After the snow had started to melt and the roads begin to clear, I made a journey I have been meaning to make for a while. After a brief detour in the Jazz district, I drove down Truman Road, through the wonderland of urban blight where one thinks ‘it can’t possibly get anymore ghetto than this’ and but yet it does. Past the burned out factories and the junk yards to a small road across from an adult bookstore (if I may use the term loosely).
Atop a lonely, windy hill in East Kansas City, Missouri, down a tree lined lane in an almost forgotten cemetery, lies the grave of one the best alto-saxophonists to have lived: Charlie Parker. His music was the perfect balance of creativity, virtuosity, spontaneity, and emotion. Although his sound was often imitated, it was seldom surpassed. It is said that there are two types of jazz, ‘before Parker and after Parker’.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1920, his birth coincided with the rise of Kansas City Jazz. He grew to young adulthood across the river in Kansas City, Missouri. He grew up in a city that was the most vibrantly jazz-orientated city in America. His old home, just off of Truman at 1516 Olive was only blocks from the night clubs on 12th street. Nicknamed “Yardbird’, his interest in music led him to pick up a horn and he spent most of his adolescence trying to master it.
Kansas City during Charlie’s life was at the height of its lawlessness. the years when the manufacture and sale of alcohol was illegal in the United States. Prohibition went virtually unnoticed in Kansas City. Entertainment flourished in the wide-open saloons and night clubs of the city which had become a cradle to jazz, “While New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, America’s music grew up in Kansas City.” Paris on the Plains as it was called was a magnet for Jazz musicians, everyone who was anyone on the jazz scene played Kansas City. Young Charlie made his bones playing in those same clubs. It was in one such club on 12th street, the Club Reno, that “Bird’ found his motivation to become the most influential jazz musician the world had seen. So great in fact his influence on modern jazz has since proven to be so far-reaching that almost every development in the four decades since his death can be traced to the exceptional originality and complexity of his music.
This particular night, Charlie wasn’t a jazz master, but a young kid, trying to make a name for himself. Parker had been practicing to participate in the jam session that evening. Kansas City jam sessions were like rites of passage for jazz musicians, when KC’s musicians jammed, their freely improvised performances often turned into full-fledged battles—or, as the musicians referred to them, cutting contests. As in a knife fight, the goal was to “cut” your rivals, in this case by outplaying them.
Leading the Reno Club session one night in early 1936 was Jo Jones, the revolutionary drummer of the Count Basie Orchestra, Kansas City’s finest jazz group. Another participant, also from Basie’s band, was Lester Young, whose light, swinging tones would soon change the sound of the saxophone in jazz. Parker was no where near ready to take center stage, but that is where his enthusiasm and ambition drove him, and as portrayed in Clint Eastwood’s movie, when he failed to deliver after stepping into the limelight, Jones tossed a cymbal on the floor with a deafening crash at Parker’s feet, bringing Parker’s embarrassing performance to a sudden halt. The laughter that had been building during his poor performance erupted into outright hysterics and Parker left the stage in humiliation and defeat. “I’ll fix those cats,” he later told Gene Ramey. “Everybody’s laughing at me now, but just wait and see, ” and a legend was soon born.
His music forever changed jazz, he was a crucial figure in the development of bop in the 1940s. He was idolized by fellow jazz musicians and inspired many generations to come. Many of his compilations have become jazz standards and are played to this day in the clubs. He performed around the world and made over 500 recordings of his music.
Charlie’s life was too big for his short 34 years. The fantastic stories of appetites and excesses, addictions and superhuman musical abilities present Bird as a larger than life character, which is, exactly, what he was, and in the end, his life was too big for him. At the end, labelled a shiftless junkie and alcoholic, Charlie died in New York, penniless and heart broken from the recent death of his young daughter and separation from his last wife Chan. Homeless, overwhelmed by depression, and in constant pain from his ulcers and heart condition, Charlie seemed to just give up on life. Performing, one thing that had once brought fulfillment now brought only pain, traveling made him sick, in the end Bird just burnt out. The year preceeding his death saw two failed suicide attempts and several self-internments at psychiatric hospitals, sporadical employment, growing debt, and failing physical and mental health. His last public engagement was on March 5, 1955 at Birdland, a New York nightclub named in his honor.
He died laughing while watching a television show at the home of Fifth Avenue apartment of Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, a jazz patroness who often helped down-on-their-luck jazz artists after unsuccessfully attempting a trip to perform in Boston. The doctor who examined his body pronounced the cause of death as a heart attack, listing pneumonia, ulcers, and cirrhosis of the liver as contributing factors. Based on these ailments and the deteriorated physical condition of the deceased, the doctor estimated Parker’s age as 53. He was in fact less than half a year shy of his 35th birthday.
His former wife Chan had told many that Charlie had asked her, ‘don’t let them send me back to Kansas City’. Whether this remark referred to his burial or his fear of returning broken, sick and insane, a failure in his own eyes, to a city he once swore to rise above is unclear. One thing was clear, in New York received Charlie as a musician first, not a black man. Racial segregation was very much a part of daily life in Kansas City during that era. Whatever Bird’s wishes, his body was returned to his mother with the help of Dizzy Gillespie and Norman Granz to be interred at the family plot in Kansas City. In death, as in life, Bird’s true wishes and beliefs were clouded by many half truths, gossip and rumors that make the facts of his prodigious life hard to separate from the fiction. Even Bird himself often contributed to the misinformation circulated about himself, delighting in his own mischievousness.
Charlie was laid to rest in Lincoln Cemetery, an all-black cemetery with nothing more than a simple brass plaque to mark his grave. After elaborate funerals in New York and Kansas City, attended by friends and foes alike and a veritable ‘laying in state’, Charlie’s final address was rather commonplace and sad. The original marker had incorrect dates on it and was stolen from the grave sometimes in the 1960s, and a replacement headstone with correct dates was again stolen in 1992. The grave of this genius of the Jazz world has often fallen into periods of neglect and disrepair, only to be cleaned up and restored by fans and fellow musicians. Finally, in 1994, the Kansas City Jazz Commission raised the funds to have full bodied gravestones placed in concrete over Bird and his mother, Addie, who is buried right next to him. There have also been significant repairs to the cemetery and a replacement of the old sign. As if to mirror all the misinformation about Charlie Parker, above his name there is a dove flying from a tenor saxophone and the solitary word, ‘Bird. Sadly, in life, Charlie played alto sax.
Although there has been talk of moving his remains to a memorial in the Jazz district at 18th & Vine, there has been so much public outcy that the plans have been shelved for now. As a tribute to the Kansas City man who forever changed a music genre, there is a large bronze statue atop a granite base that bears the simple inscription, ‘Bird Lives‘ at the corner of 17th and Vine Streets just off of the Paseo.
After my leisurely drive through the urban decay and waste that is East Kansas City, I found my way into the small African-American cemetery, segregated from the larger (and whiter) Mt. Washington necropolis on the opposite side of the hill. Being so poorly kept for an operating cemetery, one has to wonder if it were not for the famous resident layed there in, what would this place be?
Charlie’s headstone was iced over, but there were footprints in the snow all around the gravesite. Faded Mardi Gras beads, an Altoids tin and a pumpkin squash adorned his sepulchre. Admirers still came, bringing gifts and paying their respects. I laid 7 heads up pennies on the cold granite to mark my passing and show my respect and played a 1951 recording of KC Blues for the Bird. Maybe Charlie doesn’t mind Kansas City so much anymore, afterall, knowing that not only did he show those cats, his is the name all of Kansas City remembers, his is the face of Kansas City Jazz.
Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom. If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn. They teach you there’s a boundary line to music. But, man, there’s no boundary line to art.
~ Charlie Parker