Midtown Kansas City

By Chuck Haddix, Marr Sound Archives

After separating from Addie in early 1927, Charles Sr. quit his job on the railroad and went to work as a janitor in an apartment building at 114–116 36th Street in midtown Kansas City, Missouri. That summer, Addie and Charles Sr. reconciled and moved to a spacious apartment in a brick fourplex at 3527 Wyandotte, located in the heart of a predominately white middle-class neighborhood.

Exterior view of a two-story brick apartment building
3527 Wyandotte Street. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.

Three years later, the family moved around the corner to an apartment in another fourplex at 109 W. 34th St. The Pla-Mor, Kansas City’s premier entertainment complex which featured a "million dollar ballroom," was located four blocks south of the Parker’s apartment.

Charlie attended Penn School, a three-room schoolhouse located at 4327 Pennsylvania Avenue in Westport, a mixed-race neighborhood. Penn, named after the Quaker William Penn, was the first school established west of the Mississippi River to educate African American students. Classmate Jeremiah Cameron remembered Charlie as "no great light as a student," but someone who was "gentle and soft-spoken." After school Charlie and other Penn students flocked to the nearby Hostess Bakery for day-old sweet treats.

Group photo of African American school children
Group photo of the "Birdland" performers. Charlie appears top row, second from left. Courtesy of the LaBudde Special Collections, University of Missouri-Kansas City.

While Charlie was in the fifth grade, the school district introduced a music program at Penn. Eager to participate in the program, Charlie begged Addie to buy him an alto saxophone. Addie gave into Charlie’s whim and bought him a used alto at a local pawn shop. Charlie later recalled not being ready for the saxophone, "Well, my mother bought me a horn . . . but I wasn’t ready for it then. I didn’t get interested in a horn until I was interested in the baritone horn at high school."

In 1931, students donned wings for a pageant, "Birdland," which was presented at a local church.  During breaks in the production, Charlie and other boys played in the grassy area outside the church.  The music teacher reprimanded Charlie and the other boys for goofing off, telling them "You yardbirds get here in the school."  Charlie picked up on the colloquialism for chickens and began referring to chickens as yardbirds, foreshadowing his future nickname.

The next year, Addie and Charles Sr. split for good, and she and Charlie moved to a house at 1516 Olive St., located on the northern edge of the 18th and Vine community, the heart and soul of the African American community.