Yardbird Celebration Has UMKC Connection

Photo by Kristen Hellstrom

Chuck Haddix chronicles jazz great’s beginnings

When the second annual Charlie “Yardbird” Parker Celebration opens on Aug. 20 at the American Jazz Museum, the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Chuck Haddix will be hard to miss.

Haddix, who is UMKC Marr Sound Archivist and host of KCUR’s “Fish Fry,” is immersed throughout the nine-day celebration. He will be part of an opening panel discussion on Parker and the birth of bebop, a guest on “KC Live /KSHB 41” on Aug. 10, and tour guide for the trolley ride to “Parkers’ Places” on Aug. 22.

Haddix is author of “Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker,” and coauthor of “Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop–A History,” a book about Parker’s move to the lively scene in New York City, leading the transformation of jazz from a pop genre to a true art form. In his hands, it became music for listening, not entertainment, created almost exclusively by black musicians.

In addition to his books, Haddix has an article in the current online version of Jazz Ambassador Magazine. “Bird at the Jelly Joint” is an intimate view of Parker’s early days with local bands in Kansas City. And although Haddix has done prodigious research, the source of the article was a serendipitous discovery by Stuart Hinds, Assistant Dean for Special Collections and Archives at UMKC’s University Libraries.

Hinds came across what is perhaps the only photo of Parker playing sax in Kansas City.

“What a lucky break,” Haddix said. “Stuart Hinds was just flipping through old yearbooks in University Archives and spotted the picture of Parker. He called me right away, all excited about what else there might be.”

To bring the story full circle, the photo shows Parker playing with a local band at a hangout, “The Kangaroo,” that was home to the hip of the University of Kansas City, UMKC’s precursor.

In addition to the photo, Hinds and Haddix found more related materials in a UKC yearbook and some campus newspapers from 1939. At this time, the University was in its infancy and lacked a full-service student union where kids could unwind. So students would pool their money and hire a group to play, often on Sunday afternoons when they had no other gigs.

The favored locale, “The Kangaroo,” was a malt shop near the UKC campus. The jelly joint, as these places were often called, was open from 8:00 a.m. to midnight; served good, cheap food; and had music and a dance floor. The final nod to UKC was a décor of blue and gold, the school’s colors. As a member of Jay McShann’s popular band, Parker cut his musical teeth at the Kangaroo.

Haddix will share these and other anecdotes at the Carolyn Benton Cockefair Chair luncheon, at the Mission Hills Country Club on Aug. 13. Haddix will be joined by a trio fronted by Hermon Mehari, graduate of UMKC’s Conservatory of Music and Dance. The trio will perform Parker pieces.

Parker’s meteoric rise in the music ranks and subsequent fall from grace are well documented. But despite his untimely death at 34, his contributions to music are immeasurable. Parker was an extraordinary performer who anchored some of the biggest bands of the day, composed dozens of songs, and recorded for Decca and other prominent labels.

Haddix’s most recent book, “Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker,” from the University of Illinois Press, tells of the conflicting emotions and addictive troubles Parker faced. He was generous one moment and miserly the next; the picture of domesticity at home, but an adulterer on the road; an addict himself, Parker warned younger musicians of the dangers of drugs.

A celebration of Parker’s life opens at the American Jazz Museum on Aug. 20 with a performance at the GEM Theater; the exhibit, “Bird Lives!”, composed of Parker artifacts on loan from the Norman R. Saks Collection and the UMKC Marr Sound Archives; and the panel discussion. The celebration continues with more than a dozen city-wide activities and events for the following nine days. Lists of these events can be found on the American Jazz museum’s website and in a news release from UMKC’s public relations office.

Above all, Parker was a musician who overcame humiliation, disappointment and physical challenges to take wing as Bird, a brilliant improviser and composer. To the end, Bird lived by his own adage:  “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.”

More information about Parker and his era can be found online at sites maintained by UMKC:  Club Kaycee (complete with audio); and Paris of the Plains.

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