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The Heart of John Park
by Todd Estes

Over the course of the 20th century, there have been many men and women who have risen to greatness in the industry of jazz music. Many of these great artists could move an audience so effectively that people would dance up and down the aisles of great concert halls such as Carnegie Hall in New York or the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. There are few of these fine musicians, however, who, just by playing a simple improvised solo, could bring an entire audience of college students to tears. It would also be a great challenge to find a musician who was so loved by everyone that, many years after his death, just mentioning his name brings a tear to the eye. Many people were fortunate enough to know and love such a man. These were the individuals who felt the love that poured forth from the giant spiritual heart of John Park.

Sadly enough, however, there are not many recordings of John, mainly because of his desire to remain his own person and not to be twisted and molded by the recording industry.

Playing Life by Ear

John Park was born on November 18, 1934, in Springfield, MO. A teacher came to John's school one day and offered to teach boys to play instruments for the Boy Scout band. John chose a tenor saxophone. He caught on amazingly fast. His mother, Fleeda, soon enrolled John in private lessons with Mickey Marcell at Drury College in Springfield. Mickey told Fleeda that John was one of the most gifted students he had ever seen and that it had always been his hope that someday a student like John would walk through his door.

At night, John played his sax on his back porch along with the radio and, when the weather forced him inside, he would play as quietly as possible into a corner so he wouldn't wake his father who worked odd hours. This technique of playing so quietly for long periods of time is inevitably what helped to produce John's amazing control of the saxophone.

John's only handicap in music (which might go back to his playing by ear with the radio) was his inability to read music very well. To hide this fact from his teacher, he would manipulate the teacher into playing a song first; then John would play it back perfectly by ear. This problem was solved later, however, when some friends taught him to read music.

Throughout his teen years in the 1950s, John worked steadily as a freelance musician in and around the Springfield, MO, area. He attended Drury College and Southwest Missouri State College (now University) for a short while, but his love of music won over academics. John decided to quit school and join the National Guard band.

The saxophone section of the Stan Kenton Orchestra. l - r, Roy Reynolds, Mary Fettig, (Kim's future wife), John Park, Richard Torres and Kim Park.

Knowing His True Love

John's military career lasted 10 years and proved to be one of the most important keys in shaping his musical style. In 1959, John was stationed in Okinawa, Japan. He put together a jazz combo and entered the South Pacific All-Army Talent Contest. The winner would go to the United States to compete, and the final winner of that contest would play on the Ed Sullivan Show. John's desire to get home and see his family seemed to motivate him and his combo won all categories in the Japanese competition. At the final competition in the States, John and his combo were entered into all three categories: jazz solo, small combo, and large jazz ensemble. His mother remembers that John was so relaxed during the competition that between sets, he would take a nap. When it was time to play, someone would nudge him awake and he would walk on stage and totally “smoke” everyone there. John and his group won top honors in all categories that day. As the winner in the solo division, John was later featured on the Ed Sullivan Show playing “Flamingo.” When John's father, Russell, passed away in 1965, John ended his Army career with an honorable discharge. He returned home to help his mother run the family motel in Thayer, MO.

Back home, John met and fell in love with Shirley. His playing seemed to gain more feeling during their courtship. They planned to marry on September 1, but on August 27, John suffered his first heart attack as a result of arteriosclerosis, which had taken his father's life only months earlier. They were married in the hospital chapel on September 16, the day John was released.

John's marriage proposal had included Shirley's three children by a previous marriage: Kim, Kit, and Katy. The marriage of five was completed when he adopted them as his own. The family welcomed number six into the fold when Suzy entered their lives in May of 1968.

John's heart problem would affect him the rest of his life. The notion that he might not be able to perform anymore only increased his resolve. He vehemently stated that taking his music from him would be like losing part of his physical self. This more than any single event probably strengthened his spiritual heart as the physical heart grew weaker. As a result, his playing grew more passionate. It was as though he had so much to “say” and he wanted to get it all said before time ran out.

The Sax-Playing Car Salesman

John and his two friends, drummer Dave Bedell and keyboardist Rocky Helwig, formed a trio and contracted with the Flaming Pit Lounge in Springfield. They were featured as The Flames and played a steady six-night gig for several years.

In 1972, Stan Kenton and his orchestra went to Drury College for the annual Kenton Jazz Camp. Someone told some of the band members about a car salesman who was playing sax at the Flaming Pit. They laughed at the prospect but eventually went to hear the sax-playing car salesman. John greeted them warmly and invited them to sit in with the trio. When the music started, John held back and let the Kenton members play their choruses. When it was John's turn to take a chorus, he started very slowly and softly, doing nothing outstanding. But he soon gained steam, getting wilder and wilder until he was playing with such ferocity and technique that the Kenton members put away their horns and sat down to listen. When the lead alto chair in the Stan Kenton band became available, the position was offered to John. After discussing it with his family, he accepted. The three brief years that followed produced some of John's best playing and resulted in two of the greatest Kenton albums ever released.

"That horn was as big as he was." remarked childhood friend David Estes.

Finding A Street of Dreams

Though John definitely emulated some of the greats like Stan Getz and Charlie Parker, his style of playing could best be classified as “Parkism.” He was his own player. His sound was crisp with a slight bite to it at times. He was not afraid to growl if he really got excited during a solo. But John was recognized most for the way he could move an audience with a ballad. He played with such soul that you could almost feel the emotion sweep across an audience. He never repeated himself and very rarely used musical clichés. He was an innovator.

John's main feature with the Kenton band was “Street of Dreams.” His solos left the audiences standing and cheering. When Willie Maiden left the band, Stan approached John and asked whether his son Kim was ready to join the band. Stan had heard Kim play at an annual Kenton Drury Jazz Camp and was impressed. Thus, upon Kim's high school graduation, he joined his dad as part of the Kenton Orchestra.

Once again, John's heart would interfere with his life, and he was forced to leave Kenton's band due to his third major heart attack. Though his career with the Kenton band was brief, his style influenced such great players as Stan Getz, Gary Foster, and even Branford Marsalis.

A “Gentleman” Takes His Final Bow

John and his family moved to Houston where he quickly became a giant in the Houston jazz scene. His first years in Houston involved directing a jazz lab band and teaching a jazz improvisation course at the University of Texas. He also started a jazz band that eventually performed at Carnegie Hall in New York.

The last year of John's life produced some of his most beautiful playing, but sadly enough, there are few tapes of most of these performances. He was collaborating with Stan Getz on the production of an album under Stan's own recording label. Unfortunately, just a few short months before the studio date, John's physical heart stopped and the world was denied the musical masterpiece that undoubtedly would have resulted.

In the fall of 1979, Leon Breeden, director of the NTSU lab bands invited John to appear as the guest artist in a tribute concert to Stan Kenton. The concert took place in November, only two weeks before John's death. That night, John made the comment at home that if no album were ever consummated, no further honors bestowed, he would be completely fulfilled in his life's work. Nothing was as great an honor than the one presenting itself that evening. It was his last public performance. Breeden introduced him as “a gentleman.” He was all that and more.

John passed away in his sleep on December 7, 1979. The following spring, the NTSU band's annual album was dedicated to his honor.

(John Park's recordings can be heard at the Marr Sound Archives in the Miller Nichols Library at UMKC or by visiting www.artistworkshop.com)

Todd Estes is a musician and friend of the Park family.


© Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors 1996-2004. All rights reserved.

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