Charlie Parker's plastic sax, a Kansas City treasure, is revived — and never sounded better
After a former mayor spent $144,000 of public money on the synthetic saxophone, it became the centerpiece of a Kansas City institution. A reissued recording of the instrument, played by our greatest bebopper, was released last month.
U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver says the morning he secured a piece of jazz history for Kansas City wasn’t an enjoyable one.
“It was a weird morning that I don’t ever want to experience again,” Cleaver still remembers.
As mayor of Kansas City, Missouri, in 1994, Cleaver was huddled in a church basement with city officials and civic leaders nervously monitoring the auction of Charlie Parker memorabilia held by Christie’s in London.
“The opening bid was $5,000,” Cleaver says. “I remember clearly, because I thought the saxophone probably cost $199, but we got some historic value here so $5,000 is nothing. And before I knew it, we were up to $75,000.”
Cleaver’s winning bid was more than $144,000, and the saxophone eventually became the centerpiece of the American Jazz Museum’s collection.
“Buying that sax was the coup d’état for Kansas City,” Cleaver maintains. “And of course now, it’s not controversial, it makes sense to have Charlie Parker’s saxophone. Everybody who steps foot in there wants to see the No. 1 thing: Charlie Parker’s plastic sax.”
The instrument is heard with new clarity on “Hot House: The Complete Jazz at Massey Hall Recordings,” a lavish repackaging of the Toronto concert released by Craft Recordings in November.
Seventy years after the event, jazz fans like Cleaver still marvel at Parker’s facility on an instrument of inferior quality.
“He was doing things with that saxophone that only a few people on the planet could do,” Cleaver says.
Parker was joined by four other architects of bebop in the one-off concert: trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus and drummer Max Roach. It was the first time all five had played together.
In spite of difficult circumstances surrounding the date, Parker thrived.
“So many things went wrong during that night,” says Dina Bennett, doctor of ethnomusicology and interim director of the American Jazz Museum. Parker’s struggles with substance abuse and the mental health issues Powell faced only complicated the concert.
“It really wasn't well attended,” Bennett explains. “Charlie Parker had pawned his saxophone, so he was given the plastic saxophone to play. He was late. Bud Powell had been (recently) released from the hospital, Dizzy Gillespie was running behind stage to listen to the boxing match between Rocky Marciano and Joe Walcott, and then they kept going across the street to the Silver Tavern for drinks.”
The consequent intermission of well over an hour irritated concert-goers.
And the problems continued after the show. Most of the musicians’ checks bounced and, even worse, the recording failed to pick up Mingus’ bass. After being persuaded not to destroy the tapes, the fiery Mingus overdubbed his instrument. (Craft’s repackaging of the concert includes both versions.)
Contractual complications also resulted in Parker being listed as “Charlie Chan” on the original release of the recording.
In spite of, and perhaps partly in recognition of these obstacles, “The Penguin Guide to Jazz Recordings” calls the concert “a remarkable experience, not to be missed.”
The most treasured element of the Massey concert, Parker’s plastic saxophone, is now housed in a glass case in Kansas City’s Historic 18th and Vine jazz district, about six miles from Parker’s 1920 birthplace in Kansas City, Kansas.
“It's our significant artifact that we have in the collection,” Bennett says.
“It symbolizes his great artistry and his brilliance — I mean, it's made out of 1950s, cheap plastic, you know? And he didn't miss a beat.”
Parker died in New York only 22 months after the Massey Hall concert. At 35 years old, his official cause of death was pneumonia and an ulcer.
“When you listen to that concert, it seemed like there was nothing holding him back,” says Gerald Dunn, director of entertainment at the American Jazz Museum. “You don't have a piece of metal taking your personality away, that plastic horn allows your voice to speak through more freely.”
The one-of-a-kind performance comes through more clearly than ever on “Hot House: The Complete Jazz at Massey Hall Recordings.”