance by the Vine Street Rumble Big Band directed by Kent Rausch. The band specializes in Kansas City repertoire.

Watson, who is also professor of jazz studies at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, returns to the museum’s Blue Room club for a concert at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 22. Other shows of note include a free concert by two K.C. veterans, saxophonist Charles Perkins and bassist Gerald Spaits, at 12 p.m. on Aug. 26, at the Nerman Museum at Johnson County Community College; appearances on consecutive Tuesday evenings, Aug. 19 and 26, by young trumpet lion Hermon Mehari at the Majestic restaurant, 931 Broadway Blvd.; and the concluding event at 7 p.m. on Aug. 30, at the 12 Baltimore Bar and Cafe in the Hotel Phillips, 106 W. 12th St., by trumpeter Stan Kessler.

The final weekend also features the premiere performances of Rag Swing Bop by K.C.’s Paul Mesner Puppets at the Gem Theater, across from the museum at 18th and Vine.

The two 21-sax salutes will take place at noon on Aug. 29 and Aug. 30, at Lincoln Cemetery, which is actually in an unincorporated portion of Jackson County, Missouri, known as Blue Summit. The first is being sponsored by the local chapter of the NAACP, while the second has been organized by the new group that is leading the Bird celebration, KC Jazz Alive.

KC Jazz Alive is a non-profit entity dedicated to promoting Kansas City’s jazz heritage as well as its present. Two organizations that the late Baker either founded (the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz) or to which he gave impetus (the American Jazz Museum) are among its partners. The others are UMKC Jazz Friends and the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors.

“We view KC Jazz Alive as a catalyst that will raise the tide that will lift all jazz boats,” said the museum’s Carroll. “We thought the best thing we could do out of the gate was to identify an event that would speak to the notion of raising all the boats for Kansas City. We decided to look at a K.C. icon, Charlie Parker, and do a recognition tribute, not just focusing on one venue but engaging venues throughout the city. … Everybody loved the idea. It helps bring the audiences to the venues, and to try to market it with one voice brings lots of synergy.”

Those too young to attend the clubs won’t be forgotten, with the puppet shows at the Gem and a “Bird Lives” Music Boot Camp on Aug. 23 at the museum. Young musicians will be exposed to Parker’s music and learn to play a piece in a four-hour educational session.

“We’ll try not to scare ’em,” quipped Carroll, who is also a vibraphonist and an educator. “We’ll slow stuff down and then speed it up so they can get it.”

For more details on the 2014 Charlie Parker Celebration, visit kcjazzalive.org.

To read a DownBeat Classic Interview with Parker from 1949, click here.

Rick Hellman

Charlie Parker (1920–1955) is the subject of two recent biographies. (Photo: William Fambrough)


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