This is the only existing photograph of Charlie Parker performing in Kansas City
Like most jazz musicians, Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker often played casuals, informal gigs arranged by an individual or group at a home, country club or other non-jazz venue. Casuals enable musicians to pick up extra cash during off hours and reach new audiences. While working in New York, Bird was known to play the occasional bar mitzvah, entertaining the throng with his version of Klezmer music.
During the fall of 1938 in Kansas City, Parker played a series of casuals along with members of the Jay McShann band for University of Kansas City students at a malt shop the students referred to as their “Jelly Joint.” A student covering the festivities for an article in the 1939 Kangaroo Yearbook snapped the only known photo of Parker playing his alto in Kansas City.
The photo captured the then-eighteen-year-old Parker at a nexus in his career. Already a rising star in Kansas City, he would soon hop a freight train to New York, where he made the musical breakthrough that shattered previous musical convention.
McShann, who was originally from Oklahoma, toured the southwestern territories before arriving in KC. Genial with a winning smile, McShann quickly emerged as a band leader. In May 1938, he opened at Martin’s night club with an ensemble, becoming the first African-American band to play on the Country Club Plaza. That October, Parker joined McShann’s band.Young white dance fans from the nearby university flocked to Martin’s to dance to the McShann band.
The school lacked a student union for students to gather and socialize. Over the years, students had tried to establish their own hangout in the surrounding neighborhoods. They referred to them as Jelly Joints.
In October 1938, Bill Buffe, a UMKC senior, and ‘Abby’ Abercrombie, a UMKC alumna, opened the Kangaroo, ‘K.C.U’s new Jelly Joint,’ on a strip of businesses just east of the streetcar tracks.
Lampooning Café Society, which was known as the ‘wrong place for the right people,’ they billed the Kangaroo as being ‘on the right side of the car tracks.’ In the spirit of Café Society, students hosted a series of Thursday afternoon jam sessions. Parker joined in.
In early November, Parker left the McShann band to join the Harlan Leonard band. A few months later, Leonard fired Parker for being unreliable. Out of work and unable to get along with his wife Rebecca, Parker hopped a train to New York. While in New York, he made the musical breakthrough he had been seeking while jamming in Kansas City.”
— Chuck Haddix, author of Bird: The Life and Music of Charlie Parker and Kansas City Jazz. He is also the curator of the Marr Sound Archives in the Miller Nichols Library at UMKC and host of Fish Fry, a public radio party Friday and Saturday nights on FM 89.3, kcur.org.