Bird honored in his home town
by Don Rose
KANSAS CITY—"My mother really loved Bird," Max Roach recalled. "She was a very religious lady and when he was staying with us he always greeted her with a bible in his hand. She thought he was so polite. Later on, when I got busted [for drugs] she asked me 'Why can't you be more like that nice Charlie Parker?' I wanted to tell her, 'That's what I was tryin' to do, Ma!' "
The immortal drummer drew knowing laughs, telling the story at the kickoff session of a three-day celebration and symposium devoted to the life and works of his colleague and mentor, Charles "Yardbird" Parker.
Yes, Bird is finally getting appropriate homage here in his home town. The words and music flowed from Thursday, March 25 through Saturday the 28th, when a spectacular, 17-foot-high bronze sculpture of Parker's head was unveiled in a new plaza dedicated to him in the historic 18th & Vine cultural district. The monument, an epic work by sculptor Robert Graham, is inscribed "Bird Lives."
The musical highlight was a Friday night concert featuring Roach, vibes master Milt Jackson, pianist-educator Billy Taylor, trombonist Al Grey—all of whom worked with Bird in his greatest years—and Jay McShann, the KC blues pianist and bandleader who gave him his first big gig. All were accorded their unaccompanied solo moments, with Jackson's soliloqy on "Nature Boy" stunning the packed Gem Theatre and Roach demonstrating again that however furious his polyrhythms may seem, he is playing true melodies on the trap set. Taylor took two full choruses of variations before backing into the theme of "All the Things You Are" in an almost orchestral improvisation.
Three magnificent alto players in the Parker tradition burned their way through the evening: Charles McPherson, local hero Bobby Watson and the British great Peter King, appearing in the US for only the second time and amply demonstrating why he is such a legend in Europe. The three appeared in various combinations through the evening—including an astonishing a capella work by Watson, which led into a duet with drummer Michael Warren on "Barbados."
Bird's step-daughter, Kim Parker, whose two planned songs were cut back to one, romped through a vocalese rendition of "Good Bait" with Grey. The trombonist played seated because of his infirm legs, but his chops were firmly intact.
More Parker-inspired vocal work came from Luqman Hamza and Ernie Andrews—plus McShann, of course, playing and singing the evening's theme, "I'm Goin' to Kansas City." Claude "Fiddler" Williams showed you can even play Bird-calls on the violin.
The evening's triumph was a thrilling rendition of "Cheryl," Bird's uptempo blues, with the three altoists and local tenorman Ahmad Alaadeen in the front line engaging in a cheery version of an old-time KC cutting contest when it came time to trade fours. Everybody, including soprano saxist Leonard Brown, who organized the symposium panels, then came onstage for the finale—a rousing "Now's the Time."
After Roach told his funny story Thursday evening, Doris Parker (Bird's last legal wife), trumpet player Clora Bryant and Williams reminisced about the great man. Then Roach and Taylor got into a heated exchange about use of the words "jazz," "swing," "bebop" and so forth.
Roach denounced all such terms as irrelevant at best, racist at worst—preferring simply "Bird's music" or "Duke's music." Taylor defended the terminologies as historically useful descriptions. (Jackson later told me this is not the first time the two have gone at it over the issue.) This provided the only fireworks on any of the symposium panels that evening or the next day.
On the other hand, everyone on the panel and most of those in the audience—most vociferously, ethnomusicologist Brown—were critical of Clint Eastwood's film "Bird," finding it racially stereotyped and imbalanced in its depiction of Parker's life.
The opening session was held in the atrium of the American Jazz Museum, which cosponsored the event with the City of Kansas City, the International Association of Jazz Educators and the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors—the local jazz society—all backed by corporate bucks.
Guests were welcomed there and to the Friday concert by AJM Director Rowena Stewart and KC Mayor Emanuel Cleaver, the guiding light behind the entire celebration. It was Cleaver who, four years ago, bought one of Parker's horns at auction for $185,000 as a centerpiece for the museum.
Friday's sparsely attended panels, held across the street at the Gem, first offered recollections of Parker in KC by elders who knew him in his youth, such as trumpet player Oliver Todd and booking agent Dicky Hunter, with a scholarly presentation on Kansas City and its style by ethnomusicologist Linda Williams. This was followed by musicological presentations on the "new" music called bebop by percussionist-author Anthony Brown and trombonist-educator Bill Lowe.
Taylor brilliantly bridged musical and personal recollections of Bird, followed by more reminiscences by Roach, Jackson, Doris Parker, guitarist Sonny Kenner, tenorman Alaadeen, Parker's horn repairman Dooley Weilert and this reporter.
More music and less talk came in the afternoon, when Andrews and Hamza sang a string of songs with a tip of their hats to Parker's influence on themselves as vocalists. Then came a session worth preserving for the ages, with Taylor and Watson digging in and describing exactly what revolutionary things Bird was doing in his improvisations and compositions of the '40s and '50s—each giving musical examples, playing solos and duets. It was then Bird on the record, from the earliest sessions onward, introduced by jazz historian Eric Jackson.
The symposium panels drew only a couple of dozen listeners, but they were joined at times by visits from large classes of local students, most of them musicians. An even wider audience came via the internet: the panels aired in cyberspace on the Jazz Channel of the TV on the Web Network.
Saturday morning, Cleaver, wearing African robes, led a five-block-long procession from the Mutual Musicians Society to the new Charlie Parker Plaza, site of the unveiling. Sculptor Graham's wife, the actress Angelica Huston, added a low-key touch of glamour buzz to the whole affair.
But wait—there's more: A touch of final irony in the story behind the story. It all began two years ago when two leaders of the Jazz Ambassadors, Dean Hampton and Verne Christensen, had a simple plan in mind. They wanted to replace the embarrassing marker on Parker's ill-kempt grave just outside the town line.
The original gravestone was vandalized many years ago. Through a series of errors, its replacement, a large, flat stone covering the grave of Parker and his mother Addie, was emblazoned with a tenor saxophone.
The Ambassadors logically found it disgraceful that the finest alto player who ever lived should be memorialized with the wrong saxophone. Christensen, an architectural illustrator, designed a handsome alternative derived from the lovely cover art of the Verve boxed set of Parker's works.
They went to Cleaver with a plan to replace the shoddy stone. Cleaver went them one better: the city would create a new memorial tomb in the cultural district and rebury Parker and his mother there.
The idea took off. He found philanthropic funding for the memorial, involved Stewart and the Museum, along with Leonard Brown and others to plan the entire event. Graham—who created part of the Franklin D. Roosevelt memorial in Washington, D.C.—was commissioned to work on the sculpture, creating space for the reburial in the base of the statue.
Then, less than two months before the date, Leon Parker, Bird's son by his first wife and executor of the estate, nixed the reburial plan after initially agreeing to go along.
So the tomb is now simply a handsome memorial. The Ambassadors still hope to get a new headstone out in Lincoln Cemetery some day, but the original grave still remains marked with its tenor saxophone—symbolizing, perhaps, the many screwups in the remarkable life of Charlie "Yardbird" Parker.
All photos, except of Bird's grave, are copyright ©1999 by Judy James.
Copyright ©2003. All rights reserved.