This week we continue to celebrate Charlie Parker, the modern-jazz pioneer from Kansas City who died 62 years ago. But don’t go thinking that the alto saxophonist’s influence has waned.
Pennicott was learning his jazz at the dawn of the 21st century. And yet, he says, “A lot of times when I was learning jazz, I was hearing Charlie Parker, even though I wasn’t hearing Charlie Parker.”
That’s the measure of Parker’s — or the Bird’s — inventions and influence. They can be absorbed through myriad indirect sources, even sources who don’t realize they’re transmitting Parker’s messages of harmonic and rhythmic freedom.
Kansas City’s Parker salute, which started Aug. 17, includes a Folly Theater concert on Saturday, Aug. 26, and a big gathering at his gravesite on Aug. 29. The celebration is enlivened by having Pennicott and another artist-in-residence, pianist Sullivan Fortner, dropping in on jam sessions all over town.
Pennicott has been building a worldwide reputation with artists including singer Gregory Porter, bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.
The tenor saxophonist grew up in Marietta, Ga., near Atlanta, in an “extremely musical” family, he says.
“They’re Jamaican, and their culture is to go around the house singing and dancing all the time. … There was a piano, there was a guitar laying around, so I picked up piano on my own, and I thought I wanted to play drums in church.
“In middle school, around 12, my dad said, ‘You should study an instrument formally. You should play the saxophone.’ I just looked at Dad and said, ‘OK.’ It just continued from there. I fell in love with it.”
A school band teacher exposed him to a CD of present-day tenor saxophonist Joshua Redman.
“It was his song ‘Hide and Seek.’ I went, ‘What is that?’ I didn’t know a saxophone could do that. … I fell in love with the sounds and the idea of being able to make up something on the spot.”
From there, Pennicott developed his appreciation of jazz, even though he “kind of went backward. I heard Joshua Redman first, and from there I went to learning about the Ellington band. … From there I went through the CD section at Barnes & Noble and saw a picture of Sonny Rollins. I didn’t know who he was, but I picked it up, and now he’s a huge influence on me.” (Rollins, of course, is very directly influenced by Bird.)
“Then I heard Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Stitt (Gillespie was a friend of Parker’s, Stitt an alto sax rival) … I stuck with those three for a long time, Rollins, Stitt, Redman.”
And as he explored those three, he found that “Charlie Parker was always just there. When I finally heard him, his sound was not foreign to me.
“I wasn’t studying him, but I was hearing him a lot. I always knew he was a foundation of everyone’s jazz. And as I’ve gotten older, the more I wish I would have studied him more when I was younger.
“The more I get into it, the more important Charlie Parker is for me.”
Kansas City celebrates his importance in this slate of events, put together by KC Jazz Alive and its partners:
▪ Sunday, Aug. 20: Singer David Basse and his band are joined by Pennicott and Fortner in a 6 p.m. performance in the amphitheater at Ironwoods Park, 14701 Mission Road, Leawood. It’s part of Leawood’s Sundays in the Park Concert Series and it’s free. If it rains, the event will move into the Lodge at Ironwoods Park. There’s a backstage meet-and-greet with the artists at 4 p.m., with a dinner; that’s a $75 ticket available at charlieparkercelebration.com.
▪ Monday, Aug. 21: There’s a student jazz workshop at 3 p.m. at the Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., presented by the American Jazz Museum’s Kansas City Jazz Academy and the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz.
▪ Tuesday, Aug. 22: Bassist Gerald Spaits and reed man Charles Perkins perform at noon at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art at Johnson County Community College. Later, clarinetist John Blegen and guitarist Rod Fleeman perform at 6 p.m. at Chaz on the Plaza, in the Raphael Hotel at 325 Ward Parkway, and Pennicott is expected to sit in. Then at 7 p.m., Basse and drummer Jim Lower’s big band perform at Californos, 4124 Pennsylvania Ave.
▪ Wednesday, Aug. 23: Trumpeter Stan Kessler’s band is joined by Pennicott and Fortner at 7 p.m. at the Westport CoffeeHouse Theatre, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave. Pianist Matt Villinger is joined by Pennicott at 9 p.m. at the Majestic, 931 Broadway.
▪ Thursday, Aug. 24: Singer Julia Haile and organist Chris Hazelton perform at 8 p.m. at the Ambassador Hotel, 1111 Grand Blvd., joined by Pennicott and Fortner. Then both artists-in-residence join bassist Micah Herman’s band at 10 p.m. at the Ship, 1217 Union Ave.
▪ Friday, Aug. 25: Singer, trumpeter and dancer Lonnie McFadden performs at the Phoenix, 302 W. Eighth St., at 4:30 p.m., joined by Fortner. Pianist Tim Whitmer is at the Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., at 5:30 p.m., joined by Pennicott, who sticks around the Green Lady to join organist Ken Lovern at 8:30 p.m. Meanwhile, Fortner leads a band at the Blue Room at 8:30 p.m.
▪ Saturday, Aug. 26: The biggest day of the celebration, starting early with a jazz history tour conducted by leading authority Chuck Haddix. It starts at 9:30 a.m. at the American Jazz Museum, 1616 E. 18th St., with a walking tour. Tickets are $25 at charlieparkercelebration.com. Then at noon, it’s time for the annual sax salute at Parker’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery, off Blue Ridge Boulevard north of Truman Road. Then we reconvene at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center, 3700 Blue Parkway, for a 2 p.m. chicken feed.
At 8 p.m. Saturday, Pennicott, Fortner and many others present “The Jazz Experience: Rhythm Changes,” a jazz-history demonstration of the funkiest kind, at the Folly Theater, 300 W. 12th St. The artists-in-residence and their Kansas City friends will trace the sound’s evolution from ragtime to swing to bebop and beyond. Tickets are $25 to $75 at charlieparkercelebration.com.
▪ Tuesday, Aug. 29: On this actual anniversary of Parker’s birthday, the “12th Street Jump” radio show has a combination live performance-recording session honoring Parker and his music, featuring present-day alto saxophone boss Bobby Watson. It’s at 7:30 p.m. at Musical Theater Heritage in Crown Center.
▪ The Blue Room has saxophonist Ernest Melton running the Monday jam at 7 p.m. on Aug. 21; the Elder Statesmen of Kansas City Jazz at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 24; and singer Ida McBeth at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 26.
▪ The Green Lady Lounge also has drummer Brad Allen’s trio at 6 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 20, followed by tenor saxophonist Steven Lambert’s quintet at 10:30 p.m.; guitarist Matt Hopper’s trio at 6 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21, followed by tenor saxophonist Stephen Martin’s organ trio at 10:30 p.m.; Hopper’s Agora band at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, followed by organist Chris Hazelton’s trio at 10:30 p.m.; organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 23, followed by sax man Todd Wilkinson’s organ trio at 10:30 p.m.; Lovern’s trio at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 24, followed by Guitar Elation at 8 p.m. and Gerald Spaits’ quartet at 11:30 p.m.; pianist Tim Whitmer’s quartet at 5:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25, followed by Lovern’s trio downstairs at 8:30 p.m. and Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 upstairs at 10 p.m.; and singer Molly Hammer’s quartet at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 26, followed by OJT at 6 p.m., keyboardist Max Groove’s trio at 8:30 p.m. downstairs and Matt Villinger’s organ trio at 10:30 p.m. upstairs.
▪ Meanwhile, next door at the Black Dolphin, 1813 Grand, the newest piece of John Scott’s expanding jazz empire, the group A La Mode performs at 8 p.m. Monday, Aug. 21. Tenor saxophonist Matt Otto celebrates the release of a CD called “Reunion,” extending and deepening his three-decade collaboration with alto saxophonist Andy Ehling, at 9 p.m. Friday, Aug. 25.
Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751