I spent eight years growing up as a home schooled kid in rural Eldon, Missouri. I had free range of the town and knew every corner and outlying area of it.
These days, I love the music of Charlie Parker. I put him in the top five – maybe top three – most important jazz musicians of all time and know not many jazz historians would quibble.
So I was surprised to learn recently that Charlie “Bird” Parker not only spent a lot of time hanging around Eldon, but that he even credited his time there with helping him craft his distinctive style.
I was reading this book about the history of jazz in Kansas City, Missouri. The editors interviewed a surviving don of the KC jazz era, Jay McShann. Inevitably, McShann was asked about knowing Charlie Parker. In reply (and completely in passing), he mentioned that when he first met the great Bird, Parker talked about how he’d been spending a lot of time in “The El” working on his technique.
I had met Bird one night coming through town. he was at the Bar-de-Luc, sitting in. As we passed by the club one night, we heard this guy blowing and we said, ‘Let’s go in and see who this is blowing in here.’ So we went in and met him and we said, ‘Hey, man, where are you from?’ He says, ‘I’m from Kansas City.’ I said. ‘Where have you been keeping yourself?’ He says, I been down in the Ozarks with George Lee’s band. It’s hard to get musicians to go down there and play because ain’t nothing happening in the daytime. They say it’s just a drag laying around in the day and nothing happening till at night when you get to the gig.’
I said, ‘Well, where?’ He said, ‘We was in the El.’ They was in Eldon, Missouri. He wanted to do some woodshedin’. So that’s why they went down there with George Lee’s band. I said, ‘Woodsheddin’? What do you mean, woodsheddin’? He said, Well, man, I wanted to get down there and try to catch up on my horn because I feel like I was lagging way behind musically and I wanted to try to catch up on my horn as best I could. That’s probably the reason I sound a little bit different.’ I said, ‘Yeah, you do sound different.’ That was our first meeting.”
No mention of Charlie Parker in Eldon’s Wikipedia entry or the city’s website. No mention of Eldon in Charlie Parker’s Wikipedia entry. But someone at the Miller County Historical Society has been on the case. Turns out some jazz-loving character from KC with rumored ties to Tom Pendergast and who “paid no attention to local racial attitudes” opened up a small resort in Eldon and invited jazz bands out to perform for himself and guests. The resort is gone now but parts of the original structures remained as a sort of seedy motel called El Rancho when I was kid (A sad truck stop and car wash now sit on the site; a well house visible in this Google Maps view is all that’s left of the resort). Eldon was so racist when Charlie Parker was there, it was a “sundown town,” or against the law for visiting blacks to be outside at night. So Bird had nothing to do when he wasn’t on stage but hole up and work on his craft. Ironically, that’s why Bird liked going to Eldon.
Something in me loves that the single most historically significant fact about Eldon is that a man who wasn’t allowed to walk its streets after dark was once circa 1930s staked out in the town honing the improvisational skills that would make him renowned the world over.
Additional info on the Bird/Eldon connection
- Charlie Parker mentioned Eldon in a New York interview and again references how his time there was important to developing his technique.
- The Charlie Parker fan site Bird Lives has a page on Eldon mostly drawing on the work of The Miller County Historical Society and a chapter from a book titled History & Geography of Lake of the Ozarks, Volume One by H. Dwight Weaver, 2005. It includes an account of how Charlie Parker was once injured in a car accident en route to Eldon and may have convalesced in Eldon at the resort for several months.
Charlie Parker had a hard-earned reputation as a jokester: