Young musicians learn from modern day jazz masters at the ‘Bird Boot Camp’

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He’s been called the bedrock of Kansas City’s celebrated jazz scene.

Charlie Parker, the jazz pioneer who created the Bebop sound, would have turned 100 years old in 2020. Parker, who passed away in 1955, is still celebrated annually at the Bird Boot Camp. That weekend music camp for young musicians gathered a small crowd of music students to learn Parker’s style from modern day masters. 

Celebrations of this legend’s lifetime won’t stop, even while a public health scare presents a tune no one’s ever taken. This is the sixth year for Bird Boot Camp, and, by design, the smallest crowd that’s gathered for it yet. Organizers said they kept camp enrollment below 30 students, which is a small gathering, compared to the 150 musicians who usually attend.

Christopher Burnett, one of the camp’s producers, said that was a precaution taken with the pandemic in mind.

“Jazz is a community. It’s a very complex music,” Burnett said.

Burnett, who spent 20 years in the United States Army as a band musician, believes the music matters most. The threat of coronavirus has forced his musicians to perform behind clear plexiglass screens, which provide separation between people.

Burnett’s technique comes from a U.S. Army study related to ties between musical performances and the spread of COVID-19, which, according to Burnett, showed the separation is most vital for musicians who blow into wind instruments.

“We were able to come up with something conducive and useful and safe.,” Burnett said.

Those dividers, in addition to the usual COVID-19 precautions, have provided a benefit Burnett said he didn’t expect. He said it helped his musicians concentrate.

“There weren’t any distractions at all. They were able to focus on the music. They were able to spend more time on that type of learning,” Burnett explained. 

“I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t take every precaution we can take and to protect other people from the virus that’s going around,” Josh Widgren, an Overland Park, Kan., native who studies at Brigham Young University, said. “I think we can all agree that we want to be safe.”

“In the rhythm section, the bass player and drums are kind of separated out, and we’re used to being closer together. We can communicate better, but we’re getting used to it now, so it’s getting easier,” Miles Clemons, a music student who attends Raytown High School, said.

The Bird Boot Camp is sponsored in part by KC Jazz Alive. The day’s study concluded with an informal concert at the Charlie Parker Memorial, which sits just north of 18th and Vine. Many notable Kansas City musicians volunteered their time for the camp, including Clarence Smith, Bobby Watson and Dan Thomas.

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