Charlie Parker’s Plastic Sax
By Claire McDonald
One of the most beloved objects in the American Jazz Museum’s collection sits on display behind a wall of protective glass, attracting jazz pilgrims from all over the world. The Grafton alto saxophone is special for a number of reasons.
First, it is made of plastic, unlike most saxophones, which are made of brass. The Grafton company only sold these plastic models commercially for 10 years, starting in 1950. This makes it one of the few of its kind. But the main reason it is at the top of every visitor’s must-see list? It was played by Kansas City native and one of the greatest saxophone players of all time, Charlie Parker, during the Jazz at Massey Hall concert. This performance earned the moniker “the greatest jazz concert ever” according to many in the jazz world.
The famed Jazz at Massey Hall concert took place in Toronto, Canada, May 15th, 1953. This performance was a pivotal moment in jazz history. It was the last time that saxophonist Charlie Parker, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Bud Powell, bassist Charles Mingus, and drummer Max Roach played together as a quintet. Additionally, while some of these musicians had recorded with one another in smaller combos, Jazz at Massey Hall was the very first time that all five musicians recorded together. This performance took place only two years before Charlie Parker’s death and marked the turning point before the downward spiral he would face with his health and substance abuse. This concert is regarded by many as one of the final great performances of Charlie Parker’s career.
While the concert, in hindsight, is heralded as a monumental moment in jazz history, it may not have been, had it not been recorded. Attendance was low because it took place the same night as a big heavyweight fight between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott. The organizers also had difficulty selecting the musicians who played. Parker’s contract with Mercury Records didn’t allow him to perform for this type of event, so he appeared under the name Charlie Chan. The pseudonym came from his wife, Chan Richardson. Charlie Parker had also recently pawned his saxophone. For this reason, the plastic Grafton saxophone was procured for him to play.
It is believed by musicians and jazz scholars that Jazz at Massey Hall wasn’t rehearsed, making it a glorified jam session. The musicians improvised and adapted some of the following pieces: “Salt Peanuts,” “A Night in Tunisia,” and “Hot House.” The record was released with the title The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall under Charles Mingus’s record label, Debut. In 1995, the record was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and it is included in National Public Radio’s “Basic Jazz Library.”
The story of the plastic Grafton alto saxophone at the American Jazz Museum is a fascinating one, and one that the museum is privileged to tell. The saxophone was acquired by the museum in 1994 from Christie’s Auction House in London. Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II was Mayor of Kansas City, Missouri at the time, and the 18th & Vine District was 3 years in the making. Congressman Cleaver cast the winning bid for Kansas City at 4:00 am in the morning. Although it is said Congressman Cleaver bid against actor/director Clint Eastwood to win the saxophone for the city, the second place bidder was a business man from Japan. We hope that the next time you visit the American Jazz Museum to admire this incredible Charlie Parker artifact, you take a moment to look at the other objects in its case, including the the album cover for The Quintet – Jazz at Massey Hall.
Note: the final paragraph of this piece was modified by Luke Harbur in February 2021 to further elaborate on the story behind the events of how saxophone was purchased at the auction in 1994.