Monday, June 8, 2009

Missouri Jazz Legends

The central importance of Kansas City in the development of American Jazz is widely recognized and has been documented in excellent fashion in the exhaustive study "Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop, A History," (2006) by Frank Diggs and Charles Haddix. Also, Kansas City native Robert Altman's classic gangster film "Kansas City" successfully captures the pulse of the city in the thirties and forties by focusing on the intersection of race, music and politics during the Pendergast era, a period that coincided with the apex of the city's unique jazz scene. Ken Burn's has also contributed by examining the city's central role as a musical forging ground in his larger documentary devoted to American Jazz. Known as the hub city for the traveling "Territory Bands" from Texas and Oklahoma, Kansas City was the center of U.S. jazz scene up until the second world war. What has been lost to many is the number of local musicians who participated in the development of the "Kansas City Sound" that became the springboard for the development of Bop Jazz that emerged after the war in the late 1940's.

While the list of local Missouri musicians who participated directly in the Kansas City Jazz scene is too long to analyze, a few of the more notable and also somewhat forgotten musicians deserves mention here. Without the efforts of Kansas City's own pianist Bennie Moten and his Kansas City Orchestra and later, with his Blue Devils it is difficult to envision the movement unfolding as it did. Jimmy Rushing, Hot Lips Page and Ben Webster all played with Bennie at various stages. Listen to Bennie with the Orchestra here with Count Basie from 1929, a tune that retains echoes of New Orleans Jazz yet also demonstrates the emerging blusier Kansas City style. Jones Law Blues is another fine example of the same dynamic. Bassist Walter Page, from the small town of Gallatin in northern Missouri, played for Moten until joining Count Basie in a series of bands. Page is instrumental in the development of Kansas City swing as a bassist during the 1930's. Listen to this extraordinary recording from 1940 of Page with Basie, Lester Young and the legendary Charlie Christian on guitar. The trend here is to smaller combos with "riffing" improvisational solos for each musician.

Another fascinating Missouri figure from the 1940's is the blues and proto R&B singer Julia Lee from Fulton, Missouri. One of her classic "double entendre" hits was King Size Papa, recorded with session musicians Jay McShann on piano and Benny Carter on alto. Julia's recordings are unique in that they combine elements of the Kansas City sound, the jump blues of the forties and anticipate early rock n roll. Check out her Julia's Blues, with the same great supporting cast.

Often overlooked is the fact that perhaps the two most important pioneers of modern jazz saxophone hail from Missouri as well. Coleman Hawkins, from Saint Joseph and Ben Webster of Kansas City are widely regarded as the grandfathers of jazz sax. The "Hawk's" huge influence on almost all subsequent tenor players cannot be overestimated. Check out the majestically smooth ballad "Angel Face" for a step back into noir film from the 1940's. Webster is never far behind the Hawk, give a listen to to the range and blusier feel in Poutin from the early sixties.

Other Missouri jazz pioneers include Wild Bill Davis and Jimmy Lunceford. Davis, from the small town of Glasgow on the Missouri River, is generally credited with being one of the first to incorporate the organ as a jazz instrument, establishing a tradition that was perpetuated by master Jimmy Smith and today by the unrivaled king of jazz organ, Joey DeFrancesco. Listen to Davis' smooth touch on April in Paris after a special introduction by Duke Ellington. Lunceford, from Fulton, was a contemporary of the Kansas City Jazz scene yet chose to work elsewhere, primarily the East Coast. Jimmy's Swing band Orchestra rivaled those of Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Count Basie and was noted for extravagant live performances and exceedingly tight arrangements. Listen to Jimmy's Orchestra perform the incredible Jazznocracy from 1934. Very nice work by tenor player Joe Thomas.

Finally, any mention of Missouri jazz stars would have to include Charlie,"Bird" Parker," born in 1920 in Kansas City. After work with Kansas City's own Jay McShann's Territory Band, he moved to New York to work with master pianist Art Tatum and later with Earl Hines. Parker's is now a story of legend and here I will only say that together with Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie, Parker has to be considered a founding father of Be Bop jazz. Listen to "Bird" and fellow Missourian "Hawk" (Coleman Hawkins) soar together here on Ballade.


  1. Great stuff...Clark Terry...Charlie Hayden...Pat Metheny....a few other worthys

  2. SO true Jack, Terry should have been in there. Thanks for stopping by.

  3. An interesting addenda on this post: Upon conversing with a close friend about why Kansas City became the jazz center it was, he correctly pointed out that during the Pendergast era municipal controls of the club scene were essentially non-existent, creating a wide open, all night, "cuttin session" atmosphere that lent itself to the jazz scene that thrived in the politically corrupt city.