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Sunday, February 20, 2005

KRT Wire | 02/19/2005 | Charlie Parker sax to be auctioned

KRT Wire | 02/19/2005 | Charlie Parker sax to be auctioned: "---"

Charlie Parker sax to be auctioned


Knight Ridder Newspapers

KANSAS CITY, Mo. - (KRT) - For half a century, the two-toned silver and brass saxophone, etched with the serial number 295173, lay mute beneath a bed.

Gone were the glory days when it appeared in magazines and newspapers; when its emergence from the red case meant an audience waited; when it glimmered under spotlights as it gave voice to streams of music never heard before.

Those were the days when the sax, even at rest on a stand and still damp with sweat and spit, could draw oohs and ahhs from younger musicians.

This alto sax, a King Super 20, was made for one musician: Charlie Parker. "Bird." Native of Kansas City. Genius in jazz. Father of bebop. A musician whose recordings and compositions inspire musicians still.

Sunday at Lincoln Center in New York, at least for a few hours, the saxophone's former glory will be restored, although without the hands that once caressed it. Featured on the cover of an auction house catalog, the instrument, along with hundreds of other personal items from jazz greats, will be auctioned.

The sax's beauty still stuns. The sterling silver bell. Starburst etchings. Genuine mother-of-pearl coverings on the keys - keys engineered and advertised as mechanically superior for a faster response and action, allowing its owner to pour out streams of notes.

But this sax had a darker side as well.

Whenever Bird needed money, serious money, to pay for drugs, he hocked his beloved King at a pawnshop. But each time, this sax was rescued and returned to its master's hands. Other saxes weren't so fortunate.

When the famous die and sometimes even before, anything they've touched becomes a thing of value. Chan Parker, Bird's common-law wife, knew that. After his death in 1955, she held onto the King, hiding it under her bed, sliding it out for a peek every now and then whenever a knowledgeable visitor politely asked to see it.

But on her deathbed in 1999, she told her daughter, Kim Parker, to take the horn. It might help her someday, Chan Parker said.

That someday is here.

Sunday someone will buy one used saxophone. One that experts predict may sell for a half-million dollars or more.

After Chan's death, Kim Parker and the alto sax traveled from France to Pennsylvania. But the King was once more hidden away, for another five years. Parker could not bring herself to sell it: The instrument was too precious; the offers too low.

Until weeks ago, when the saxophone entered the auction along with hundreds of other jazz items. Several eager jazz scholars were the first to inspect it, opening the dusty red case with the Charlie Parker nameplate.

Phil Schaap, trumpeter and curator of jazz at Lincoln Center, not only touched the horn, he also twisted the alto's sections together, placed a handy reed on the mouthpiece, tightened the ligatures and blew.

The moment, he said, should have been dramatic: He was playing Bird's horn!

But the moment fell flat.

E flat, to be exact.

A single note gurgled up from the belly of the alto, splattering out in a bleet.

"I got a very, very awkward squawk," he said. Embarrassed, he quickly put down the King.

"But whatever it did for Bird," he says, "it could do for someone else. I hope it does get played."

Only one professional, besides Bird, has ever played the instrument on a gig: Phil Woods.

Woods is a famous jazz musician in his own right. Influenced by Parker (he transcribed and memorized all his solos), among others, the alto saxophonist developed a sound of his own. Leader of the hard bop jazz style, he's also a composer, leader of bands and clinics, and a five-time Grammy winner. (In late April, he will perform in Lawrence.)

Woods, who married Chan a few years after Parker's death, also became a father to the Parker children, Kim and Baird, and he and Chan later had their own children.

But all the hype, the romance about the instrument, the mutterings from fans that Bird's soul still emanates from the horn - they annoy Woods. There's no magic in that horn, he said.

"If the man is not around, it's just a piece of metal. Without Bird, the horn doesn't mean very much. ... The pads are falling off!"

Woods played the horn long ago during the early days of his marriage with Chan. The story has been told often, but he shared it once more.

"I had no money, so I hocked my Selmar to buy groceries," he remembered. But as he walked into their apartment, his arms laden with food, the phone rang. It was the manager of the Five Spot and he wanted Woods for a gig. "I told Chan, `I'm gonna have to play the King.' I didn't have my horn!

"... So there I am, playing, when wouldn't you know it, Charlie Mingus walks in. He recognized the horn right away. He looked at me, gave me a look of disdain. Oh man! It was like `Who do you think you are?'

"I told him, `Look man, I'm just trying to feed the family.'"

Woods doesn't have any financial claim to the horn, nor does he plan on attending the auction. But his stepdaughter, Kim Parker, might. He's hoping that the saxophone will sell at a high price. Based on a previous sale of another Bird horn, it should.

In 1994, Woods was surprised when Kansas City paid $144,000 for the white Grafton saxophone that Chan brought to an auction in London. The instrument, now on display at the American Jazz Museum at 18th and Vine, was "a plastic piece of " junk, Woods added, and then joked that he could find a few more lying around if people wanted them. But Parker had played a Grafton a few times, which made the saxophone desirable.

But that doesn't impress Woods.

"Look, Charlie Parker could play a tomato can, but I wouldn't buy it for $140,000. I wouldn't pay $14 for it. ... His is not the great American success story.

"... I wish people were more concerned with the people than the instrument."

Over the years, many people have touched the King, including Kansas Citian Dooley Weilert. He repaired Parker's horns whenever the musician was in town visiting family or playing gigs.

Parker stopped to see Weilert first at McLean's Band Shop, 211 E. 13th St., and a few years later at 112 E. 14th St., where Weilert opened his own shop in 1949. Saxophonists who stopped in Kansas City would usually come into his shop for a tuneup, Weilert said.

For a musician, a trusted repairman is as highly esteemed as a gifted physician.

"We called him `The Bird,'" said Weilert, now 91. His eyes still light up when he speaks about Parker's visits.

"Charlie had a low voice. He didn't talk a great deal. ... We talked about food," he said. Weilert would repad Parker's horns, taking off everything and then putting it back together. He would add new corks, too.

Weilert made sure everything worked as Parker stood by. And when the saxophone was finished, Weilert would hand it over for a test drive.

"Oh, he wouldn't play scales; he played jazz," said Weilert. "He'd say to me, `When you get through fixing them, they play just as good as anybody in New York would do.' That made me proud."

Over the years, historians and fans have searched for alto saxophones Parker played. There were many bought and pawned, but definitive Parker ownership cannot be proved.

But with the King there is no doubt: A photo in the book Celebrating Bird shows Parker playing the King in 1949.

"He was a spokesperson for King," said Chuck Haddix, a jazz scholar who is director of the Marrs Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. His book on Kansas City jazz, "Kansas City: From Ragtime to Bebop," is due next month from Oxford University Press.

After years of researching articles on Kansas City musicians, and reading so much about Parker's addictions and financial woes, Haddix said, "It's a miracle the horn survived considering how many horns he hocked."

At the auction Sunday, the King alto will be one of the favorite items for sale, said jazz scholar Barry Kernfeld, editor of the Grove Dictionary of Jazz. Kernfeld, who wrote the descriptions in the Guernsey catalog, has viewed everything on sale.

"The coolest thing about this sax is there are so many photos of him playing this horn," Kernfeld said. He speculated that the King is the most photographed jazz instrument in the world.

The last page of the book "Bird's Diary" shows a pawnshop ticket for the King, he said, from Edelstein Brothers Licensed Pawn Brokers, 233 E. 14th St., near Second Avenue, New York. The date was Jan. 24, 1955.

Seven weeks later, Parker was dead.

The price on the ticket to buy back the King was $100, he said.

"I think it'll go for a little more than that."


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