Jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker would have turned one hundred years old this year. Born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920, Parker got his first career boost under the tutelage of another KC jazz great, the late pianist and bandleader Jay McShann.
The local jazz scene was vital, with more than fifty clubs, bars and speakeasies jumpin’ with young talent. “You got these cats comin’ from all over,” McShann recounted to me in a 1987 interview. “And every time a new cat would come in, we’d ask, ‘Who’s this new cat in town? Bring him down to the session.’ We’d find out what the cats from the West Coast was doin’. So when he sits in and blows, we all had our eyes on him. And when he hears the other cats here in town, he’d say, ‘This is some different stuff!’ Then when cats from the Midwest would go east, they’d take their own thing there. Bands were passin’ through, comin’ and goin’ all the time. We all listened to each other. I hated to go to bed for fear I was gonna miss somethin’.”
McShann did not miss the young but erratic saxophone genius Charlie Parker.
McShann, an Oklahoma native, moved to KC for the vibrant jazz scene. He brought the notoriously erratic saxophone star into his band in 1938. McShann’s even temper kept the partnership more or less intact for more than a decade in and out of Kansas City and New York.
“We were both so young, not even out of our teens,” McShann told me. “Parker was the kind of person you remember (laughs). He was a lively person. He loved to live. And he wanted to get everything he could out of life. He was burnin’ all the time. But he had me beat! I first heard him in a club with a sound I had never heard before. He was already blowing it hard. He sat in with me and blew with Harlan Leonard’s band, too. But I think he always felt more comfortable with me. My first recordings were all with Parker [in 1940]. He was pretty straight at that time, and sometimes I put him in charge of the band.”
As for Parker’s famous nickname? McShann loved to tell the story: “We were drivin’ to a job in Nebraska when our car struck a chicken. Charlie yelled, ‘Back up! You hit a yardbird!’ He got out and carried it on to Lincoln, where he cooked it and ate it all!” Within a few short years, the man known as Bird would go on to fame and celebrity as the architect of bebop.
Afflicted with mental health and addiction problems, he died in New York City in 1955.