Kansas City Jazz

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Kansas City Jazz

Jazz flourished in Kansas City during the 1920s and 1930s, becoming a key part of a significant happening in American sociopolitical history, as well as an important musical style. The rapidly spreading popularity of jazz in the 1920s led to the rise of the "territory bands," bands located throughout the Midwest and Southwest, which designated a specific city, often a small one, as home base and played dance dates throughout the surrounding territory. Jesse Stone, later the chief producer at Atlantic Records, and Walter Page were among the best known of the territory bandleaders. Other musicians who got their start in the territories included Earl Bostic and Buster Smith.

Kansas City, Missouri, became the most important of the territorial centers with the ascension of the political machine run by Tom Pendergast. Pendergast's high tolerance for corruption led to a wide-open city during the Prohibition era, which became a center for anyone looking for booze, gambling, prostitutes, or entertainment. As a result, many of the important territory bands, such as Page's (originally from Oklahoma City) made their way to Kansas City, where clubs were open 24 hours a day and the music never stopped. It was estimated that in the mid-1920s, in the area centered by Vine Street and bounded by 12th Street to the north and 18th Street to the south, there were at least 50 clubs featuring music at any given time.

The first major Kansas City bandleader was Kansas City native Bennie Moten, whose band included during its run of ten years (1922-32) such musicians as Walter Page, Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham, Eddie Barefield, Count Basie, Ben Webster, Buster Smith, and Jimmy Rushing.

Moten's band became a model for the Kansas City sound, which was based on ragtime and blues. Kansas City jazz typically featured a full, big-band sound, with simple arrangements that were based on riffs, or two-to four-bar musical phrases, rather than on fully developed melodies. This left a good deal of room for solo work, and some of the most important soloists in jazz developed within the Kansas City bands, including Coleman Hawkins (who left Kansas City early, in 1922), Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, and most importantly, Lester Young and Charlie Parker.

Other important Kansas City bands included Walter Page's Blue Devils and Andy Kirk's Clouds Of Joy. Page, a bassist, pioneered the "walking" bass style that became the rhythmic underpinning of swing and bebop. The Blue Devils included Young, Smith, Hot Lips Page, Count Basie and Jimmy Rushing. After his own group disbanded, Page played with Moten and Basie. Kirk's band, which included Don Byas, Howard McGhee, and Fats Navarro, and was noted for the arrangements of piano player Mary Lou Williams.

Williams was one of many significant piano stylists who flowered in Kansas City. The two great piano influences on the Kansas City players were ragtime (ragtime composer Scott Joplin was a Missourian) and blues. While blues was a prime ingredient in all Kansas City jazz, perhaps the foremost purveyors of Kansas City blues were pianist Pete Johnson and blues shouter Big Joe Turner. Turner was the bartender at the Sunset Club, where Johnson played piano, and he sang from behind the bar, with a powerful voice that needed no amplification. The owner of the Sunset Club and other clubs was Piney Brown, who would come to be the archetype of the Kansas City sound through Turner's "Piney Brown Blues" ("I dreamed last night/I was standin' on 12th Street and Vine/I shook hands with Piney Brown/And I could not keep from cryin"').

The most important piano player and the most important band leader to emerge from Kansas City was William "Count" Basie. Basie, unlike most of the other territory musicians, was not a native Midwesterner. Originally from New Jersey, he was stranded in Kansas City when a touring group he was with broke up. He then played for a while as an accompanist in silent movie theaters until he joined the Blue Devils in 1928 and Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra in 1929. When Moten's group disbanded in 1932, its core musicians, including Walter Page and drummer Jo Jones, became the core of the Count Basie Orchestra, which also featured Evans, Young, Harry Edison, Dicky Wells, Buck Clayton, and vocalists Rushing and Helen Humes.

Turner and Johnson were important in bringing the Kansas City sound to wider recognition when they were included in John Hammond's famous 1938 Spirituals to Swing Concert at Carnegie Hall. But it was primarily Basie who brought Kansas City jazz to nationwide popularity and ultimately international fame through radio broadcasts, touring, and recording.

Although the Kansas City club scene was affected by the Great Depression, it endured through the 1930s. The indictment of Boss Pendergast for income tax evasion in 1939 marked its conclusion. Before its popularity dwindled, however, it produced a mighty harbinger of the future, pianist Jay McShann, who came to Kansas City in 1936, formed a sextet in 1937, and put together his first big band in 1939. McShann's band was solidly blues-and riff-oriented, but it was also known as a breeding ground for new musical ideas. Charlie Parker joined McShann's band in 1940. His 12-bar solo on the band's 1941 recording of "Sepia Bounce" contributed to the bebop revolution of the 1940s.

—Tad Richards

Further Reading:

Pearson, Nathan W., Jr. Goin' to Kansas City. Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 1988.

Russell, Ross. Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest. New York, Da Capo Press, 1977.

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