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Iconic Saxophone Of Charlie 'Bird' Parker Comes Home To Nest At Kansas City's Jazz Museum

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
American Jazz Museum Executive Director Rashida Phillips stands next to Charlie "Bird" Parker's plastic Grafton alto saxophone in its original home after a six-month stay at Disneyland EPCOT.

The plastic Grafton alto saxophone that Charlie Parker played during a 1953 performance has returned to its place in the American Jazz Museum.

Charlie Parker’s Grafton alto saxophone has returned to Kansas City’s American Jazz Museum after a six-month vacation at Disney World in Orlando, Florida.

“It coming back home is truly a homecoming,” says Rashida Phillips, executive director of the American Jazz Museum. “This is the rightful place that it should be.”

A parade and performance at 18th and Vine Street, the city’s historic jazz district, were originally scheduled Sunday to herald the instrument’s return. But COVID-19 concerns led officials to cancel the live event.

Sunday would also have been Parker’s 101st birthday. The groundbreaking jazz musician, credited with the creation of bebop, died in 1955 at the age of 35.

Known by his nickname “Bird,” Parker played the plastic saxophone during a concert at Massey Hall in Toronto, Canada, on May 15, 1953. As the legend goes, the other musicians — legendary trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach — had not rehearsed together prior to their performance with Parker, who showed up to the venue without his instrument.

At the last minute, one of the musicians in the quintet supposedly found the plastic saxophone for Parker to play. Some critics refer to the resulting show as the greatest jazz performance ever, but few ever saw it because of a boxing match between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott.

Parker’s wife held onto the saxophone after the performance, and the American Jazz Museum acquired it in 1994. Then-Kansas City Mayor Emanuel Cleaver successfully bid for it at auction for $140,000, through the city’s 18th and Vine Authority.

In February, the Jazz Museum loaned the saxophone to Walt Disney World for an EPCOT exhibit on “The Soul of Jazz.”

Local jazz musician Lonnie McFadden, who was scheduled to be part of Sunday’s parade and celebration, says the saxophone’s home is in Kansas City.

“The fact that Bird played it makes it a magical piece,” McFadden says. “This is where he got the soul ingrained in him. And so whatever he put in that horn needs to be back here.”

As KCUR’s general assignment reporter and visual journalist, I bring our audience inside the daily stories that matter most to the people of the Kansas City metro, showing how and why events affect residents. Through my photography, I seek to ensure our diverse community sees itself represented in our coverage. Email me at carlos@kcur.org.
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