As Chuck Haddix writes in Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker, the jazz icon’s launching pad was a home of two faces; an environment that tempted flight.
Charlie “Bird” Parker grew up in Kansas City, a community divided against itself by the Kansas-Missouri state line. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Charlie came of age musically while hanging around the alleyways behind the nightclubs that lined Twelfth Street in Kansas City, Missouri. The two Kansas Cities were, culturally and politically, worlds apart. Kansas City, Kansas, established by the Wyandotte Indians, faced its larger counterpart Kansas City, Missouri, across the Kaw Valley at the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas Rivers. Bassist Gene Ramey summed up the difference between the two Kansas Cities during the 1920s and 1930s. “Kansas was a dry state in the days I’m talking of, but Missouri was wide open,” Ramey explained. “People who lived in Kansas went over to Missouri and raised hell. It was like some people say of New York–a place to go and have fun in, and then you get on out.”
Parker did “get out,” and not just across the border. After departing for New York City at a young age Bird became a leading light in the urban jazz scene that pioneered bebop. But Charlie Parker was not a wholesome Midwesterner that got caught up in the Big City. He had developed a heroin addiction by the time he was sixteen. It’s a side of the jazz pioneer’s life that many in his hometown did not want to celebrate.
Parker’s failings aside, the impact the saxophonist had on American music is unmistakable. As a result, Bird’s birthplace is now embracing their native son and Haddix is helping to lead the charge.
Kansas City for the second year held their Charlie Parker Celebration, with panel discussions, music student “boot camps” and plenty of live jazz.
At the 2014 Celebration and again this year, Haddix conducted bus tours of Kansas City sites associated with Parker. The author also headed up some panels to trace the threads of Parker’s musical genius.
“Bird” may have flown away from Kansas City but his nest has never been more welcoming.