It’s easy to feel that Kansas City owes more to Charlie Parker than he owes us.
The saxophonist known as “Bird” helped seal the city’s place in musical history as a breeding ground for improvisation.
Yet in the 1970s the city allowed the razing of one of Parker’s boyhood homes on the 1500 block of Olive Street.
In the 1990s vandals swiped his headstone at Lincoln Cemetery. When the local Jazz Commission ordered up a new marker, it came etched with the wrong kind of saxophone — a tenor sax rather than the alto.
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It all feeds into a local narrative in which Parker struggles posthumously to command the acclaim he deserves.
If that’s true now, it sure wasn’t back when he was redefining jazz.
He had made his home in New York City, where he built a global following. But Parker was revered as well in his hometown, biographer Chuck Haddix said.
“He was a big hero here when he’d return to play,” said Haddix, a KCUR radio host and author of “Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker.” “He didn’t have this antagonistic relationship with Kansas City as has been portrayed. He knew he could make money here.”
He was born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kan., and lived around the area for 21 of his 34 years.
But, yes, Parker died a New Yorker. There his home is on the National Register of Historic Places. In Manhattan the iconic club Birdland, named in his honor, draws jazz lovers nightly.
New York paused to recall Bird’s legacy even during the 2015 World Series.
The matchup between the Royals and the New York Mets spurred a writer for The New York Times to visit the 18th and Vine District and file an essay about Parker.
He and Count Basie were among musical greats who also were passionate about Negro Leagues baseball. The game and the music thrived here and in the Big Apple.
Parker, wrote The Times’ David Waldstein, was a key reason why “jazz, baseball, Kansas City and New York are closely intertwined in American culture.”
As the nucleus of Billy Eckstine’s band in the mid-1940s, Parker and bandmate Dizzy Gillespie are credited for inventing bebop.
“There’s music before Bird and music after Bird,” said Haddix. “He introduced fast tempo and worked his art on the spot. His influence is across the arts, not just jazz and not just music.”
Parker’s demons — heroin addiction, alcohol abuse, depression and suicide attempts — would ravage him. The official cause of death in 1955 was lobar pneumonia, but more telling was that an attending physician initially thought Parker was nearly 20 years older than he was.
An only child, Charles Parker Jr. was 7 when he moved with his parents from Kansas City, Kan., to the Missouri side.
It was the right place, right time for a budding jazz instrumentalist. A swinging “Kansas City sound” was forming from the influences of big band, blues and gospel music.
The nightclub district flourished even during Prohibition as political boss Tom Pendergast protected the area from raids.
Charlie discovered his own talent by taking music lessons at public schools. He played a tuba-like baritone horn in the Lincoln High School orchestra. But he was a child of slight build, and his mother thought the baritone horn too large.
With the alto sax she gave him, Charlie by age 15 dropped out of school to pursue a musical career.
He had a drug problem within a year.
Through the latter half of the 1930s he played the city’s prolific nightclub scene in a variety of bands, including pianist Jay McShann’s. Two of Parker’s strongest saxophone influences, Buster Smith and Lester Young, also were based here.
In his early playing days, “Bird would pull out his horn … and just run it up and down,” McShann recalled decades later. “I mean, he knew his instrument backward.”
But at first it wasn’t the more original sound that Parker heard in his head. “I kept thinking there’s bound to be something else,” Parker later remarked. “I could hear it sometimes, but I couldn’t play it.”
He found it through late-night jam sessions that fostered experimentation and risk-taking.
After McShann and Parker toured New York in 1940, Parker chose to stick around there. He returned to Kansas City for several months after his father’s death, but for the most part he lived and played on the coasts.
Around this time he acquired the nickname “Yardbird,” or Bird for short.
Take your pick of two stories behind the moniker: A.) Parker’s musical style was as free —and at times frantic — as a bird. Or B.) “Yardbird” was the chicken run over by a vehicle carrying Parker and bandmates to a gig.
His drug problems date to when he was 16 and married to a Lincoln High classmate. That relationship splintered before Parker left for New York, the first of three failed marriages. The heroin use worsened with each divorce.
In 1946 he had a nervous breakdown in California. He spent six months in a mental hospital.
A daughter died at age 2. A drug possession charge in 1951 led to Parker’s New York club card being revoked for a year.
He tried twice to kill himself by drinking iodine.
And yet in radio interviews, Parker spoke with a thoughtful confidence about modern music and its future.
“Music is basically melody, harmony and rhythm,” Parker said in a steady, mellow baritone. “But people can do much more with music than that. It can be very descriptive in all kinds of ways, all walks of life. Don’t you agree?”