Music News & Reviews

Jazz Town: Celebrate Charlie Parker’s universe

Charlie Parker set a new vocabulary for a more modern jazz — freer in harmony, freer in rhythm. Kansas City celebrations in honor of his 96th birthday continue this week.
Charlie Parker set a new vocabulary for a more modern jazz — freer in harmony, freer in rhythm. Kansas City celebrations in honor of his 96th birthday continue this week. File photo

In the midst of Kansas City’s Charlie Parker Celebration, honoring a hometown musical hero, let’s take a moment to consider what the man called Bird and his inventions really meant.

Someone is bound to ask: Why should we celebrate an alto saxophonist who was gone at the age of 34, destroyed by years of drugs and booze? It’s because his positive impact on the world’s music is the size of a universe.

That universe of possibilities is what this week’s calendar of Bird-related events — music, theater, gatherings — is all about.

Perhaps someone else could have opened the door to a universe that Parker opened. After all, in jazz of the late 1930s, the era of swing’s enormous popularity, there were hints of change to come, of something even bigger beyond the doors opened earlier by Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Jelly Roll Morton and so many others. The rhythmic freedom of Lester Young, the harmonic density of Duke Ellington and the jaw-dropping virtuosity of Art Tatum were clear signs that more doors could and would be opened.

Then, in the ’40s, Parker was the one who most persuasively broke through and set a new vocabulary for a more modern jazz — freer in harmony, freer in rhythm. And he did it with the swing and melodic eloquence he learned in Kansas City. (He also did it with a sense of humor that gets overlooked in all this serious discussion. Bird is often hilarious.)

There’s much to celebrate in honor of the 96th anniversary of Parker’s birth Aug. 29. Here’s a breakdown of the local festival’s principal events, day by day:

Tuesday brings “We Remember Bird,” a panel discussion featuring Elvis “Sonny” Gibson, Grant “Groovy Grant” Hopkins, Bernice Todd (widow of Parker friend Oliver Todd) and jazz poet Dan Jaffe, with special guests Kim Parker (Charlie Parker’s daughter) and the Charlie Parker Celebration’s artist in residence, tenor saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. It’s from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in the American Jazz Museum’s atrium.

Tuesday also brings us “Live Bird,” a one-man play written and performed by saxophonist Jeff Robinson. Set in a Harlem bar in 1954, the piece shows Parker performing and talking about his whole life, from Kansas City to a point near the end of the line (he died in 1955). The Green Lady Lounge becomes Bird’s stage at 7:30 p.m.

On Saturday, Parker biographer Chuck Haddix leads a historical tour of sites that were important in Parker’s life. It begins at 10 a.m. at the American Jazz Museum and features a walking tour of the Jazz District. Tickets are $25 at

The festival culminates in the annual saxophone salute at Parker’s grave in Lincoln Cemetery, off Blue Ridge Road between Truman Road and Independence Avenue. That takes place at noon Saturday. It’s followed by a 1:30 p.m. reception at the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Center, 3700 Blue Parkway.

Also connected with the festival are myriad club shows, many of which are included in the list below. (Watch for guest artist Pennicott to appear again and again. That’s a very fine thing.)

Kansas City was slow to realize that it needed to celebrate Bird on a bigger scale. But with these events, the celebration (in its third year) is growing nicely. Let’s keep the momentum going.


▪ Green Lady Lounge, 1809 Grand Blvd., also has Cincinnati mainstay pianist Phil DeGreg’s quintet at 6 p.m. Sunday (Pennicott is expected to sit in), followed by drummer Todd Strait’s trio at 9:30 p.m.; singer Molly Hammer at 5:30 p.m. Monday, followed by the Crossroads Quartet at 9 p.m.; organist Chris Hazelton’s trio at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday; drummer Natalie Bates’ trio at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, followed by organist Ken Lovern’s OJT at 9 p.m.; guitarist Matt Hopper’s trio at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by drummer Kevin Frazee’s trio at 9 p.m.; pianist Tim Whitmer at 5:30 p.m. Friday, followed by keyboardist Max Groove with tenor saxophonist Ernest Melton at 8:30 p.m., then Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 at 10 p.m.; and Hammer again at 2 p.m. Saturday, followed by OJT again at 6 p.m. and Max Groove’s quartet at 8:30 p.m.

▪ The Blue Room, 1600 E. 18th St., has guitarist Matt Hopper running the Monday jam. Miguel “El Mambo” DeLeon is back in town and reassembles his Carte Blanc group at 7 p.m. Thursday. Trumpeter Hermon Mehari celebrates Bird with bebop singer George V. Johnson Jr. and Pennicott at 8:30 p.m. Friday. Vibraphonist Peter Schlamb celebrates Bird with Pennicott at 8:30 p.m. Saturday.

▪ Seattle-area saxophonist Mark Lewis likes to come to town around Parker’s birthday and team up with an old friend, stride pianist Bram Wijnands. They’ll play together at the Majestic Restaurant, 931 Broadway, at 7 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

▪ And one more Bird thing. The Westport Coffeehouse Theater, 4010 Pennsylvania Ave., has trumpeter Clint Ashlock teaming up with Pennicott at 7 p.m. Wednesday.

Joe Klopus, 816-234-4751