Some of the greatest jazz players in all of history got their start in the clubs of Kansas City. World-class musicians such as William "Count" Basie, Charlie "Bird" Parker, and Orin "Hot Lips" Page, among many others, came together to create a sound the town can call its own.
"As much as jazz is America's original contribution to music, Kansas City was a unique voice in jazz," said Chuck Haddix, director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Haddix, also known as Chuck "Haddock," is host of "The Fish Fry," a late-night weekend jazz show on KCUR 89.3 FM.
"It's a blues-based, swing style of jazz," said Mary Ellen Farney, past president of the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors.
Jazz, as a musical genre, was born out of a marriage of down-home blues and ragtime just after the turn of the century. While New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, America's music grew up in Kansas City.
By the time the Roaring '20s rolled around, jazz had emerged as America's favorite dance music. In retrospect, it seems only natural that people were lovingly loosening up and moving to the beat of this hot, new set of pulsating rhythms. World War I had ended, jobs were plentiful, and times were good. Around the rest of the country, Prohibition (enacted 1919, repealed 1933) effectively ended the activity at traditional nightclubs and dance halls. But in Kansas City, mob boss Tom Pendergast, known as "Boss Tom," controlled the police, the politics, and essentially the entire town. So much so that, here, even at the height of Prohibition, liquor flowed freely, and gamblers and musicians played most of the day and all of the night at "private" clubs. This made Kansas City a national jazz mecca.
"During the '20s and '30s, more world-class players made Kansas City their home than anywhere else," said Haddix. For instance, in 1927, the Gonzelle White band came to town to play Kansas City's Lincoln Theater. At the end of its scheduled run, the group disbanded, leaving a young William Basie looking for work. Fortunately, the future "Count" didn't have to look far.
Every hotel, club, and casino-and there were hundreds of them-offered live music. Lining 12th Street from Central to Highland and jam-packing the area of 18th and Vine, musicians played literally all night every night. Bands like Andy Kirk's Twelve Clouds of Joy, Walter Page's Blue Devils, The Jay McShann Orchestra, and Thamon Hayes and the Kansas City Rockets possessed unbelievable musical talent.
Working Kansas City clubs, these musicians might be scheduled to play from 8 in the evening to 4 the next morning. Once they finished a gig, they'd "get off and jam."
Jammin' allowed musicians to stretch themselves by improvising with and against each other in loosely structured ensembles. Jammin' was pure jazz, free of restraint. It was in these early morning hours that Kansas City's international contribution to jazz came to be.
"Basically they took the blues uptown and jumped it," which produced first swing and later bebop, according to Haddix. "When Jay McShann did 'Jumpin' the Blues,' that's Kansas City's style of jazz. Parker was playing bebop around here before anybody knew what it was."
Kansas City's notorious nightlife became restricted with federal investigations of Boss Tom in the late '30s, and with World War II's gas rations, 1am closing times, tax on dance halls, and noticeable lack of dance partners, Kansas City cooled down considerably.
Jumping to the present, jazz is alive and well and once again playing all over town. For an extensive listing of just who is playing when and where, call the Jazz Ambassadors' Hotline at (816) 753-JASS (5277). Keep an ear out for Rod Fleeman, Queen Bey, Tommy Rushkin, Mama Ray, Mike Metheny, Angela Hagenbach, Joe Cartwright, and The Scamps -- just a few of the musical greats frequenting the area.
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