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Places, Spaces and Changing FacesKansas City
Kansas City, A wide open town View of Kansas City Clubs from early 1930s in Kansas City Call newspaper
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Kansas City

excerpted from Jazz: A History of America's Music, with contributions by Loren Schoenberg, Jazz Historian

Audio sampleOne O'Clock Jump
Count Basie and His Orchestra

Recorded 1937
(Courtesy Verve Music Group)


Oak Street, Kansas City, 1922
Oak Street, Kansas City, 1922
Image courtesy of Kansas City Public Library

Kansas City, Missouri, was an economic oasis in the heart of the country, a mecca for migrants from the South and musicians in search of work. The man who ran it was the Democratic Boss of Jackson County, Tom Pendergast, an abstemious, church-going family man who was in bed every night by nine. His political power and immense fortune were built upon three things: total control of his party's political machine; ownership of the Ready-Mixed Concrete Company, which poured forth every cubic inch of material needed for the massive public works program he relentlessly sponsored for his city and county; and intimate links with organized crime that had helped to make the city he had been running since 1926 the wildest place in America — filled with bars, brothels, and gambling dens in which, one reporter wrote, "the operators doctor the dice in such a manner as to make a loss to them a gravitational impossibility."

"If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris," said an editorialist for the Omaha Herald, "go to Kansas City." That kind of talk was calculated to appeal to every traveling salesman and big spender between Chicago and Denver, Galveston, and Minneapolis. Prohibition simply never existed in Kansas City. Not a single felony conviction for violating the Volstead Act, the law prohibiting the manufacture, transportation, sale, and possession of alcohol, was ever imposed on any of its citizens. Notorious fugitives like Pretty Boy Floyd and Baby Face Nelson danced unmolested in its nightclubs. Boss Pendergast's silent ally, Johnny Lanzia — "the Al Capone of Kansas City" — screened all candidates for the police force in order to weed out anyone who seemed overzealous, and policemen could be seen day and night rolling dice alongside civilian customers in the gambling establishments that lined 12th Street.

NPR Audio Feature The NPR 100: "One O'Clock Jump"
Tom Vitale has the story behind Count Basie's signature tune, a selection from National Public Radio's list of the 100 most important American musical works of the 20th Century.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


Jazz bandplaying at the Blue Room
Jazz bandplaying at the Blue Room
Image courtesy of Kansas City Jazz Museum

"Everything was wide open," Buck O'Neil of the Negro League Baseball Team, the Kansas City Monarchs, recalled. "The sky was the limit, anything you were big enough to do and could afford, you did it. You could do it in Kansas City. Wide open!" There had been nothing like it in America since Storyville in New Orleans. No one knows how many clubs and cabarets and dance halls flourished in Kansas City — the Paseo Ballroom and the Pla-Mor Ballroom and the Reno Club; the Amos 'n' Andy and the Boulevard Lounge; Cherry Blossom and Chocolate Bar; the Lone Star and Elk's Rest and Old Kentucky Bar-B-Que; the Sunset and the Subway, Spinning Wheel, and Hawaiian Gardens; Street's Blue Room, Hell's Kitchen, the Hi Hat, the Hey-Hay (where customers sat on hay bales), Dante's Inferno (where the waitresses wore devil costumes), and the Chesterfield Club (where the waitresses wore nothing at all).

Musicians like saxophone player Lester Young, scrambling for work in the rest of the country, had no trouble finding it in Kansas City. It may have been a kind of hell for reform-minded citizens, but for pianist Mary Lou Williams, it was "a heavenly city — musicians everywhere." Like the men who played what critics would label "Chicago style," the musicians who became identified with Kansas City jazz came from everywhere. Bill Basie was from Red Bank, New Jersey; Lips Page was from Dallas; drummer Jo Jones was from Illinois by way of Birmingham, Alabama; tenor saxophonist Herschel Evans was from Denton, Texas; Mary Lou Williams was born in Georgia and raised in Pittsburgh; singer Jimmy Rushing was from Oklahoma City; and Jay McShann came from Muskogee, Oklahoma.

As Albert Murray has written, what they had in common was a distinctly southwestern way dealing with the blues. "The special drive of Kansas City music is ... a device for herding or even stampeding the blues away," Murray wrote. "[T]he KC drummer not only maintains that ever steady yet always flexible transcontinental locomotive-like drive of the KC 4/4, he also behaves for all the world like a whip-cracking trail driver. And so do Kansas City brass ensembles on occasion also yap and snap precisely as if in pursuit of some invisible quarry, with the piano player siccing them on."

Audio Feature Professor Gerald Early
On why Kansas City was the place to be in the 1930s
(Audio Excerpt from JAZZ A Film by Ken Burns)


Kansas City jazz featured an irresistible joyous beat, syncopated conversations between the reed and brass sections that recalled the old call and response of the Sanctified Church, and an abiding fondness for the saxophone. Unlike more commercial swing, Kansas City jazz was built upon head arrangements — musical ideas or riffs that were rarely written down, but provided the foundation for Kansas City musicians to improvise all night long. Kansas City musicians did not play the blues so much as stomp them, Murray wrote; Kansas City singers did not sing the blues, they shouted them.

"There is no question about whether or not Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner rode herd on the blue devils," explained Murray, "spurring on the instrumental accompaniment as if from the saddle atop a quarter horse the while ... [S]ometimes it is also as if each Kansas City musician were riding the blues as if astride a bucking bronco. And come to think of it wasn't there something of the rodeo about the Kansas City jazz session from the outset? The competition among the participants was incidental to the challenge of the music itself as the competition among cowboys for rodeo prizes was to the elemental contest between man and the wild animal."

Competition between Kansas City musicians ran especially deep. "For some reason," Claude "Fiddler" Williams remembered, "Kansas City was different from all other places because we'd be jamming all night. And it you come up here ... playing the wrong thing, we'd straighten you out." "Regardless of how much anybody played or where they were from," said Mary Lou Williams, "when they came to Kansas City they found out how little they were playing." The trumpet player Buck Clayton compared Kansas City musicians to gunfighters. Lips Page, he recalled, used to slip notes under the hotel-room door of visiting trumpet players reading, "Meet me tonight at such-and-such a club."

The pianist Sammy Price remembered going home at 10 o'clock to change his clothes after playing at a session only to return to the club at 1 a.m. to find they were still playing the same tune. There were informal cutting contests for high school kids, free-for-alls for professionals, and the equivalent of heavyweight championship contests between the top musicians in town, often held at the Sunset or the Subway, the Reno or the Cherry Blossom. Kansas City jazz rewarded both individualism and cooperation. In order to provide a pleasing background for a succession of soloists, those waiting to play were expected to master complex harmonized riffs: "It showed a young guy that came in there," the bassist Gene Ramey recalled, "that he didn't just have to learn how to play a solo, he had to learn how to team ... [how] to breathe at the same time." Kansas City jam sessions were most like camp meetings, Ramey continued, "completely imitated from one of those revival meetings, where the preacher and the people are singing, all that living, and there's happiness all around."

One evening in 1933, the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins himself was in town with Fletcher Henderson's band, on the last night of a week long engagement, part of what would be one of the struggling band's final tours. After the show, he carried his horn into the Cherry Blossom at 12th Street and Vine, looking for challengers as he did wherever he went. Three of Kansas City's best tenor players were waiting for him: two whose styles owed much to his, Herschel Evans and Ben Webster — and 24 year-old Lester Young whose unique laid back style couldn't have been more different than Hawkins'.

By four o'clock in the morning they were looking for a fresh piano player. Mary Lou Williams was fast asleep at home:
Around four a.m., I awoke to hear someone pecking on my screen Ben Webster was saying, "Get up pussycat, we're jamming and all the pianists are tired out now. Hawkins has got his shirt off and is still blowing." Sure enough, when we got there, Hawkins was in his [undershirt], taking turns with the K.C. men. It seems he had run into something he didn't expect. Lester's style was light ... it took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow ... That was how Hawkins got hung up. The Henderson band was playing in St. Louis that evening and Bean knew he ought to be on the way. But he kept trying to blow something to beat Ben and Herschel and Lester. When at last he gave up, he got straight in his car and drove to St. Louis. I heard he'd bought a new Cadillac and that he burnt it out trying to make the job on time. Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenor men.
NPR Audio Feature NPR's Jazz Profiles: Mary Lou Williams
Host Nancy Wilson presents a profile of pianist Mary Lou Williams, who broke through significant barriers to women in jazz in her roles as a composer, innovator, and mentor.
(Courtesy NPRJazz.org)


There were many factors that led to the gradual demise of Kansas City as a proving ground for the best and brightest in the black jazz world. Among the most significant was the downfall of Boss Tom Pendergast in the late 30s, and the reforms that followed. Deprived of the graft and vice his administration enabled, nightlife suffered, and work for musicians declined. When the Basie band went to New York in late 1936, it started a migration of the best of the local talent that robbed the musical environment of its trendsetters. Once again, Mary Lou Williams:
You see, what happened in Kansas City was that [New Yorker] John Hammond came to town. He was knocked out by what was happening musically, because he'd never heard such a thing. And he began to get jobs for the musicians. He took all the good musicians out, and it hasn't been good since. It was very beneficial what he did, but it left no one out there that anybody could copy or to continue what was happening, because everybody that was playing left.
Add to that the war, a the decentralization of agricultural distribution (of which Kansas City had long been a hub), the advent of R&B and rock 'n' roll, and you get a good picture of what Kansas City was up against. There was still work for the local players, many of whom had played with Lester Young, Charlie Parker, and Joe Turner as young men. But the music never regained the elegance of its 1930s peak. In the late 1970s, the filmmaker Bruce Ricker documented a reunion between Basie and the local KC jazzmen in the film in The Last of the Blue Devils that showed just how drastically times had changed.

Since then, there have been many attempts to revitalize the city as a whole, and to celebrate its great jazz heritage. There is currently a burgeoning live music scene (visit http://home.kc.rr.com/kcjazz/) and a jazz museum that will hopefully make Kansas City a vital jazz center once again.