Dig It: Charlie Parker's Words Lighting Up Kansas City's 18th And Vine | KCUR

Dig It: Charlie Parker's Words Lighting Up Kansas City's 18th And Vine

Aug 29, 2018

There's a new sign glowing on the side of the Boone Theater at the corner of East 18th Street and Highland Avenue, next door to the Gem Theater in the 18th and Vine Historic District. "I Adore Your Every Move" is a neon work by Los Angeles artist Nikita Gale.

The work was commissioned as part of the city's new, two-month Open Spaces arts festival, which kicked off this past weekend. The sign commemorates a letter written by Charlie Parker to his common-law wife, Chan Richardson.

The virtuoso jazz saxophonist, also known as Bird, was a leading figure in developing bebop in the 1940s. Parker was born in Kansas City and got his musical start here before moving to New York, where he struggled with heroin addiction and died at 34.

While researching Parker's life for the project, Gale said, she sifted through archives and online auctions before discovering the closing lines of a letter. She was struck by the intimacy of the words.

“The letter is this sweet, sensitive gesture,” said Gale. “But at the same time, when you think about what it’s connected to — his personal life, which is very tumultuous, kind of toxic and abusive in a lot of ways and riddled with drug use — it’s a really conflicted combination of things.”

For Gale, the letter represents a side of the musician that is seldom seen.

Charlie Parker at Three Deuces nightclub in New York City in August 1948.
Credit William P. Gottlieb / Library of Congress

“I would hope that it creates a moment of pause, similar to how I was imagining the letter functioned in relationship to this idea of Charlie Parker’s tumultuous personal life. It feels like this brief bright spot where a person who is going through so much still has this ability to produce this very intimate, hopeful, poetic, beautiful gesture.”

Gale was also intrigued by the clash of neon with the private nature of a personal letter.

“You think about neon, you think about signage, and it’s the opposite of intimacy,” she said. “It’s typically highlighting language that’s meant to direct you with wayfinding.”

Finding the right location to place the work was important to Gale. When she discovered that the Boone Theater was available, she said, it seemed like all the pieces were coming together.

"The Jazz District seems to be an area which is very vulnerable to a lot of socio-economic upheaval, and also is in a historically black district in what seems like a very segregated city of Kansas City,” Gale said.

The Boone Theater was originally constructed in 1922 and opened as the New Rialto. It was renamed in 1929 to honor John “Blind” Boone, a renowned African-American concert pianist and Ragtime composer who died in 1927. Boone's best-known composition, “The Marshfield Tornado” was so complex that it was never recorded or written down.

For her sculpture of Parker’s words, Gale chose a vintage yellow (its technical name is Casino Gold), and was able to bring the sign to life with the help of Randy Steinmetz of Steinmetz Neon.

Steinmetz said there was a surreal quality to recreating a signature in neon.

“You almost do feel like you’re stepping into his private world,” Steinmetz said of Parker. “And then here we are putting it on the side of a building. But I think he would like it because that’s how he felt.”

Gale also said people could easily relate to the simplicity of the message.

“People are going to see this message, ‘I adore your every move,’ and it leaves a lot of open space around that language in terms of what it means,” said Gale. “It’s a very sweet gesture that you don’t have to think about too hard.”

"I Adore Your Every Move," by Los Angeles artist Nikita Gale, through Oct. 28 at the Boone Theater, 1701 E 18th Street, Kansas City, Missouri. The work is best viewed at night.

Julie Denesha is a freelance photographer and reporter for KCUR. Follow her on Twitter, @juliedenesha.