Alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, globally considered one of music history’s geniuses, is underacknowledged in Kansas City, say fans. A renewed remembrance of Bird is pondered in a city overtaken by Mahomes magic.
By Ian Ritter
Magnus Lindgren is baffled that Kansas City doesn’t have a street named after saxophonist Charlie Parker.
The Swedish composer and multi-instrumentalist was part of an ensemble that won a Grammy at the beginning of 2023 for a track on “Bird Lives,” a big band interpretation of Parker compositions. How come the aeronautically nicknamed Parker can win a Grammy today for a 1947 composition, only adding to the ongoing story of his genius, but not have a street named after him in the Missouri city where he grew up, especially with its glorious musical history?
“Who decides the names?” asked Lindgren — who looks like a handsome James Bond villain in photographs — questioning U.S. urban planning decisions while speaking from Stockholm over the phone last summer. “Politicians?”
It’s not that Charlie Parker isn’t appreciated in Kansas City, Mo., (KCMO) and its metropolitan area that spans two states along the Missouri River. The musical community existed decades before Bird’s death, at 34 in 1955, and later produced guitarist Pat Metheny, saxophonist Bobby Watson and dozens of others.
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of Spotlight: Charlie Parker, a week-long celebration of his music through performances and lectures that’s put on around town in venues ranging from jazz clubs to libraries to theaters around Bird’s Aug. 27 birthday.
But something is missing, and it’s not just the lack of a street name in a city filled with so many fancy George Kessler-designed boulevards that the biggest local brewery is bluntly named Boulevard.
The Kansas City metro area is experiencing excitement again, thanks to both traditional football and the NFL. Area sports boosters succeeded in landing a portion of the 2026 FIFA World Cup games, set to be the metro’s largest-ever tourist draw. Until then, the NFL’s Patrick Mahomes II’s ability to blow minds at quarterback gets discussed the same way jazz fans still rave about Bird’s sax playing.
But too many residents of the Kansas City metro area are unaware of its homegrown genius and Parker’s global impact.
“He doesn’t have an imprint,” remarks James McGee, the caretaker of the Mutual Musicians Foundation (MMF), a two-story building on the National Register of Historic Places that opened in 1917, with a well-preserved juke joint interior, and to this day has weekend jam sessions that start at 1:30 a.m.
It’s a surreal thing to hear someone say only a couple of blocks away from the street corner where Bird first met a trumpet player named Dizzy Gillespie, setting in motion a world-changing style of music called bebop.
“This wasn’t even a conversation when I was a teenager, and I was angry about it then,” said Lonnie McFadden.
The trumpet player, tap dancer, singer and Kansas City bandleader, who’s been a crucial part of the local jazz scene pretty much all his 67 years, is getting worked discussing Bird.
Lonnie had already gotten out of his chair and was talking from the stage, raised only slightly from the dining room floor, looking over a handful of white tablecloth-covered tables, which was convenient, because he was there to practice anyway.
“Is this recording?” he had asked a bit ago, which was less of a question and more of a warning that he was about to get rolling.
Lonnie usually wears a tux on stage and close-up dressed down he resembles a boxer warming up, moving his explosive body with that similar muscle-memory discipline.
“Charlie Parker was almost completely overlooked by the people who are in charge of the image of this city for years, and it’s not because it’s jazz,” Lonnie says, denying it’s because of a decrease in the popularity of jazz or the fact that Bird had a life of addiction problems. “It’s because he’s a black jazz musician from the inner city of Kansas City. That’s the reason.”
That’s significant coming from Lonnie because he is a black man from the inner city of Kansas City who’s hit musical-royalty status where competition for that honor is relentless.
James McFadden, Lonnie’s father and the leader of a tap-dancing group named The Chocolate Drops, knew Charlie Parker. They were friends. Others who knew Bird were around and talked about the saxophone icon, with conversation often leading back to how Bird is doesn’t get his proper due as the city’s most artistically influential son.
Lonnie gained fame locally and nationally as half of the McFadden Brothers. Sadly, his brother and bandmate, Ronald, a beloved saxophonist and music educator, died suddenly at 67 following a gig in March of last year, a few days after Lonnie met to speak about Bird.
“I see what’s been done in New Orleans,” Lonnie said. “They embraced who they are. I see what’s been done in Memphis. They’ve embraced who they are. Here in Kansas City, we’ve made a conscious effort to erase who we are.”
There is a local saying Lonnie and others repeat that goes something like: “Jazz might have been born in New Orleans, but it grew up in Kansas City.” In a town with a history of trying to cleverly punch above its weight — probably more than most mid-sized cities, as Hallmark Cards was founded and is based in KCMO — this claim is accurate.
African American communities in both KCMO and Kansas City, Kan., (KCK), just across the Missouri, where Bird was born, were growing and lively at the beginning of the 1900s, created in a confused setting.
KCK and KCMO are partially divided by a very curvy section of the Missouri River, where the waterway sharply changes its southerly direction that started up in Wyoming and abruptly heads east, t-boning the meandering Kansas River in the process.
The confusion persists, as downtown KCMO and KCK are both pronounced with enormous limestone bluffs that brutally pop out of the ground over a network of ancient caves, so you’re charged with changing elevation on hills and bridges when traveling many short distances. Meanwhile, there is a vast sea of low-lying river-level railyards that also separates the municipalities, and the uniformity of so many tracks doesn’t give much indication of a particular statehood.
As you travel south a few miles, things are easier to understand, as Kansas and Missouri are separated by State Line Road, but when you’re close to the border, it’s easy to forget which side you’re on.
Imagine what it was like back in 1861, when Kansas declared Union-loyal statehood during the beginning of the Civil War, while Missouri was part of the slave-owning Confederacy. The western side of KCMO’s Main Street was said to be home to “Northerners,” while east of Main belonged to the “Southerners,” notes James Shortridge, a University of Kansas geology professor who also tackles the metro’s social history in the 2012 book Kansas City and How It Grew, 1822 to 2011. And some residents today still bitterly joke that when the Civil War was over, Missouri was the last state to get the news.
Fast forward to the year of Bird’s birth, in 1920, when the MMF was three years old and called Local 627. The neighborhood, 18th & Vine, could support a black musicians’ union because gigs were aplenty in what quickly became a musical center of the world.
Several musicians born in the area were coming into their own then and making a national impression. Pianist Bennie Moten, born in KCMO in 1894, and considered a father of swing, started hitting the radio airwaves nationally with live performances as Bennie Moten’s Jazz Orchestra by the early 1920s. Legendary pianist and bandleader, New Jersey-born William “Count” Basie was drawn to town by the back half of the decade, entranced by the Blue Devils, a travelling “regional” group led by Kansas City born Walter Page that tore the blues up with fast tempos.
By this time, even though KCMO was segregated, and booze was illegal, rules were different on the East Side, where most African Americans lived. It was one of many significant pre-urban renewal black communities in the country and had an ecosystem of businesses and a professional baseball team, the Kansas City Monarchs, with none other than Satchel Paige as a pitcher for several years.
Thomas J. Pendergast, who owned a company called Ready Mixed Concrete Co., had a lot to do with the East Side’s explosion as a destination. Many major metros during the first part of the 20th Century (just under 400,000 lived in KCMO by 1930) had a political “boss” running operations behind the scenes with varying degrees of illegality.
Pendergast was blue-eyed and had a neck like an “oak tree trunk,” looking “both formidable and engaging for there was a humorous glint in his eyes, a jaunty air in his hearing and a sentimental quality in his expression along with the impression of savage power,” as remembered in Tom’s Town, a book written by former Kansas City Star reporter William Reddig in 1947 that is still considered required local history reading.
The colorful but unflattering history tells the story of how the Pendergast machine made the East Side, especially 12th Street, both the center of the federally illegal liquor trade and an area where the unsegregated nightlife scene was allowed to flourish undeterred by the police.
“In Kansas City the joints didn’t have locks on the doors,” recalled John Tumino, the manager of the Jay McShann Orchestra in Kansas City Lighting: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker, by the late, enigmatic journalist and critic Stanley Crouch. “They threw them away!”
Along with the 24-hour clubs, “whatever you wanted, you could get it whenever you wanted it – girls, liquor, gambling, freak shows. … it was crooked, with the mayor in on it, the police in on it, and the public in on it. It was as wide open as you could get. No limits whatsoever.”
The scene was considered as significant as New Orleans’ French Quarter for both music and professional good times, and it’s also where a young Charlie Parker moved with his mother to a two-level house in 1930. Bird learned to play saxophone listening to local mentors Lester Young and Buster Smith, and the fast-learning teen started sitting in on the city’s fiercely competitive, legendary jam sessions that made everyone play better. A cymbal was legendarily thrown Bird’s when he lost his way during a solo, pushing the young artist to eventual mastery of his craft.
“Kansas City jazz is distinguished by these late-night cutting contests that Charlie Parker is a culmination of,” said Chuck Haddix another Parker biographer, in a conversation at the University of Missouri – Kansas City (UMKC)’s Marr Sound Archives, where he is curator.
Haddix, also a radio host of a Friday and Saturday night radio show called “The Fish Fry” on local NPR station KCUR 89.3, for which he changes his name to “Chuck Haddock,” borrows from the Muskogee, Okla.-born violinist Claude “Fiddler” Williams, explaining: “Musicians from Kansas City had the ‘Kansas City stamp’ is what he called it. They could go anywhere in the country and sit in on a jam session. People knew they were from Kansas City by the way they played.”
Though the city’s general population that isn’t familiar with jazz might not be aware of its town’s significance, the rest of the world knows. In 2017 UNESCO named Kansas City a Creative City of Music for as a “founding place for the creation of the Swing Era and the heritage of the historic urban community of 18th and Vine District.” And McKee of the Mutual Musicians Foundation says he “checks more passports than driver’s licenses” for admission.
But as great as Kansas City sounded back then, New York was the entertainment capital of the world, and Parker was lured away as a permanent resident at age 18. But by then he’d already mastered his instrument, was a father, and became an accidental opioid addict after a car accident, so Bird, who ended up dying from years of what he once explained as regrettably “too much nightlife at an early age,” did a lot of living before he left town.
If you drive down the once-historic stretch 12th Street today, there is no indication of any kind of thriving nightlife on the thoroughfare, present or past.
The construction of three interstates that carve through Kansas City’s downtown tore down all the 12th Street clubs. Twelfth and Vine, the streetcorner famously mentioned in the Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller-penned Beatles-covered R&B standard “Kansas City,” is no longer there. A sign marks its past in a strip of park. The house where Charlie Parker grew up with his mother in the 18th and Vine area, on Olive Street, was torn down decades ago, as were hundreds of others.
A lot of U.S. cities experienced this same removal of entire communities, some with notable jazz scenes, but none of them had a star as big as Charlie Parker erased from mass consciousness in his own hometown in such a way that’s gone down with Bird.
That’s because the legendary segregationist real estate developer JC Nichols was from the Kansas City area, giving the metro the distinguishment of being the birthplace of the inventor of a real estate practice called red lining.
We’ve hopefully learned by now that the practices Nichols made popular nationwide through his founding influence in organizations like the Federal Housing Authority, Urban Land Institute and National Association of Homebuilders, were a historical blemish.
The creation of neighborhoods directly surrounding older parts of KCMO, as well as some in Kansas that eventually became cities, were built, starting in the 1930s, with homeowner association contracts called covenants that didn’t allow the sale of houses to African American families.
Meanwhile, white residents who happened to live in neighborhoods alongside blacks were pressured economically and socially to relocate by predatory real estate brokers.
Writes Shortbridge: “Their well-publicized anti-black campaigns encouraged racial animosity and division by disseminating the stereotype that racially mixed neighborhoods are undesirable and lead to declining property values. These stereotypes did not arise spontaneously but were fostered by elite real estate firms and community builders to protect their investments from the infiltration of racial minorities.”
KCMO’s black residents were confined to the same neighborhoods on the eastern side of town, and amount of land, unable to create wealth for decades due to these covenants that didn’t allow them to even move to a different neighborhood within the metro. Meanwhile, the African American population skyrocketed, from just under 42,000 in 1940 to just above 112,000 by 1970, in the same services-starved neighborhoods east of the city’s north-south thoroughfare Troost Avenue.
One of the results is a consistently higher per capita murder rate than Chicago’s. Last year KCMO set an unfortunate municipal record, with 185 homicides, most of them from firearms, reported the Kansas City Star.
It makes unfortunate sense to East Side residents that someone like Charlie Parker, considered by musicians and scholars globally to be America’s answer to Mozart, wasn’t even worth making a buck off in the town where H&R Block was founded.
“He was a prophet,” remarked Elvis “Sonny” Gibson in August. Said the 87-year-old longtime independent jazz district independent historian, who knew Addie Parker. “He was a prophet without honor in his own hometown for a long time.”
A statue of Charlie Parker’s head, standing 18 feet tall, appeared in the 18th & Vine district in 1999. Called “Bird Lives,” its sculptor was the late California-based artist Robert Graham, husband of actress Angelica Houston. In 1997 Graham completed an homage to bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington at a major Harlem intersection.
Marti and Tony Oppenheimer, a couple from the Kansas City area who are heirs to the fortune of KCMO-native Brigadier General Henry Larry Oppenheimer’s livestock fortune. The general, commander of the Samoan marines in World War II, left a sizable amount of his wealth to the Kansas City Parks Department, and son Tony with his wife Marti have made a career out of seeking and promoting emerging artists.
Tony credits Marti with the idea for the “Bird Lives” statue while on a trip to Manhattan: “She said, ‘Why can’t we do something like that for Charlie Parker in Kansas City?” Continued Marti: “And then what we did is we approached Robert Graham in Los Angeles, and we asked him if he was interested, and he was delighted by the idea.”
So was Reverend Emanual Cleaver II, then finishing up his second term as Kansas City’s first black mayor.
Today a 10-term Democratic congressman, with an east-west boulevard named after him in KCMO, Cleaver recalled the 90s over the phone last summer. In about 10 years, as both mayor and city council member, Cleaver and others were able to cement the 18th & Vine’s historic district status, get the American Jazz Museum and Negro Leagues Baseball Museum built, and in 1994, dropped $140,000 at a Christie’s auction in London on a plastic Grafton sax Bird once famously played. It was a lot.
“I didn’t know any better,” Cleaver says of his drive at the time to preserve history. “I had a nervous breakdown, and I ignored reality. When I was trying to get this done, I think it was the greatest panic I’ve ever had in my career, but it was also the most magical time I’ve ever had.”
It was a magically weird day in Kansas City on July 8, when Cleaver was in the jazz district escorting vocalist Dionne Warwick across 18th Street. She was in town to accept a star on the street’s Walk of Fame, along with the late songwriter Burt Bacharach, himself born in KCMO but raised in New York.
The same day, Swifties overran downtown’s Power & Light District, a multi-block restaurant-entertainment venue a short drive west. Taylor Swift was in town as part of her economic development tour in the days before her fascinating relationship with Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce.
The ceremony for six-time Grammy winner Warwick was in front of the American Jazz Museum, where only a few weeks later, former executive director of the museum, Rashida Phillips, resigned abruptly the day before this year’s Spotlight: Charlie Parker festival began, on Aug. 18.
It’s an unfortunate and familiar position for the city owned facility, which opened in 1997 and hasn’t had many years without problems since.
Different groups have conflicting ideas on how Parker and the area’s musical history should be remembered, explained 70-year-old saxophonist and metro-area native Watson.
The former sideman to the late drummer Art Blakey, a Parker contemporary, spoke a couple days before his Aug, 23 birthday, when he traded solos on stage with saxophonist Tia Fuller. A generation younger, who, at 47, sends listeners on an ethereal roller coaster, Fuller was the visiting artist-in-residence for Spotlight performing at the Folly Theater, KCMO’s oldest, and a last remaining 12th Street relic built in 1900.
In contrast to the newly renovated Folly, the jazz museum, a nonprofit partially owned by the city, is a tale of historic operations problems detailed in a 2018 third-party consultant report. Other talented nonprofits step in to fill gaps but unfortunately end up inter-competing for the same dollars.
A lot of old-timers don’t trust new money coming into the jazz district, for fears of pricing out the original low-income residents, Watson says. Memories of urban renewal haven’t faded. There’s the fear of what could become of Parker’s image in the hands of the same people in charge, at least in title, all over again.
“Charlie Parker could have blonde hair and blue eyes,” 30 years from now, Watson said, chuckling. “You know they’ve done it before!”
That’s unlikely, though, with the current developments going up on Vine Street, including new mixed-use and entertainment venues. One project has as consultant KCMO-born tenor saxophonist Logan Richardson, 43, a Blue Note recording artist, who played a set bursting with so much spiritual intensity in the jazz district during Spotlight, it was hard to talk for a while afterwards.
Outside of the jazz district, the latest tribute to Bird is at the new $1.5-billion Kansas City International Airport (KCI), which opened in February. Still pained that New Orleans’ airport is name after Louis Armstrong, Cleaver insisted: “The Charlie Parker International Airport is a good name!”
But an art installment inside KCI called “Ornithology” is a striking tribute. New Jersey-based artist Willie Cole’s sculpture of saxophones hanging in the main terminal that are welded together to look like a flock of birds, is in honor of Parker and named after one of his compositions. There are discussions by Cole and others, including a local retailer, to make the saxophone birds into figurines that could remind travelers of Kansas City.
Tourists sometimes go to the jazz district asking where Charlie Parker is buried.
They’re pointed to Blue Summit, an unincorporated strip of county land just east of KCMO’s city limits, sitting atop a bluff along Interstate 435. Just 4.5 miles due west of the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library. The cemetery’s surroundings are less inviting, unless you’re a location scout for a dark crime series, like “True Detective.”
Despite the frequent violent incidents requiring SWAT and highway patrol nearby, Lincoln Cemetery is usually tranquil. Founded in 1934 for African American residents, the property’s sign announces Bird’s resting place, but there are also address stickers, the kind you put on a mailbox, spelling “NOT ENDOWED.”
Buried next to his mother, Addie, Parker’s tombstone had to be replaced in 1992 after the original was stolen. The replacement looks fine, except it’s engraved with a tenor saxophone instead of an alto. That’s what “NOT ENDOWED” pays for.
Back in the 1990s, Cleaver was publicly interested in moving Bird’s remains to the jazz district so visitors could at least pay their respects to a memorial with a bench. The matter was dropped, after some public objections, but the congressman said he’s still “quietly” working on an “interesting tourist attraction” involved with the gravesite.
Nowadays a handful of friends celebrate Bird’s birthday at the grave. Sax salutes this year were at the “Bird Lives” statue on Aug. 29, and the group at the cemetery were old friends catching up their lives and listening to 45’s on a hand-cranked turntable in the heat. Gone are the days past of graveside birthday musical performances with local TV crews on site.
Just down the road from where Bird and Addie are buried is Highland Cemetery, another historic African American burial place.
It was here in 2014 that genealogy hobbyist and Kansas City resident Sam Hughes, who likes to “pull over and wander around cemeteries for fun” stumbled upon the unmarked tomb of swing pioneer Bennie Moten, in a family grave plot.
Surveying the graveyard in July, Hughes,52, shows off the still-shiny headstone finally made in Moten’s honor by a local jazz nonprofit. Hughes is proud of the stone but ashamed of the lack of upkeep at both graveyards.
“What are our priorities if we’re treating Charlie Parker with such neglect?” Hughes asked, wondering what out of town visitors might think. “Maybe this is a good prompt for self-reflection, or setting new priorities, for how we remember our historical figures.”
Ian Ritter is a writer living in Kansas City, Mo., currently researching the Missouri River. Here can be reached here: firstname.lastname@example.org