Talking Charlie Parker with Jeff Robinson, the man who brought him home last month
When Jeff Robinson becomes Charlie Parker onstage, as he did in August at the Green Lady Lounge downtown, the transformation startles. The performer, middle-aged, with two sons and a wife in Boston, disappeared. In his place was Bird, slumped in a chair at a small table, his double-breasted suit unbuttoned and askew, the booze helping him brag and name-drop and angle to get paid ahead of the gig, the better to score later.
This was Robinson, doing his one man show, Live Bird — part theater, part live music performance, part historical re-enactment — as part of KC Jazz Live’s third annual celebration of Parker’s life and legacy. The show has evolved over the 20-plus years since Robinson first wrote it, but its essence has been constant: Parker’s music.
The rest Robinson has created out of whole cloth, he says. The other characters — invisible, composites or long-gone real people — change from performance to performance. He mentally dresses them in different clothes, he told me, mostly to ground his concentration in the perceived details of Parker’s imaginary audience. A reporter visible to the Bird who showed up at Green Lady, for instance, wore a ratty orange suit, Robinson said. He slurs and lets himself grow flustered as the show’s hour ticks on, yelling during a strained phone call between the saxophonist and his mother. He appears to be, much as Parker must have, a man losing a struggle.
In these details, Robinson brought the Parker of 1947 back into existence for Kansas City. It was a genuine magic trick, made more real when Robinson broke from his monologue and slung a saxophone around his neck. The St. Louis native was a musician before he began acting, and he can flat-out play. As he meandered through the darkened club, an alto sax’s mouthpiece pressed to his lips, deftly performing Parker’s songs, dressed in that pinstripe suit or in tails with satin lapels, you could squint hard and, for a moment, see Bird walking among us. Savvy old heads in the crowd yelled out: “Yes! Come on!”
After the show, a dozen audience members waited near the stage to talk to him, and he happily shook hands and talked with everyone he could. Robinson made his way to Kim Parker, Charlie Parker’s stepdaughter from his common-law marriage to his fourth wife, Chan, with whom Parker lived on Avenue B in the East Village. Kim Parker was in town for the Charlie Parker festival for the second year, and she appeared content to pose with Robinson for a dozen or so flash-soaked photos.
As he mingled, someone asked Robinson whether it was different performing his show in Kansas City, where Parker was born and where he’s buried. “When I’m in the play, I forget where I’m at,” Robinson said, his face cast in the red light of the club’s suspended lamps. “But I’m in Kansas City. I’m talking about all these people!”
After the crowd cleared out, Robinson walked to the bar at the rear of the venue and, after considering his choices, settled on a pint of beer.
“I’ve been doing this play for 20 years, more,” Robinson told me as we settled into a half-circle booth. “I slowed it down, as you may have heard. I have kids. I also had this one incident that happened. I performed it in Harlem some years back. And Doris Parker, his widow, was in the audience. I knew she was coming. They told me she was coming. So I did the show, and she loved it. We became friends.
“Then, we were setting up another show in New York down on the Lower East Side. You see there’s a time in the show where I flirt with a woman? I was going to flirt with Doris. And it was going to be like Charlie Parker there flirting with Doris, you know? We had it all set up. She was going to bring a bunch of people, Max Roach and all these people. She had all of these New York heavies. And she passed away a month before the show.”
This was in 1999, nearly five years into Live Bird’s run, and he says not getting to perform that show in front of Doris suffocated his momentum. Since then, he has performed as Parker here and there, usually in clubs around Boston but sometimes as far afield as Amsterdam. Mainly, he stays home with his family.
He’d brought his show here twice before, once at the Gem, and then some years later at the Blue Room, in the neighborhood where Parker began building his legend. But this show was his best, he figured. He said he felt comfortable at the Green Lady. When owner John Scott picked Robinson up from the airport, he talked about his plans for the club, about rejuvenating the Kansas City jazz sound created by Parker and Count Basie and Lester Young, the New Orleans native who made his name at 18th and Vine.
Kansas City and its sound, those deep jazz roots — it means a lot, Robinson said. He was born and raised in the state and sees deep into the city’s music history. When Robinson listens to recordings of Parker being interviewed, he hears the voice of his father, another black man, another Midwesterner, about the same generation as Bird. He’s connected to this part of the country, has relatives here in Kansas City. (He referred to an Aunt Doris but said he hadn’t told anyone in the family about about that night’s show.)
And there’s a jazz future here, too, Robinson said. “Kansas City has strong roots to build on. Any musician coming out of here, saying they’re from Kansas City, they can be proud of that. Those roots are still strong because it’s Count Basie. It’s Charlie Parker. It’s Lester Young. That’s rich.”
I thanked Robinson for his time and walked back through the club toward the stairs. A half-hour after the show, the room sat empty. A waitress walked from table to table, collecting the small, electric candles from each one. Outside the Green Lady, the city was quiet, save the faint sound of the club’s house music wafting up from below.