Kansas City: Jazz And Gangsters

The jazz scene in Kansas City between 1918-1938 was incredible. Musicians from the Midwest and South pursued work with many of the big bands that resided in or  toured Kansas City. The reasons for this migration of musicians were:

  • Constant work. Illegal gambling and the anti-prohibition stance of the city’s (and state’s!) politicians made Kansas City one of the premier tourist destinations of this era. Jazz was the popular music. Swing Dancing was the premier social activity. Club owners were always hiring jazz musicians to lure patrons into their businesses. Steady work was always found in Kansas City.
  • Great Musicians! Constant opportunities to perform in Kansas City led to an influx of great jazz talent. Musicians like Lester Young, Count Basie, Buster Smith and “Papa” Jo Jones all relocated to  Kansas City in the 1920s-30s. Other musicians, like Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster, developed heightened levels of fame for participating in famous jam sessions there. Future jazz stars, like Charlie Parker and Bob Brookmeyer, spent their formative years listening to, and studying with the K.C. jazz icons.
  • Less Racial Tension. Many of the musicians that migrated to Kansas City came from areas of Texas and the south that were still experiencing extensive racial tension. Tom Pendergast, the “boss” of Kansas City, was very progressive in his views of racial tolerance and pushed for equality. Especially with those who worked under him, musicians included. Musicians were generally treated very well, and were protected by club owners and law enforcement.
  • New Music. Musicians from Kansas City were very progressive. New styles and approaches were developed in jazz and popular music during this era. Boogie-woogie  was established in K.C. and is an important precursor to Rock N’Roll. Composer/arranger Jesse Stone became famous writing and leading jazz bands in Kansas City before becoming a significant Rock N’Roll writer and producer. Joe Turner, a singer and “blues-shouter”, was a popular performer with Kansas City bands in the 1930s before he (with Stone) helped pioneer Rock N’Roll with recordings of songs like “Shake, Rattle and Roll”. Lester Young and Count Basie e modernized the jazz movement with performances that prioritized the soloist over the melody. In the 1920s, solo’s were typically very short and not necessarily a significant part of the composition. “Jones-Smith Incorporated” (featuring Young and Basie) is one of the first recorded examples of soloists playing extended solos, an emphasis on improvisation over melody, that would become one of the focal points of be-bop and later jazz styles.

Kansas City was a very special place during this time. Unfortunately, when Pendergast was arrested in 1938 it all came to screeching halt. Without the constant work from clubs that made their money illegally, musicians were out of work and had to find other venues, in other cities to make their music.

Me and several peers have spent a lot of time researching the lives and music of many Kansas City musicians. I will continue to update this page with interesting things we learn along the way.

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