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Swing City

September 8, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: When you hear the distinctive sounds of trumpets, saxophones, trombones, and pianos, you might think of New Orleans, the birthplace of jazz–or Chicago, with its distinctive sound. But in the late 1920′s and 30′s, Kansas City was a Mecca for jazz. It was the home of the young and talented Charlie Parker and the legendary Count Basie. Music hummed from nearly every building in a neighborhood known as 18th and Vine.

JAY McSHANN: The town was wide open. They never did close–you know. And when I hit 12th Street, I couldn’t get down to the clubs fast enough because they piped the music out, and you could hear old Jim Turner hollerin’ them blues. You could hear his voice and the closer you get the faster you walk.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Kansas City political machine run by Tom Pendergast ignored the prohibition laws and allowed the speakeasies, taverns, and honky tonks to flourish. Musicians flocked to Kansas City from all over the country. There, they devised a new way to perform–improvisational jazz.

MAX ROACH, Drummer: Improvisation–improvisational arrangements–collective orchestrations. So what the music has done, when I see it around the world now, is that it liberated the musicians.

JAY McSHANN: You know, man, these guys did one tune and it would last an hour and you would wonder where all the notes was comin’ from or where the words was comin’ from. So after that I knew I was hooked, you know.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Count Basie came to Kansas City as a young pianist. Soon his big band sound was world renowned. He talked about the distinctive sound of Kansas city jazz on this television show from the 1950′s.

COUNT BASIE: I really had never heard the blues until I did go, I had the pleasure of visiting Kansas City, which was in the very, very early days. I got a chance to wander–over on 18th Street at that time was blazing–I mean, everything was happening there, beautiful. I mean, you could hear the blues from any window or door. I had never seen anything like it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Basie and fellow jazz legend Charlie “Bird” Parker took the Kansas City sound to the rest of the country. But by the 1950′s, the jazz center had moved on to New York and the once hopping and bopping neighborhood in Kansas City became rundown and less traveled by the jazz greats.

Last year, Robert Altman’s film Kansas City brought national attention to the heyday of jazz in this Midwestern City. And recently, the city has spent more than $27 million attempting to rebuild and restore the famous neighborhood, including a Negro league baseball museum and revamping the famous Gem Theater. On Friday, the neighborhood had its reopening Kansas City style. This star-packed gala officially opened the doors to the nation’s largest jazz museum.

The museum is dedicated to the greats of the jazz world, with artifacts and exhibits celebrating those great music makers of the past. The museum also houses a new jazz club to bring back the Kansas City sound.

JIM LEHRER: Elizabeth Farnsworth takes the story from there. She does so from the Studios of KQED-San Francisco, which as of tonight becomes–when she’s not in Washington–the place from where she will regularly appear here on the NewsHour. Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Thanks, Jim. And now we go back to Kansas City for more on the jazz story and to Claude “Fiddler” Williams, one of a handful of musicians still active today, who helped develop the jazz style known as “swing” in the 1930′s. His latest CD, “Claude Williams, King of Kansas City,” was released this month. And to Chuck Haddix, archivist at the Marr Sound Archives, a collection of historic jazz recordings at the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He’s currently working on a book about the history of Kansas City jazz. Thank you both for being with us.

CHUCK HADDIX, Jazz Archivist: Well, it’s nice to be here with you, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Williams, you arrived in Kansas City in about 1928, right, with your violin and–

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS, Jazz Violinist: Right.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: –by the 30′s, you were playing with Count Basie. Tell us what it was like to be a musician there then. What was the scene like? Why did it produce so much great jazz?

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS: Well, Kansas City was jumping so good. I mean, and–just seemed like all the musicians would come through Kansas City on their way to Chicago or New York or farther East.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How–

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS: And just fine times.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Mr. Haddix, how would you explain Kansas City? How did Kansas City become so important in jazz? What was it about Kansas City, in your view?

CHUCK HADDIX: Well, Kansas City was the center for entertainment and commerce for points North, West, and South. This was a railroad hub, so if you wanted to get to points West you had to come through Kansas City. And there was a lot of prosperity here, even during the darkest days of the Depression. They had early kind of WPA projects.

The Municipal Auditorium was built in the 30′s, as was the county courthouse. Tom Pendergast owned the Readi-Mix concrete company, dropped a lot of concrete before he parted. And also, this–you know, being an entertainment center, this was a wide open town. That’s a kind of a cliche, but I think it would be more accurate to say it’s a 24-hour town.

There was lots of clubs for–there were lots of clubs for musicians to play. The entertainment district, 12th street, began downtown–it stretched East for miles. Prohibition was pretty much ignored, as were gambling laws. Claude tells a great story of how he first came here and watched ‘em shoot dice in the front window of the Lone Star, because it was a wide open town.

There was a red light district on 14th Street. And the prostitutes used to–the ladies of the night used to lounge in these storefront windows in lingerie and tap nickels on the glass to attract the patrons that would be walking by–the johns. This was known as the Paris of the Plains–not so much–well, partly because of the boulevards and the park system, but also because this was basically sin capital of the Midwest. And so this environment created a lot of jobs for musicians.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Claude Williams, tell us about the jam sessions and especially the jam sessions that took place in the Black Musicians Union. That was an important part of the scene, wasn’t it?

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS: Yes. Between the Musicians Union and the Lone Star, which was here on 12th Street, where Pete Johnson and Joe Turner–they come right out of Kansas City and took ‘em right to New York to star–those two.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And tell us how the jam sessions worked. It was different from what you’d done before, right, in Kansas City?

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS: Well, it was just like Pete and Joe and a drummer would start playing in the club, and you know, as long as they played, the bigger the band got. You know, as the musicians come by, they’d just join in and start jamming with the–and it might start out with like two or three of them and in the next hour it might be seven, eight, or ten up there playing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And is this how you started improvising too?

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS: Yes. Everybody had different ideas, but it seemed like they liked the Kansas City style more than others. That’s what was happening.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And, Chuck Haddix, do you have anything to add to that about improvisation and jamming?

CHUCK HADDIX: Yeah. You know, at places like the Sunset and the Lone Star and Wolf’s–what they call Wolf Buffet–they had these Blue Monday parties that would begin Sunday night at midnight and literally go all day on Monday. And since the musicians were off and a lot of the individuals in the community were involved in the service industry, they would all be available for these Blue Monday parties. And so that’s where the jams would happen.

And what they would do is on the bandstand, the band would set what they call a “rif.” Members of the band would set a rif, and that would provide the foundation for the soloist to work. A rif is a–it’s a melodic phrase stated in forceful rhythmic terms. It’s kind of an academic description of it. But what they would do is they would repeat that phrase and then the soloist would solo over that phrase. And they would rif–it would enable them to play songs–15-minute, hour-long songs. They’d jam on on “Honeysuckle Rose” and other popular songs of the day. And these were also cutting contests where aspiring musicians could test their mettle playing with the older, more experienced musicians.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mr. Williams, what happened to Kansas City’s jazz scene? I know there is still an important–I know there’s a large amount of jazz still–but it’s not like it was in the 30′s. When did it end and why?

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS: Well, when the– it’s in ’32– it’s hard times and tough times here in Kansas City–you know–as it went on, it got a little better for the musicians, you know, because back in ’32 the musicians, their regular scale note was $1.50 a night, you know. So as it went on, it got better than that.

CHUCK HADDIX: What happened was, is that there was a cleanup of a town, and reformers took over the town. And basically, they started closing down the clubs. And this is at the same time World War II broke out.

And because of the war, the musicians could no longer tour because there was a shortage of gasoline and also rubber used in tires. And the ranks were really decimated by the draft. And so you had that happen in the 40′s, and then after the war, Kansas City continued to be a stop on the circuit.

And there were rooms like the Orchid Room and the Mardi Gras, where Miles Davis used to play here, and it was a regular part of the circuit, but it didn’t contribute as much as it did during the 30′s, Kansas City did not contribute quite as much. But there were some fine players that still came out of here over the years. And fine players continue to come out of here.

The tradition continues. I mean, if you go down to 1823 Highland, at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, about 2 o’clock in the morning on Saturday night–the cats are still jamming down there. There’s a lot of world-class musicians still coming out of Kansas City: Kevin Mahogany, Karin Alison, Pat Matheny. And so Kansas City still continues to contribute to the development of jazz.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Haddix, Chuck Haddix, thanks for being with us, and Mr. Williams, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, thanks to you too.

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS: You’re welcome.

CHUCK HADDIX: Thank you very much.

CLAUDE “FIDDLER” WILLIAMS: Thank you.