The Mets, the Royals and Charlie Parker, Linked by Autumn in New York
By DAVID WALDSTEIN
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — After the Mets and the Royals had secured spots in the World Series last week, observers searched for connections between the teams. There seemed to be few.
But as the Series shifts from Kansas City to New York, it is following a well-trodden path, forged decades ago with the migration of some of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
Just as Kansas City once effectively served as a feeder system of ballplayers to New York, Kansas City’s hopping nightclub scene was the fertile ground that produced some of New York’s top musical acts, and baseball was a cherished pastime for many of them.
Count Basie’s big band helped make Kansas City’s nightclub district, around 18th and Vine Streets, swing before the musicians moved on to New York. The band also fielded a competitive baseball team, which played against a team from Duke Ellington’s band.
The tenor saxophonist Lester Young built his chops in Kansas City’s nightclub district before migrating to New York, where he became a jazz giant. A New York Giants baseball fan, he played on the Count Basie Orchestra team as a pitcher with nimble fingers.
The saxophone legend Charlie Parker, a Kansas City native and a devoted fan of the Monarchs, a Negro leagues team there, left the musical mecca for New York, where in the 1940s he helped develop the jazz style bebop. It was after his nickname that the famed Manhattan jazz club Birdland took its name.
Today, few ballplayers listen to jazz. But the genre and the sport, like Kansas City and New York, are intertwined in American culture.
“There was a time when everybody went to Kansas City,” said Phil Schaap, a prominent jazz historian and archivist. “Many of them eventually moved on to New York and made it there. But Kansas City, along with New York, Chicago and New Orleans, is one of the citadels of jazz. And during the swing era, all the bands had teams.”
If one man could be credited with fostering the environment that produced the Kansas City sound, it is Tom Pendergast, a political boss and early backer of Harry S. Truman. Pendergast protected the area from the police during Prohibition, when the nightclubs on 18th and Vine flourished, and promoted vice industries to counter the economic depression in the 1930s.
“Some operated 24 hours a day,” Bill McKemy, the education manager at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, said of the clubs. “Naturally, musicians flocked there, and it was a golden age for music.”
By day, many of the musicians in Kansas City were on the sandlot. For them, “swing” had two meanings.
“Duke Ellington couldn’t hit or throw, but he loved the game,” said Schaap, who has collected scouting reports on musicians. “Barney Bigard was a clarinetist in Duke’s band. He couldn’t field, and he couldn’t run, but he could hit the ball 600 feet.
“Harry James was also a great baseball player,” Schaap continued, referring to the bandleader and trumpeter. “It was competitive, and it was a big deal for them.”
Schaap said that Benny Morton, a trombonist who played in Count Basie’s and Fletcher Henderson’s bands, was an excellent second baseman. Years ago, Morton, who died in 1985, detailed to Schaap how he had opportunities to play in the Negro leagues.
“He decided on music because he did not want to be restricted to a second tier,” Schaap said, referring to baseball’s color line. “In music, he could perform alongside the best in the business.”
Parker’s affinity for baseball was not so much as a player but as a fan — of the Monarchs and, later, the Brooklyn Dodgers and their star second baseman Jackie Robinson. Still, if Louis Armstrong was the Babe Ruth of jazz, then Parker was its Willie Mays.
Parker, perhaps the greatest improviser of any musical form, was born in 1920 in Kansas City, Kan., and as he grew up on the Missouri side of the border, he was captivated by the music scene there. He visited New York in 1939 and had an epiphany during a jam session in Harlem, Schaap said. That planted the seeds of bebop, a revolutionary musical form that led to modern jazz and is known for its improvisational fluidity.
Parker served as an influence on another iconic saxophonist, John Coltrane, who himself has a prominent fan in the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Tony Clark. Before Game 2 of this World Series, Clark spoke of the bond between music and baseball, saying, “It’s a very interesting connection.”
Sandy Alderson, the Mets’ general manager, also said he enjoyed jazz — although he does not consider himself an expert, he said — and like Clark, Alderson mentioned the ties between New York and Kansas City.
“The Yankees used to get players from Kansas City,” he said in reference to Roger Maris, Ralph Terry and others the Yankees acquired in a series of successful trades with the Athletics in the 1950s and ’60s, before that team moved to Oakland.
Musicians began making the trek a bit earlier, with Count Basie taking his band to New York in 1937.
Young, a member of the orchestra who was born in Mississippi, was in New York on Oct. 3, 1951. As he shaved to prepare for a gig at Birdland, Schaap said, Young listened intently on the radio as the Giants faced the Dodgers in a playoff.
“When Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ’Round the World, Young was so excited, he cut himself pretty badly,” Schaap said. “It was a noticeable cut, and he had some difficulty playing that night.”
Eventually, all the best musicians moved to New York, and the Kansas City scene died out.
There were other factors in its demise, said McKemy, the museum employee. They included World War II, the construction of an interstate highway that cut through the area, and the downfall of Pendergast, who was convicted of income tax evasion. Soon, the police were cracking down on the vice industries.
Still, the Kansas City scene’s decline allowed for the rise of bebop, which grew in New York with Parker as the ace of its rotation.
Parker died at 34 in 1955 and was buried in Blue Summit, Mo. The gravestone is just four miles from Kauffman Stadium, where the Mets and the Royals played the first two games of the World Series, improvising a new link between two cities that have history after all.
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