September 2, 2020

“I Came Alive!” — Charlie Parker at 100

By Stuart Mitchner

The day after Charlie Parker’s 100th birthday, I’m driving to the lake listening to “the earliest authentic document we are ever likely to hear of the 20th century giant.” So say the liner notes accompanying Bird in Kansas City, 1940-42 on the Stash CD The Complete “Birth of the Bebop.” Privately recorded, “probably May 1940,” Parker’s variations on “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Body and Soul” seem to be following me as I walk toward the lake. Because of the unguarded intimacy of the sound I feel as if I’ve been eavesdropping on a 20-year-old’s first recording, in which, as the notes have it, “an overall lack of poise underscores the youthfulness of the performance.” Suddenly, strangely, the sense of “being there listening in” is replicated in the here and now by the sound of a saxophone. Someone on the other side of the lake is playing. For a few seconds it’s an eerie continuum, a phantom player exploring variations on “Body and Soul.” As I come to the water’s edge, peering across the lake for the source of the music, still unable to see the person playing, it begins to sink in (reality bites) that what I’ve imagined as some skilled sharer of Birdlore is more likely a clumsy learner, probably a kid in a school band, and that the tune I’ve been hearing as “Body and Soul” is actually “Happy Birthday.” Still, I’m smiling as I walk along the lakeside, listening. It’s nothing more than a birthday coincidence on the day after, a consolation prize, but I’ll take it.

Born Twice

Only a “20th-century giant” like Charlie Parker could encompass two cities with the same name in two different states, the Kansas City he was born in forever overshadowed by the musically renowned metropolis across the river that gave birth to his legend. The city in Missouri is where he found “a spiritual home in jazz,” as Gary Giddins suggests in Celebrating Bird: The Triumph of Charlie Parker (Minnesota 2013), “which remains the best single examination of his art and life,” according to the “Charlie Parker at 100” link in Friday’s New York Times.

Curious to learn more about Bird’s actual birth city, I’ve been consulting my copy of the WPA Guide to Kansas, which sits on the book shelf next to the WPA Guide to New Jersey. The placement makes sense: I was born in Kansas and live in New Jersey, my life bookended by the Sunflower State and the Garden State.

A Jersey Connection

Charlie Parker was born on August 29, 1920, at home, 852 Freeman Avenue, in Kansas City, Kansas. Checking the net, I see that the vacant lot once occupied by the house at that address is only a block south of New Jersey Avenue and two blocks from Jersey Creek Park. Finding nothing online that explains the Jersey connection, I explore the WPA guide’s detailed entry on Kansas City, Kansas, and find that the area was originally part of a reservation granted to the Delaware Indians (aka New Jersey’s Leni Lenape) and purchased in 1843 by the Wyandot, “the last of the emigrant tribes, … not savages, but an educated and in many instances a cultured people” [note the circa 1930s WPA terminology] that had “intermarried with whites from generations back,” their leaders “men of influence and ability.”

After the California Gold Rush of 1849 placed Wyandot City on “the great highway to the Pacific,” the boom town in the making “passed into the hands of white men” and by 1855 the Wyandot nation had “disappeared from Kansas.”

When the name Kansas City was “finally adopted” in 1886, the population had been swelled by an influx “of freed Negroes from the South” [more 1930s terminology] along with “Germans, Russians, Poles, Croats, Czechs, Slovakians … lured by the prospects of freedom in a new land.” The majority of the African American population “absorbed by the city’s growing industries” found homes “along Jersey Creek in a settlement called Rattlebone Hollow,” the neighborhood where Charlie Parker spent the first decade of his life.

“I Came Alive”

As of 1938, when the WPA Guide was published and Charlie Parker was involved in the Kansas City Missouri music scene, Rattlebone Hollow was “still extant” and would have made a catchy title for some early bebop original. It’s worth noting at this point that besides having Choctaw ancestors and being born in a city haunted by its Wyandot heritage, Bird “came alive” while improvising on the Ray Noble hit, “Cherokee.” As he says in a 1949 Down Beat interview quoted in Ira Gitler’s Jazz Masters of the Forties (1966), “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else. I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.” While playing “Cherokee,” he “found that by utilizing the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and using suitably connected changes with it, he could make the thing he had been hearing an actuality.”

Moving to KC

The WPA guide makes no mention of the Charles Sumner Elementary School, from which Charlie Parker apparently graduated in 1931. Now known as the Sumner Academy of Arts and Sciences, a nationally ranked magnet school, it was founded in 1905, named for the abolitionist Charles Sumner, and, according to Wikipedia, “its origins can be traced to a racially charged environment.” A series of events following the shooting of a white student at Kansas City High by an African American (the thwarting of a lynch mob, whites agitating for segregated schools) culminated in the opening of Sumner as the first segregated school in the state of Kansas. In Celebrating Bird, Parker’s presumed 1931 graduation indicates the likely date of the Parker family’s move from Freeman Avenue to 1615 Olive Street in Kansas City Missouri, “a short walk from the night clubs and dance halls where a new style of jazz was being born.”

Charlie Parker Place

“The Negro people should put up a statue to him, to remind their grandchildren. This man contributed joy to the world, and it will last a thousand years.” Dizzy Gillespie is talking about “the other half of his heartbeat” in a May 25, 1961 Down Beat interview quoted in Jazz Masters of the Forties. In the Black Lives Matter era, where the slogan of the moment is “I Can’t Breathe,” statues are coming down, not going up; in any case the notion of a monument is at odds with the “I came alive” spirit of Charlie Parker’s genius.

My favorite “monument” is the austere three-story brownstone rowhouse from 1849 adjacent to Tompkins Square Park on Charlie Parker Place, where a plaque from the New York Landmarks Preservation Foundation refers to “the world-renowned alto saxophonist” and “co-founder of bebop” who once lived there.

Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz dubbed him “the jazz world’s Mozart” because he “gathered together” the styles that had come before and transformed them into “a brilliant new design,” everything “fresh and whole” and “precisely right.” When Gary Giddins cites Mozart at the conclusion of Celebrating Bird, he’s thinking of more than the music: “As with Mozart, the facts of Charlie Parker’s life make little sense because they fail to explain his music. Perhaps his life is what his music overcame. And overcomes.”

In Robert Reisner’s oral history, Bird: The Legend of Charlie Parker (DaCapo 1991), Charlie Parker says to Charlie Mingus “Would you die for me? I’d die for you.” It’s easy to hear a cadence resembling the one-two punch in the mid-flight moments that sometimes move audience members at certain crudely recorded club dates or concerts to shout, “Kill yourself!” Knowing his days were numbered, it was as if Bird had a special claim on death. More than once, as recounted by friends and acquaintances in Reisner’s book, he says his goodbyes days and months before 8:45 p.m. on March 12, 1955.

Bird, Mingus, and the USPS

On a lighter note, also from Reisner’s oral history, Mingus recalls the time “Bird paid me the dubious honor of borrowing five dollars from me in 1946, when I was in the Lionel Hampton band. In 1951 he borrowed another ten dollars. The next year was a tough one for me in music; so I took a job in the post office. One night I get a phone call from Parker: ‘Mingus, what are you doing working in the post office? A man of your artistic stature? Come with me.’ I told him I was making good money. He offered me $150 a week, and I accepted. When the first pay day came around I asked him for $165 dollars. I reminded him of the old debt. His eyes rolled back in his head in amazement, ‘Yes, I remember.  But do you remember when I lent you fifteen dollars in front of Birdland?’ (An event which never took place).” At this point Mingus makes it clear that he was making almost as much money in the post office with overtime, and it was steady. After being threatened with bodily harm (“great as you are, I’ll kick your ass in”), Bird paid. Mingus goes on to recall the long involved discussions they used to get into between sets “about every subject from God to man, and, before we realized it, we would be due back on the stage. He used to say, ‘Mingus, let’s finish this discussion on the bandstand. Let’s get our horns and talk about this.’ “

Charlie Mingus and Charlie Parker were among the  jazz musicians honored in the 1996 USPS Legend Series. After all that jive about $150 or $165, Bird and Mingus are the faces on the 32 cent stamp, that is, back in the days before there was no DeJoy in Mudville. Imagine mailing in your ballots with those stamps on the envelope.