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Central Standard

Why Jazz Fans In Denmark Feel A Connection To Kansas City

Creative Commons

Ben Webster hated to fly on airplanes.

When he went to Europe to perform for his fans across the Atlantic, the trip was one-way. 

A contemporary of Charlie Parker, Webster grew up in Kansas City, Mo., right off of 24th Street. He taught himself to play the piano at a young age, and started his career performing as a pianist for silent films. It wasn't until he was about 20 years old that he took up the saxophone.

But it was on the tenor sax that he played with the biggest names in jazz: Bennie Moten, Cab Calloway, Lester Young, Jay McShann, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Duke Ellington and yes, Charlie Parker, whose name has become synonymous with Kansas City jazz.  

In 1964, Webster received an invitation to be a musician-in-residence at a club in London, according to the Ben Webster Foundation. He accepted. Webster got gigs throughout Europe, eventually making Copenhagen, Denmark, his home.

"Many African-Americans ... found a kinship in Europe that they did not find in other places," Anita Dixon of the Mutual Musicians Foundation explained Tuesday on Central Standard.

She just got back from a trip to Copenhagen to meet with the folks at the Ben Webster Foundation.

"Segregation was the rule of the day in America. It was not in Europe," she said.

Copenhagen now celebrates Webster and his legacy in much the same way that Kansas City celebrates Charlie Parker. The Ben Webster Foundation awards a coveted prize to a musician every year. Webster is buried in the same cemetery as Hans Christian Andersen, and his landmark birthdays are roundly feted. 

Dixon said the jazz audience of Denmark considers Webster and his Kansas City roots integral to Copenhagen's own musical history. 

"The style of the music is heavily studied," she said of the jazz scene she encountered. "The study of the Kansas City style in jazz is unequaled."

People don't make cameos in news stories; the human story is the story, with characters affected by news events, not defined by them. As a columnist and podcaster, I want to acknowledge what it feels like to live through this time in Kansas City, one vantage point at a time. Together, these weekly vignettes form a collage of daily life in Kansas City as it changes in some ways, and stubbornly resists change in others. You can follow me on Twitter @GinaKCUR or email me at gina@kcur.org.