In America, "Saxophone Supreme: The Life & Music of Charlie Parker"

This four-part exhibit, co-curated by the American Jazz Museum and Chuck Haddix of UMKC Libraries and the LaBudde Special Collections, provides an in-depth look at Parker's brilliance and charisma which features groundbreaking research, album covers, sheet music, and rare audio selections. Sponsored in part by Spotlight Charlie Parker and Bird 100 Charlie Parker.

Charlie Parker with the Jay McShann Band at the Century Room in Kansas City, MO by Norman Saks Collection, LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

Yardbird Takes Wing

In New York Charlie made the musical breakthrough he had sought since his summer spent in the Ozarks. While jamming at Don Wall’s Chili House in Harlem, Charlie, for the first time, was able to play what he had been hearing in his head. He later recalled, “I found that by using the higher intervals of a chord as a melody line and backing them with appropriately related changes, I could play the thing I’d been hearing. I came alive.”

Jay McShann and Laurence Keyes Battle of Bands ad (1940-11-22) by The Kansas City Call archives, part of the Kansas City Public Library |American Jazz Museum

A few months after Charlie arrived in New York, he received news from Addie that his father had died. Charlie returned to Kansas City to be with Addie, who warmly welcomed him back home. Charlie freelanced around Kansas City before joining Lawrence Keyes’ Deans of Swing. On Easter Sunday 1940, the Deans of Swing battled the Jay McShann Band at the Roseland Ballroom, located at 15th and Troost. After the show, Charlie joined the McShann Band.

The McShann Band played extended engagements at the Pla-Mor Ballroom, Century Room, Fairyland Park and Tootie’s Mayfair. Charlie’s reliability and leadership pleasantly surprised McShann. Charlie led the saxophone section and helped Jay develop a book of new arrangements for the band.

The band traveled widely across the Mid-West. Charlie received his nickname during a trip with the band to Lincoln, Nebraska. On the way to Lincoln, the car Charlie was riding in ran over a chicken. Charlie insisted that the driver back up so he could retrieve the “yardbird.”

Back at the boarding house, Charlie begged the woman who ran the house to cook the bird. Band members, amused by Charlie’s enthusiasm for chicken, began referring to him as “Yardbird.”

Charlie Parker with the Jay McShann Band in Wichita, Kansas by LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

During a 1940 Thanksgiving weekend engagement at the Trocadero Club in Wichita, Kansas, Fred Higginson a young jazz fan who worked at radio KFBI, recorded the band to instantaneous cut discs during two late night sessions. Charlie’s solo flights on “Body and Soul” and “Moten’s Swing” highlight his advanced techniques and ideas. On “Body and Soul”, Charlie runs in and out of key. Triplets in the second eight-bar section and triplet flourishes at the end of the bridge distinguish his solo on “Moten’s Swing”. These recordings first captured Charlie’s emerging genius

Charlie Parker with the Jay McShann Band in a promotional picture by LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

Yardbird's First Major Record

The Jay McShann's recordings for the Decca label established the band nationally. In 1938, Jay signed a contract with Decca Records, a leading label with an international distribution network. Jay put off scheduling a recording date while he built the big band and developed an original book of modern compositions. By early 1941, Jay, feeling that the band was ready, scheduled a recording session with Decca for late April. 

"Margie" and "I'm Getting Sentimental Over You" by Jay McShann (1941-02-16) by John Tumino Collection, Marr Sound Archives, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

To give band members a feel for the upcoming session, Jay had John Tumino, the band’s manager, record the band using a home record-cutting lathe, which recorded to 10” lacquer discs. The February 6, 1941, session produced two sides: “Margie” and “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You.” Charlie’s lyrical thirty-two bar solo and four bar codetta on “I’m Getting Sentimental Over You” reveals his formidable technique and maturity as a soloist.

"Hootie Blues" by Jay McShann and Charlie Parker by Marr Sound Archives, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

On April 30, 1941, the band recorded for Decca in Dallas, Texas. The president of Decca, Jack Kapp’s brother Dave supervised the session. The band recorded six songs: “Swingmatism,” “Hootie Blues,” “Dexter Blues,” “Vine Street Boogie,” “Confessin’ the Blues” and “Hold ‘Em Hootie.” Co-written by Jay and Charlie, “Hootie Blues” featured Charlie’s first solo on a commercial release. After the session, Kapp rushed “Confessin’ the Blues” and “Hootie Blues” into production.

Charlie Parker's contract For Hootie Blues by LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

The release of “Confessin’ the Blues” backed by “Hootie Blues” caught Jay by surprise. “We went out on the road for a couple of months,” Jay remembered. “We came into Tulsa, Oklahoma and ran into a guy who told us he just heard our record at Jenkins….We didn’t know the records had been released.” The song “Confessin’ the Blues” became one of Decca’s biggest hits. Musicians who flipped the disc over and listened to “Hootie Blues” were astounded by Charlie’s inventive twelve 12-bar solo.

As “Confessin’ the Blues” took the nation by storm, the McShann band stayed in Kansas City for a summer engagement at Fairyland Park. By the fall, “Confessin’ the Blues” had sold over 100,000 copies, giving the band the lift it needed to rise nationally.

Charlie Parker at Billy Berg's (1945/1946) by LaBudde Special Collections, The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

Yardbird's Songs

Each online exhibit of Saxophone Supreme ends with two songs played by Charlie Parker. Go to the next slide to listen to a couple of his great hits.

Now's The Time . Saxophone Supreme by The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

Now's The Time feat. Charlie Parker on saxophone
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The fifth song featured is his rendition of "Now's The Time," first played November 26, 1945

Saxophone Supreme . Relaxin' at Camarillo by The University of Missouri-Kansas City |American Jazz Museum

Relaxin' at Camarillo feat. Charlie Parker on saxophone
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The sixth song featured is his rendition of "Relaxin' at Camarillo," first played in 1947. It has since become a jazz standard.

Credits: Story

Content provided by the American Jazz Museum and Chuck Haddix of UMKC Libraries and LaBudde Collections.

Curation: Geri Sanders & Chuck Haddix
Installation and Research: Katharine Molnar
Exhibit Design: Sean McCue & Marissa Baum
Digitization: Luke Harbur

americanjazzmuseum.org

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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