Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Happy 89th

This blog should never be about me. After all, I’m mighty uninteresting. But today, forgive me, I break that rule, because Bird’s birthday reminds me how Charlie “Bird” Parker introduced me to jazz. Well, Bird and Teddy.

It was 1980. I’d graduated college and lived in the Plaza/Westport area. And often I browsed Pennylane Records (today, Streetside) on Broadway. A high school friend, Teddy, worked there and Teddy knew where to steer me.

Record albums stacked the racks then and Warner Records offered a double of some of Parker’s best work, which I’d later recognize as his Dial label masterpieces. Teddy sold it to me. When home, I placed the first disk on my old Panasonic turntable, and at that moment, irrevocably, I was a jazz fan.

Shocked: Somebody solos like those alto turns at the heart of Moose the Mooche and Yardbird Suite and Orinthology? Music could be this exciting, this involved, this engaging? And the Famous Alto Break, I wore out the grooves on that cut. Why didn’t anybody clue me in before? What cave had I lived in?

I played no instrument, never have. But as with nearly any twenty-something, music mattered.

Teddy sold me another double LP, Bird’s Savoy label recordings. Then his work on Verve (never liked that as much). Then the live recordings. Then his early work with McShann. I couldn’t find enough jazz by Charlie “Bird” Parker.

I recall sitting across a table, one weekend afternoon, at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, talking with saxophonist Joe Thomas (if you haven’t heard the album he made with Jay McShann late in his life, in 1982, Blowin’ In From K.C., you’re missing something). I was talking to him about the jazz I’d so far discovered, about the joy of listening to Bird. Joe Thomas observed, “You like hearing a lot of notes.” Hadn’t thought about it that way. At the time, he was right.

Teddy would later introduce me to Count Basie and Lester Young, to Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald, to Julia Lee and Big Joe Turner. I‘d learn and love Kansas City’s jazz roots. But I doubt I’d have appreciated those artists then as I do today had I heard their music first. Then, coming from the Beatles and the Stones, I’d have likely found them too much like the Sinatra 8-track tapes Dad played over and over in the car (though today I’ll gladly take Sinatra, too). Bird was the right place, for me, at that time, to start, to appreciate jazz, to appreciate our native art form and the art for which KC is renowned.

This weekend would have been Charlie “Bird” Parker’s 89th birthday. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, raised in a house now gone at 16th and Olive in Kansas City, Missouri, Bird now lies buried in Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Summit, between Kansas City and Independence.

(I remember Eddie Baker, of the Charlie Parker Foundation, lobbying the city council to save Parker’s home. It was, Eddie argued, part of our history. He said councilmen told him it was just another old home to be razed. They were wrong. Eddie was right.)

(And about the gravesite: Did anyone ever correct the tombstone my successors at the Kansas City Jazz Commission purchased for Bird’s grave, engraved with a tenor sax? A tenor sax, on the marker for history’s greatest alto saxophonist? What an unbelievable blunder. A masterstroke of embarrassment.)

This Sunday, saxophonists will gather at Lincoln Cemetery, at Bird’s grave, to salute his genius.

From me: Thank you, Charlie “Bird” Parker, for your gift. I’ll always owe you for my introduction to jazz. You too, Teddy.

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