Jazz saxophonist and composer Charlie Parker, whose nickname was “Bird,” was born in Kansas City on August 29, 1920. For the past month, his hometown has been celebrating his 100th birthday, culminating in a series of public parties on Saturday.
One hundred years after Kansas City’s native son Charlie Parker was born, his music is alive and best of all, played.
Recently, a group of young saxophonists, led by veteran performer Bobby Watson, gathered at the Charlie Parker Memorial near Eighteenth and Vine to pay tribute to the legendary musician known as “Bird.”
The jazz saxophonist and composer was born in Kansas City on Aug. 29, 1920. And for the past month, his hometown has been celebrating his one hundredth birthday. For Aug. 28-29 events, visit spotlightcharlieparker.org/event-schedule.
Parker’s story is also kept alive by Chuck Haddix, the director of the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Marr Sound Archives. Haddix wrote a 2015 book about Parker, titled “Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker.”
Haddix says Parker got his famous nickname while on the road with the Jay McShann Band. They were on their way to a dance in Lincoln, Nebraska, and they ran over a chicken.
“They would go through these small towns in those days, there were no interstates. And so he begged the driver to go back and let him retrieve the chicken,” Haddix recalls.
“So he came back and he took the chicken into town and they were staying in the rooming house because there were no hotels for African-Americans. Segregation was the rule of the land in those days. And when he got back to the boarding house he begged the woman to cook the yardbird for him. And it’s kind of funny, the band members began referring to him as Yardbird. And then later, of course, it was shortened to Bird.”
Parker was a pioneer of the jazz style known as be-bop. “Cherokee,” a popular 1930s song by British entertainer Ray Noble, was one of Parker’s signature tunes.
“Cherokee was one of Bird’s favorite songs,” says Haddix. “It was his showstopper. Bird was often late for gigs and sometimes he didn’t show up at all. So when he was late for a gig, he would make a grand entrance by playing Cherokee outside the club and then walking in the club, playing Cherokee and played it standing on the bandstand. That got everybody’s attention.”
Local jazz musician Lonnie McFadden grew up hearing stories about Charlie Parker from his father, tap dancer Jimmy McFadden. Back then, they’d meet in the heart of the old Eighteenth and Vine district at The Mutual Musicians Foundation, where Kansas City jazz legends like Jay McShann and Big Joe Turner used to play.
“I was influenced by my father and his friends and we’re talking about the guys of the Count Basie days, the Charlie Parker days,” says McFadden. “All these guys knew Charlie Parker, all of them were friends with Charlie Parker. Inevitably, I’d ask them different things that I should practice on and different people to listen to.
“Everybody. It was a consensus. All of them said, ‘You got to listen to Bird. You got to listen to Charlie Parker.’”
McFadden says Parker is remembered as a brilliant innovator who took jazz to new places.
“Every tap dancer I know, every jazz musician I know, every rock and blues musician I know honor Charlie Parker,” says McFadden. “We’re talking about a musical icon. And he just happens to be ours. And I am so proud of that. So one way or another, we’re going to celebrate Bird.”
Bird Ellington Fleming, a Kansas City musician, shares a nickname with Charlie Parker. He says drummers will also pay their respects. His group, the Traditional Music Society, will perform at the Charlie Parker Memorial at dawn on Saturday.
“We’ll play right at sunrise,” says Fleming. “So we’ve got certain rhythmic selections we’ve chosen to honor Charlie Parker, to honor the occasion, to honor the music.”
Fleming says the roots of American jazz can be traced all the way back to Africa.
“Various elements in jazz comes out of African drumming,” says Fleming. “You know, jazz is an African-American expression. It has certain elements which are very predominant which is syncopation, the offbeat, the upbeat, improvisational, the blue note, the swing note. All those things are inherent in African drumming.”
Part of the annual celebration will be a walking tour of the Eighteenth and Vine District. One of the tour guides this year is Jacob Wagner. He’s an Associate Professor in Architecture, Urban Planning and Design at UMKC. He’s also a big fan of jazz history. Wagner says Kansas City was slow to appreciate Parker.
“Kansas City’s taken too long to recognize black creativity and African-American music that put us on the map,” says Wagner.
“And it’s not just a Kansas City dilemma. It’s an American dilemma. And it’s tied up with the racial reckoning that we’re in now. And this sense of not understanding our own identity to be an American is to be a black American, to be influenced by black culture and black music, and to fail to recognize that is truly one of our great failings as a country.”
Wagner says this celebration is an opportunity both to honor the past and look to the future.
“The world really is paying attention to the music of Kansas City now,” says Wagner. “And it’s not just about the past, it’s about the great musicians that we have here in the city today and how we extend the creativity of African-American music for the next 100 years.”