Happy In Bag

Monday, June 27, 2005

Bird's Nest On the Ground

As a jazz fan in Kansas City, I’m always pleased when attention is drawn to the legendary Charlie "Bird" Parker. New research by local music historian and disc jockey Chuck Haddix revealed that Parker resided at two tony midtown addresses in his youth. Previously, Parker was thought to have lived at only the outskirts of town. The Kansas City Star ran a nice front page feature based on this news on Sunday, June 26.

It provides excellent insight into the man's early years, and I’ll be hard pressed to resist bringing a boom box to the front stoop of these structures just to hear how Parker’s Mood sounds there. The story quoted local luminaries; some discussed submitting the sites to the National Register of Historic Places list. But how many people in Kansas City, aside from Haddix and I, actually care about Parker and his legacy?

Local sales of the saxophonist’s recordings tell a far different story than the one happy version recited by Kansas City's cultural and political elite.

Soundscan, the music industry’s sales reporting tool, has been recording sales of prerecorded music since 1991. A handful of outlets, mostly mom-and-pop operations, aren’t registered. Locally, shops including Music Exchange and Recycled Sounds don’t report to Soundscan. To compensate, other retailers are overweighted. For example, the Borders store at 91st and Metcalf reports two sales for each jazz and world title it sells. And online retailers like Amazon report sales within its customers’ regions, so an order placed to Amazon from Overland Park is recorded as a Kansas City-area sale. Furthermore, Soundscan counts all legal digital download purchases.

A bit of Bird’s history and recorded legacy is in order before the numbers are crunched. Like many musicians, Parker led a complicated, disorderly life that began in Kansas City, KS, in 1920. It ended a mere 35 years later. His first recordings were made in 1940 with Jay McShann, but his reputation as a revolutionary innovator didn’t take flight until the end of World War II. As his cult following increased, maniacal fans took to recording every note Parker played. In the studio, he worked for Savoy, Dial, and finally, the Verve label.

All of this material has been repeatedly repackaged and reissued. Soundscan lists 328 individual Parker titles. Of these, 79 have zero sales. Assuming that those 79 titles were never issued, that leaves 249 actual titles. The total sales for those releases since 1991 is 1,496,695. The average sales per title is 6,011. The average cumulative sales per year is 106,906.

While those numbers aren’t world-beaters, I find them entirely palatable. Jazz is a difficult music, and Parker was anything but smooth. The bebop revolution, led by Parker, remains controversial to this day. Along with the advent of rock’n’roll, the gauntlet laid down by bebop permanently displaced jazz music from the forefront of the American popular culture.

By comparison, today’s most acclaimed serious jazz saxophonist, Joe Lovano, averages sales of 15,000 units each of his Blue Note recordings. Keep in mind, too, that sales of Parker in Europe and Japan are likely at least a significant portion of what they are domestically. Of course, it’s all relative. We live in a world in which country-pop star Toby Keith sold 125,000 units last week.

It’s no surprise that the three best selling Parker titles are on Verve. First, Parker made his most commercial recordings for the label, including the controversial "with strings" sessions. Secondly, Verve enjoys major label distribution, which helps force product into retail. Jazz ‘Round Midnight, the top seller, was issued in 1991, and has sold 126, 475 units, including 49 last week. Ken Burns Jazz, compiled in conjunction with the PBS series, was issued in 2000, has sold 90,039, including 107 units last week. Bird: Original Recordings, issued in 1988, has sold 104,753, including 26 last week. The title I recommend most highly, a budget-priced 5-CD set called Studio Chronicle: 1940-1948, has sold 3,010 units since its release in 2001, including 17 last week.

But what about sales in Kansas City? Jazz ‘Round Midnight has sold a total of 939 units in Kansas City, including 2 last week. Ken Burns Jazz has sold a total of 721 in here, including 1 last week. Bird: Original Recordings, has sold 851 in Kansas City, with no sales last week. The Studio Chronicle box has sold a woeful 10 units in Kansas City, including 1 last week.

Kansas City is Soundscan’s 29th largest market. Correspondingly, even dismissing favorable regional hometown bias, Parker should account for every 3 in a 100 Parker sales. Does it? Not even close. Kansas City represents significantly less than 1% of total sales in the United States.

Why? That’s a loaded question. Are we a bunch of backwards rubes? Are we angry at Parker’s stormy relationship with our town? Or maybe, just maybe, Kansas City is at the vanguard of a very conscious and deliberate critical rejection of bebop and it’s significance in the 21st century.
Or maybe not.

It’s really not so hard to understand why Bird doesn’t fly here. There’s little traction among retail, radio, print, and the live scene.

Kansas City retail is a non-factor. Borders and Barnes & Noble, both national chains, have respectable jazz sections. And while I love the guys and Music Exchange, they’d sooner warehouse collectable vinyl than sell you a shrink-wrapped Parker CD. Conversely, nearby St. Louis boasts Webster Records, a jazz specialist store. And several independent stores there, including Vintage Vinyl and Euclid, employ a staff that's eager to talk jazz.

Needless to say, Parker isn't played on commercial radio. But you’ll hear discerning non-commercial regional disc jockeys play Bird, at Lawrence's KANU. KCUR, aside from two hours on Sunday devoted to swing, has no jazz programming. KKFI plays plenty of jazz each weekday, but I’m not convinced anyone's listening.

A bright spot is the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors. These jazz advocates, although they're typically moldy figs, have their hearts in the right place and they issue a fine bi-monthly publication. The Star dedicates plenty of space to jazz music, but it sometimes seems like a sort of token musical affirmation action policy. Several area clubs feature live jazz nightly, but noone’s going to call it a happening scene. There’s a world of talent in town, especially in the traditionalist camp. But sometimes it seems that there are more musicians than fans.

And yes, I’m aware of the institutions at 18th and Vine, and aside from some fine live music on stage, I’m not impressed with the cavalier sense of obligation there.

So, what’s to be done? Change, if it’s even possible, must come organically through genuine enthusiasm for the music. Bird tastes really bad when force-fed. Clearly, the Ken Burns it’s-good-for-you force-feeding can sell tens of thousands of CDs (if less than a thousand in Kansas City), but getting it stick is another matter entirely. The PBS series ran in 2000, and the fine film bio starring Forest Whitaker's came out in 1988.

Here's my ideal scenario. A young, charismatic group of local musicians lifts the Parker banner. Perhaps they'll call themselves Confirmation. They breathe new life into the Parker songbook, offending purists with their punk attitude even while they play the music straight. The controversial band becomes a popular staple at rock clubs and at regional jazz festivals. Area hipsters start whistling Relaxin' At Camarillo. High school skateboarders take to wearing homemade Ornithology shirts. A new era of Parker chic emerges from Kansas City.

Until that day, look for me in midtown, annoying confused landlords with my boom box.


  • At 2:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    What the hell are you talking about? You should work for a record label.

  • At 4:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Traditionalism, in my humble opinion, is the antithesis of the soul of jazz music. The Jazz Ambassadors, while charming in their ideals, are a major reason why the innovative and hard-working musicians in this town are hard-pressed to find a real following while at the same time encouraging taxpayers and tourists to dump money into that Disney-esque whitewashing of this town's real jazz heritage located at 18th & Vine.


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