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Kansas City Musicians Win Grocery Money In Charlie Parker Song Contest

Veteran pianist Roger Wilder took first place in the category of Original Bebop Composition.
Roger Wilder/Facebook
Veteran pianist Roger Wilder took first place in the category of Original Bebop Composition.

Part of this year's Parker centennial, the American Jazz Museum's competition was well-timed for musicians out of work due to COVID-19.

One-hundred years after his birth, a Kansas City jazz legend is helping put money in the pockets of six area artists.

The Charlie Parker Song Contest, sponsored by the American Jazz Museum and underwritten by the Metheny Music Foundation, inspired 16 musicians to compete for $1,000 in prize money. The timing was helpful, since the nightclubs and restaurants where many area musicians earn their incomes are closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“We recognize that our musician community has been deeply affected by the cancellation of concerts, gigs, tours and performances that contribute to their livelihood for themselves and their families,” said Rashida Phillips, the executive director of Jazz Museum, which is also closed. “This contest recognizes their unwavering talent and tenacity, providing a space to celebrate their contributions to American life, and further making the case that the arts are indeed essential, especially now through these tough times.”

The results were announced April 7.

First Place — Original Bebop Composition: Roger Wilder

Wilder's sprightly “Centenniology” reflects the veteran pianist’s tendency to deploy an encyclopedic knowledge of classic jazz to make shrewd allusions to standards.

“Being a longtime lover of Bird's music and early bebop, and having a sudden increase in free time and decrease in income, I decided to participate,” Wilder said, describing his composition as “in the style of some of the jazz innovators of post-World War II in NYC.”

As with most contest entries, it’s performed without the accompaniment of other musicians in keeping with social distancing considerations.

First Place — Arrangement and Performance of a Charlie Parker Tune: Andrew Ouellette

The young Ouellette has enlivened Kansas City’s jazz scene in recent years, his fresh perspective revealed by his inventive arrangement of the familiar "Yardbird Suite."

“(It's) one of my favorite Charlie Parker tunes,” Oullette says. “The chord changes lent themselves to going some different directions with the arrangement.”

“I thought the idea for the contest was really interesting, and due to recent events I have a lot of time to work on things so I knew I could make my arrangement pretty much exactly the way I wanted it to sound, so I decided to go for it,” he said.

Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920. He experienced plenty of tough times during his short life, and his notoriously unhealthy inclinations contributed to his death in New York City in 1955.

The American Jazz Museum is among the institutions honoring Parker on the centennial of his birth.

“We never want to lose sight of how his creativity, ethic, and ability to compose and reconfigure tunes represented an influential contemporariness way ahead of his time,” Phillips said.

Pianist Andrew Ouellette won first place in the category of Arrangement and Performance of a Charlie Parker Tune.
Andrew Ouellette
“He is the single most important figure in jazz history," Kansas City pianist Andrew Ouellette says of saxophonist Charlie Parker. Ouellette won first place in the American Jazz Museum's Charlie Parker Song Contest category of Arrangement and Performance of a Charlie Parker Tune.

Wilder has a different take.

“For me it's important to celebrate Bird because I love his music, the same as others might want to celebrate Mahler, Arlo Guthrie, or Pearl Jam,” he said.

“There are members of the KC jazz community who don't enjoy Parker's music, and that's OK. But even those not interested in his music have to acknowledge he changed the course of jazz and influenced everything that came after him, so he's at least important historically. There are still jazz clubs and festivals elsewhere in the world in his honor, so we definitely should honor him in his hometown.”

Stan Kessler, one of five judges who assessed each unidentified contribution, is pleased with the contest results.

“Roger and Andrew stood out in that they were complex, deep, clever, musical, entertaining and executed extremely well,” Kessler said.

The prize money — $250 for first place, $150 for second place and $100 for third place in the two categories — replaces just a portion of musicians’ lost income. Even so, the top prize winners were grateful.

“(It's) that much less I'll take out of savings,” Wilder said.

“I plan to buy groceries," Ouellette.

KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at plasticsax.com.
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