Charlier Parker's King Alto Sax

Charlie Parker's King Alto Sax

Charlie Parker was undoubtedly one of the, if not THE greatest alto saxophonist of American Classical Music, also known as “jazz.”  For a long time, his once famous king alto sax, made especially for him, had lay underneath a bed for almost 50 years.

The beautiful King Alto Sax,  etched with the name Charlie Parker on the brace between the bell and body of the horn with the serial number 295173, lay mute beneath a bed.  This horn was a thing of beauty and was made in 1947, especially for the genius, Charlie Parker.

Bird Playing His King Alto Sax

Bird Playing His King Alto Sax

For many years, this was the horn that Bird had played and made music that shook the world and had legions of fans and musicians alike, dumbstruck with awe.
This particular 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.

For a brief few days at Lincoln Center in New York, the saxophone’s former glory was 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, was 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.

Often if a famous artist dies and sometimes even before, anything they’ve touched becomes a thing of value. Chan Parker, Bird’s common-law wife, knew that. After Charlie died in 1955, she held onto the King, keeping it tucked away, safely, under her bed, taking it out for a look once and a while, sometimes if a friend wished to have a glance at 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 had arrived, some years later.

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.

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

Phil Woods is one of the premier jazz alto saxophonists and was  without a doubt influenced by Parker (he transcribed and memorized all his solos), among others, the alto saxophonist developed a sound of his own.  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 to Phil, a horn is just a horn and when asked about whether or not Bird’s soul lived on inside of the king, he shrugged it off as just hype.  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.

Phil also added the following comment:  “… 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.”

Bird’s King Alto Sax has been photographed hundreds of times and is one of the most photographed saxophones in history.

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 horn lives on…..

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