Celebrating 100 years of jazz in Kansas City with a look back at its history

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — About 100 years ago, people flocked to Kansas City to listen to a burgeoning new style of music called jazz.

During the 1920s and 1930s, big band music gave way to bebop. The hard-swinging, bluesy sounds ushered in a new era of party and celebration music. Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Bennie Moten are just some of the names of the people who dominated the jazz movement in Kansas City.

Count Basie Orchestra | Wikipedia

Jazz originated in African-American communities, particularly in New Orleans. It developed from roots in both blues and ragtime.

The music genre has several unique features including: swing and bluesy notes, call and response vocals, various rhythms all at once, and improvisation.

Jazz is hailed as one of America’s original art forms, and it’s still alive in Kansas City today.

The earliest written record of the word is in a 1912 article in the Los Angeles Times. A minor league baseball pitcher described a pitch in a game once as a jazz ball “because it wobbles, and you simply can’t do anything with it.”

Jazz is difficult to define because it encompasses a range of music spanning a period of more than 100 years. Scholars have tried to define it by comparing it to other mediums like opera, classical art, and dance.

Big changes overtime 

A century has passed since jazz took over the clubs in Missouri. Kansas City has gone through a complete landscape change with new big venues, skyscrapers, and shopping malls.

The music scene has evolved just as much — if not more so.

Lizzo and Billie Eilish

Today, people listen to music whenever they please and through multiple streaming options. Post Malone, Lizzo and Billie Eilish topped the Billboard 100 Chart in 2019.

These musicians and a long list of others on the radio have used their talents to push platforms important to them such as body acceptance, climate change, immigration policy, and ending violence.

Performers in the past also used their talents to push the needle on issues big and small.

Music and the arts have the power to bridge cultural gaps, stop prejudices, empower the voiceless, and teach people about perspectives they never considered.

Jazz helped change the way people see each other and learn to cut loose and enjoy the moment.

The genre is an important part of Black History Month. The style of music created a sense of identity, originality and social cohesion among black musicians — and in a time before the Civil Rights movement kicked off.

But African-Americans have not always received credit where it’s due. It took time before they were celebrated for inventing jazz and helping it become popular. Several African-American musicians in the limelight labored for hours at their craft without receiving pay.

Golden jazz era in the Paris of the Plains

Kansas City is known as one of the most popular cradles of jazz. Other major jazz cities of the golden age include New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and New York City.

The Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra paved the way for Kansas City’s jazz scene.

White musicians made up the first group. Drummer Carleton Coon and pianist Joe Sanders founded the band. The orchestra began broadcasting their tunes in 1922 on clear channel station WDAF. They broadcast their songs at the Muehlebach Hotel. They called themselves the Nighthawks because they played their music late at night — around 11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m.

Their fan club swelled by 1924, some 37,000 members joined the club. The band encouraged fans to send in requests for songs by letter, telephone or telegram. Western Union set up a ticker tape between Sanders’ piano and Coon’s drums that way the telegrams could be acknowledged during the broadcasts.

The Kansas City jazz school was mostly made up of black bands. The original jazz groups played during the 1920s and 1930s. This includes bands led by Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk, Harlan Leonard and Jay McShann.

Kansas City in the 1930s was a crossroads in the United States where people of different backgrounds and cultures came together.

Some referred to the city as the Paris of the Plains. It was the last city before venturing into the wild west, it was the home of immigrants, a thriving barbecue community and a haven of new technologies.

Tom Pendergast Machine

Transcontinental trips by plane or train often required a stop in the City of Fountains.

The jazz era also marked the zenith of political boss Tom Pendergast’s reign. Several pubs and venues in Kansas City ignored prohibition rules and ran flashy speakeasies. Bar owners kept the alcohol coming for patrons; it was a city that never slept.

Most of the jazz musicians associated with Kansas City were born in other places, but they got caught up in the friendly musical competitions among performers in the Midwest.

Sometimes a band played a single song with slight variations for an entire night at a club. These songs were often unplanned, unwritten, and carefree.

Big bands would perform at regular venues early in the evening — and then those same musicians went to the jazz clubs later at night to jam into the morning hours.

Jazz pianist Jay McShann told the Associated Press in 2003:

“You’d hear some cat play, and somebody would say ‘This cat, he sounds like he is from Kansas City.’ It was Kansas City Style. They knew it on the East Coast. They knew it on the West Coast. They knew it up North, and they knew it down South.”

The unique Kansas City style

Jazz clubs popped up throughout the city during the 1920s. The most well-known spot was the inner-city neighborhood of 18th Street and Vine. An area that maintained the jazz feel into the present.

Kansas City style jazz has a more relaxed, fluid sound compared to other styles. Solos often broke out over the chaos of the improvised music, and this helped put the spotlight on some of the more well-known virtuosos.

Kansas City big bands usually played by memory, composing and arranging the music collectively. They didn’t rely on sight-reading as other big bands often did. This further contributed to the loose, spontaneous Kansas City sound and vibe.

Different parts of the band would create and elaborate on riffs. Sometimes one whole section would take the lead to create a new riff, other times a soloist took control, or two or more sections would riff in counterpart. This would create an upbeat hard-swinging sound.

Count Basie’s “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” are both collections of complex riffs, memorized loosely, and given clarity with solos.

Glenn Miller’s famous swing anthem “In the Mood” closely follows the Kansas City style of riffing sections.

Blues singers of the 1920s and ragtime music greatly influenced the Kansas City music scene. Performers gathered at dance halls, cabarets, and speakeasies.

In the early days, many jazz groups were smaller dance bands with three to six pieces. By the mid-1920s, the big band became a tour de force. Musicians traveled up to 1,000 miles to play music with others and to earn money.

Count Basie and the Bennie Moten band

Bennie Moten | Wikipedia

Kansas City went into the national music scene in 1936 when record producer John H. Hammond cemented his career with pianist Count Basie.

The musician first went to Harlem and played with others there; he toured around the country meeting big name celebrities like Louis Armstrong.

Before he was 20 years old, Basie toured extensively on the Keith and TOBA vaudeville circuits. He acted as a pianist, accompanist, and music director for blues singers, dancers, and comedians.

Count Basie | Wikipedia

In 1929, Basie became the pianist with the Bennie Moten band based in Kansas City. Critics called the band refined, and it was well-respected within the circuit.

Basie was co-arranger with Eddie Durham. During a stay in Chicago, Basie recorded with the band. He played four-hand piano and dual pianos with Moten, who also conducted.

When the band decided to kick out Moten with a vote, Basie took over leadership responsibilities for several months. He changed the name of the group to Count Basie and his Cherry Blossoms.

To keep things short and sweet, Count Basie later rejoined Moten with a newly re-organized band.

The spotlight on Charlie Park Jr.

Saxophonist Charlie Parker came into fame here in Kansas City in the 1930s.

Born and raised in Kansas City, Charlie Park Jr. lived in Westport near 15th and Olive Street. He left high school in December 1935, just before joining the local musicians’ union to pursue a career in music.

His childhood sweetheart and future wife, Rebecca Ruffin, graduated from Lincoln High School in June 1935.

Charlie Park Jr. | Wikipedia

Parker started playing the saxophone at age 11. His father, Charles Sr., had a background in music and dance; he was a singer on the T.O.B.A. circuit. A trombone player named Robert Simpson taught the younger Parker about improvisation.

In the mid-1930s, Parker practiced improvisation regularly. He developed some of the ideas that led to the later bebop movement. In an interview with American composer Paul Desmond, Parker said that he spent three to four years practicing up to 15 hours a day.

Bands led by Count Basie and Bennie Moten  influenced Parker. He played with local bands in jazz clubs.

In late spring 1936, Parker played at a jam session at the Reno Club in Kansas City. His attempt to improvise failed when he lost track of the chord changes. Jo Jones, the drummer for Count Basie’s Orchestra, threw a cymbal at his feet as a signal to leave the stage.

The moment didn’t shake up Parker. He decided to work harder and this propelled him to stardom.

In the fall of 1936, Parker traveled with a band from Kansas City to the Ozarks for the opening of Clarence Musser’s Tavern, just south of Eldon, Missouri.

Along the way, there was a car crash and Parker broke three ribs and fractured his spine. The crash led to Parker’s long-term troubles with pain killers and opioids, namely heroin. Parker struggled with drug addiction for the rest of his life.

Despite his near death experience on the way to the Ozarks, Parker returned to the area in 1937. He spent time there seriously developing his sound. In 1938, Parker joined pianist Jay McShann’s territory band. Parker made his professional recording début with McShann’s band.

Parker fervently played with quick speed on the saxophone. He introduced several innovations to the genre. He discovered revolutionary harmonic ideas including rapid passing chords, new variants of altered chords, and chord substitutions.

He had mastery of his tone on the sax. He could play smooth and clean, bold and crass, sweet and lovely, or somber and subdued. Parker acquired the nickname “Yardbird” early in his career on the road with Jay McShann.

The shortened “Bird” stuck with him for life.

The name inspired the titles of a number of his compositions, such as “Yardbird Suite,” “Ornithology,” “Bird Gets the Worm,” and “Bird of Paradise.”

The Great Depression and changing times

Throughout the Depression, Kansas City bands continued to play. This wasn’t the case in other cities.

Kansas City was shielded from some of the worst outcomes of the Depression. This was in part because of New-Deal style public works projects that provided jobs, particularly profitable jobs in railing and steamships, slaughterhouses and other developments.

The splurge of jobs allowed for a vibrant dance-oriented nightlife. Kansas City thrived during the dry times when other cities struggled to survive in the recession.

At one point, Kansas City had more than 100 night clubs, dance halls, and vaudeville houses.

Kansas City’s 12th Street became nationally known for its jazz clubs, gambling parlors and brothels; 12th Street alone had more than 50 jazz clubs.

Following the collapse of the Pendergast machine, jobs for musicians dried up and the bands took to the road. During World War II, the United States drafted many of the musicians. By 1944, the great Kansas City jazz era slowed to a crawl, but it didn’t entirely end.

Jazz tries to resurface in the 1970s, but gets thrown off track by mob activity

In the 1970s, Kansas City attempted a jazz comeback. Musicians were encouraged to play at wholesome and family friendly affairs. The city tried to create a jazz hub in the River Quay area along the Missouri River. Three clubs in the area were bombed during a mob war.

The FBI busted the Kansas City bosses for their involvement in the Tropicana Casino, dubbed Operation Strawman.

Agents wiretapped phones of reputed mobsters and their associates in Kansas City. From the evidence collected by taps and other eavesdropping in the late 1970s, the FBI discovered a huge conspiracy to skim money from the Tropicana Casino. Several people were indicated in multiple cities.

This led to the collapse of the Civella crime family in KC, which started from two Sicilian brothers when they moved to Kansas City in 1912. They had quickly benefited from crime operations, and then their fortunes massively grew during prohibition.

Operation Strawman led to the demise of mob influence on casinos. Some of the events were depicted in the 1995 movie Casino starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone, and Joe Pesci.

Jazz revival in the present

Music over the past couple of decades has come into a more family friendly sphere.

Each year Kansas City celebrates “Jazzoo” — a charity fundraiser dedicated to area jazz and raising funds for the zoo. The park currently has a giant initiative and dream to create a sizable aquarium. First, we’re getting a new and nicer view of the elephants.

In 2011, Jazzoo was one of the Nation’s largest charity fundraisers, raising over $800,000.

In 2003 the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra formed. Most of their concerts are held at the Kauffman Center of the Performing Arts.

In October 2017, UNESCO designated Kansas City, Missouri as a “Creative City” for its contributions to music.

Today, the 18th and Vine district includes: the Mutual Musicians Foundation, the Gem Theater, the long-time offices of African-American newspaper The Call, the Blue Room jazz club, the American Jazz Museum, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Smaxx Restaurant, a restaurant inside the Juke House and Blues Club, and several apartments and condos.

The American Jazz Museum hosts events regularly to promote music. It also offers jazz music education to young students.

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