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Charlie Parker, on plastic sax, is one reason to hear concert's reissued recordings

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

More than 70 years ago, what's often called the greatest jazz concert of all time took place in Toronto. Charlie "Bird" Parker soared with four legendary colleagues while playing a plastic saxophone. It's now on display at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, and a reissue of the performance was recently released. Reporter Bill Brownlee has more.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER, ET AL.'S "WEE (ALLEN'S ALLEY)")

BILL BROWNLEE, BYLINE: The song titled "Wee" was part of the 1953 performance that took place at a half-full Massey Hall. It's the only time that five primary architects of bebop were recorded playing together - trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, Bud Powell on piano, bassist Charles Mingus, Max Roach on drums, and Charlie Parker playing a plastic saxophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER, ET AL.'S "WEE (ALLEN'S ALLEY)")

BROWNLEE: The Grafton alto saxophones were made of acrylic plastic and were manufactured for only about 10 years in the 1950s.

DINA BENNETT: There were so many things that went wrong during that night. It really wasn't well attended. Charlie Parker had pawned his saxophone.

BROWNLEE: Dina Bennett is a doctor of ethnomusicology and interim director of the American Jazz Museum.

BENNETT: He was given the plastic saxophone to play. He was late. Bud Powell had been released from the hospital. Dizzy Gillespie was running behind stage to listen to the boxing match between, I think, Rocky Marciano and Joe Walcott, and then they kept going across the street to the Silver Tavern for drinks.

BROWNLEE: The problems continued after the show. Most of the musicians' checks bounced, and even worse, the recording failed to pick up Mingus' bass. After being persuaded not to destroy the tapes, Mingus overdubbed his instrument. In spite of, and perhaps partly in recognition of, these obstacles, "The Penguin Guide to Jazz" calls the concert a remarkable experience not to be missed.

Here at the American Jazz Museum, the lustrous white saxophone is on display in a case surrounded by concert memorabilia. Bennett marvels at how Parker surmounted the instrument's limitations.

BENNETT: I mean, it's made out of 1950s cheap plastic. He didn't miss a beat, and he played it with the dexterity and the genius that he played his brass saxophone.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER, ET AL.'S "WEE (ALLEN'S ALLEY)")

BROWNLEE: The unlikely instrument is the centerpiece of the museum thanks to the efforts of Congressman Emanuel Cleaver. The mayor of Kansas City at the time, Cleaver huddled with officials and civic leaders when the saxophone was auctioned by Christie's in London in 1994.

EMANUEL CLEAVER: It was at 3 a.m. in the morning that we met in the office at the church I pastored at the time. The opening bid was $5,000. I remember clearly because I thought, oh, the saxophone probably cost $199. But, you know, we got some historic value here. So $5,000 is nothing. Before I knew it, we were up to $75,000.

BROWNLEE: Cleaver's winning bid was $144,000. Skeptical pundits and political opponents objected. But Cleaver insists his actions were warranted.

CLEAVER: Buying that sax was the coup d'etat for Kansas City. And, of course, now it's not controversial.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER, ET AL.'S "WEE (ALLEN'S ALLEY)")

BROWNLEE: Parker's one-of-a-kind performance comes through more clearly than ever on the reissue of the Massey Hall concert.

For NPR News, I'm Bill Brownlee in Kansas City.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLIE PARKER, ET AL.'S "WEE (ALLEN'S ALLEY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Bill Brownlee