Where is the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation School of Music now?
Published on September 5, 2022 at 6:00 am
Image credit above: The Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation School of Music was hailed in the 70s for taking children off the streets and “introducing them to the arts”. Where is he now ? (Photo credit: Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation)
“It was such a great place for us to learn about music and culture. I met all the big names in jazz while I was a student there.
— LaVerne Washington, to curious KC
The music of singer and musician LaVerne Washington is known around the world. His songs have been described as “gems of secret Midwestern soul”.
The Kansas City native attributes her success in part to what she learned at the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation in the 1970s. Now she’d like to know what happened to the local music school that once attracted some of the biggest names in jazz.
“Off the streets, in the arts”
The Charlie Parker Foundation was founded by musician Eddie Baker in 1971. It was a place where inner-city kids could “get off the streets” and “get into the arts,” as the slogan put it.
Jazz greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie and even Ella Fitzgerald have regularly cycled through the school. If Baker asked, they would come.
“I got to go in and listen to a lot of them play or teach, and I absorbed as much as I could,” Washington said.
Jazz and blues were revived in classrooms where professional musicians taught enthusiastic students for free. Students like the McFadden brothers.
“I was practicing all the time, so they would tell me something to do and the next week I got it,” said Ronald McFadden, who describes himself as “the best of the McFadden brothers”.
More ambitious students such as Ronald would be invited to play showcases for the Kansas City community, performing on the same schedule as some of the world’s most famous jazz musicians. These experiences inspired many students to pursue careers in music.
“It was a dream for someone like me,” he said.
While Ronald was a student, his brother Lonnie regularly visited the building for jam sessions.
“The biggest thing I loved about Eddie Baker starting Charlie Parker Academy was that it let the rest of Kansas City know who Charlie Parker was,” Lonnie said.
Parker’s heritage and style of music were incorporated into the program, although the jazz legend was fairly unknown at the time.
Why Charlie Parker?
In the early 1970s, the name Charlie Parker didn’t quite mean what it means now.
Kansas City musician Carroll Jenkins, who helped lead the Charlie Parker Foundation, put it this way:
“Charlie Parker was more famous in the sense that he was infamous for his people here in Kansas City,” Jenkins said in an archived 1976 interview. came up with something new and different and confused the critics… They didn’t get it.
Parker was often ridiculed in his day, and it wasn’t until later that his talent was more widely recognized.
“Parker was a genius at improvisation,” Jenkins said. “He could think faster than any living man.”
Despite this genius, Charlie Parker had largely faded from Kansas City memory by the 1970s. Music history and education had yet to rekindle the soul of Kansas City’s 18th and Vine jazz center.
When Jenkins and Baker thought of the best way to honor the bird’s memory, they decided on community service.
“Our best bet was that the best service to the community would be in the area where Bird himself was, the arts with a focus on music,” he said.
Jenkins says that whenever the foundation asked a renowned musician to teach at the school, they always answered, “Yes,” as soon as they heard it was in Charlie Parker’s name.
Even though the funk greats dominated the top 40, ’70s musicians still had a lot to learn from jazz.
For Lonnie McFadden, jazz doesn’t just teach you how to learn a song and copy it, but rather how to play with the beat and make it your own.
“And that’s what it’s all about,” he said.
Watch the Kansas City PBS documentary:
Despite Parker’s namesake, funding was a constant struggle for the Charlie Parker Foundation. Former students remember Baker’s endless hustle and bustle to find the dollars needed for the school’s survival.
“It kind of faltered after Eddie got sick and he didn’t have the drive,” Ronald McFadden said.
Although former students have preserved the historical legacy of the academy, much of the documents and photos documenting the Charlie Parker Foundation were destroyed in a flood.
Greg Richter is an alumnus of the school and now works for the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation. He remembers Baker shutting down and resuscitating the foundation several times in the 80s and 90s as funding flowed in and out.
Around that time, it looked like it would be the last encore. Then Eddie Baker’s son stepped in to reinstate the latest iteration of the Charlie Parker Memorial Foundation.
Today, the foundation continues its mission to provide musical education to children in disadvantaged neighborhoods.
“Jazz is immortal,” Jenkins said in 1976. “It will never die as long as there is one person on earth who can play it.”