There were but four major galaxies in the early jazz universe, and three of them — New Orleans, Chicago, and New York — have been well documented in print. But there has never been a serious history of the fourth, Kansas City, until the recent publication of Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop — A History, by Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix.
In this colorful history, Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix explain the Kansas City that was once a neon riot of bars, gambling dens and taxi dance halls, all ruled over by Boss Tom Pendergast, who had transformed a dusty cowtown into the Paris of the Plains. From ragtime to bebop and from Bennie Moten to Charlie Parker, Kansas City Jazz successfully captures the essence of Kansas City’s golden age, when this wide-open, gin-soaked town gave birth to a music that was more basic and more viscerally exciting than other styles of jazz — its singers belting out a rough-and-tumble urban style of blues, and its piano players pounding out a style later known as “boogie-woogie.” The great landmarks like the Reno Club, the “Biggest Little Club in the World,” where Lester Young and Count Basie made jazz history, and Charlie Parker began his musical education in the alley out back play a big part in this book, as do the lives of the great musicians who made Kansas City swing.#
Haddix talks about Kansas City’s unique influence on jazz and American culture in a September 30, 2005 interview with Jerry Jazz Musician publisher Joe Maita.
photo Driggs Collection
Downtown Kansas City in the 1920s
“We came to the corner of Eighteenth Street and wham! Everything along that street was lit up like klieg lights. It was one of the most fantastic sights I’ve ever seen in my life. We turned right there. We didn’t figure that we needed to go any further on Troost. There were joints all lit up and going full blast on both sides of the street for several blocks. One of the first places I remember seeing was the Yellow Front Saloon. Another was the Sawdust Trail. And everywhere you went, there was at least a piano player and somebody singing, if not a combo or maybe a jam session. There was so much going on that I couldn’t believe my eyes or ears all of those joints along that strip were wide open, and there were ambulances and police cars with sirens just sitting out there ready to roll…the action was greater than anything I ever heard of.”
– Count Basie
Clouds, by Andy Kirk and the Twelve Clouds of Joy
JJM You wrote, “Located in the heart of America, straddling the state line between Kansas and Missouri, Kansas City at first glance appears to be an unlikely location for the development of a unique jazz style.” How was Kansas City transformed from a cow town into the “Paris of the Plains?
CH Quite a few factors came into play. Kansas City is strategically located in the confluence of the Kansas and the Missouri rivers, and because of this it became a business center early on. It was also the point of departure for all three of the wagon trails west, which meant there was a lot of movement of goods moving in that direction, and raw materials going east. Also, the city fathers jockeyed ahead of the other local towns to establish the first railroad bridge across the Missouri River, which made Kansas City a railroad hub in the late eighteen-hundreds. The businesses in the city were quite diverse, from the large meat packing industry to the ragtime publishing center Kansas City became nationally known as at the turn of the century.
The city was under the control of a political machine headed by Tom Pendergast, and under his watch vice and corruption thrived. In addition to being a business center, Kansas City was now an entertainment center, attracting musicians to the city who could make a living by playing in clubs on Twelfth Street and in the theaters. It transformed Kansas City into a cosmopolitan center of theaters, opera houses, and nightclubs.
JJM So, as head of the local Democratic Party, Pendergast was able to control state politics during Prohibition?
CH Yes, and state officials looked the other way while liquor flowed freely. On top of this, there was a red light district on Fourteenth Street and gambling all over town, so Kansas City was a twenty-four hour town at that time.
JJM What bands and musicians first established Kansas City’s reputation as a music center?
CH Kansas City’s reputation as a music center was originally established by the ragtime publishing houses in town. Kansas City’s address was on all the music that people bought. In fact, “Twelfth Street Rag” — which was dedicated to the city’s bustling Twelfth Street — was one of the most famous rags. A lot of work was created from the ragtime publishing industry, and musicians came to play in the theaters and clubs. The earliest band to really establish Kansas City’s reputation was the Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra, and they did so with late night radio broadcasts from the Plantation Grill in the Hotel Muehlebach. These programs, aired on WDAF, could be picked up from Maine to Hawaii, so people all across the country became aware of Kansas City as a music destination.
JJM The bandleader Eddie Kuhn brought saxophonist Loren McMurray into Kansas City…
CH Yes. Eddie Kuhn, with Loren McMurray on saxophone, and Paul Tremaine’s Aristocrats of Rhythm were the early white bands that helped establish Kansas City’s reputation. McMurray was one of the country’s first saxophone virtuosos. Unfortunately, he died very young, and he was little known until Frank Driggs and I told his story in our book.
JJM Why was it that the early white musicians received so little credit for establishing Kansas City’s reputation as a jazz center?
CH For one thing, they were basically dance bands that played a little jazz. Also, they did not play jazz in the distinctive Kansas City style. Instead, they played a highly orchestrated style of jazz that was modeled after Ben Bernie and some of the other early white dance bands. So, these bands were never really associated with Kansas City’s distinctive sound.
JJM Their sound was more typical of what was heard from an orchestra like Paul Whiteman’s?
CH Yes, they were highly orchestrated and played for dancers. They did play some jazz, and in fact helped define the jazz age, but they didn’t play a distinctive Kansas City style of music. These orchestras could have come from anywhere, really.
JJM What was the distinctive Kansas City jazz sound, and how did it originate?
CH The Kansas City jazz sound and style evolved out of ragtime, the blues, and band music. With the ragtime you get the syncopation, with the blues you get the feel, and with the band music you get the virtuosity, musicality and arrangements needed to perform the music.
JJM The music coming out of Kansas City was substantially different from the music coming out of New Orleans and Chicago, wasn’t it?
CH Yes. Kansas City jazz evolved along original lines. There was a direct connection between the music of New Orleans and Chicago, but not of New Orleans and Kansas City. Most of the musicians of New Orleans — like Louis Armstrong and King Oliver, for example — migrated to Chicago, not to Kansas City. But the Kansas City artists were well aware of the New Orleans style because of the recordings they had access to. The Winston Holmes Music Company, located on Eighteenth Street, was the only “Negro” music house in town, and he carried a wide variety of recordings, including those by the early jazz greats of New Orleans. So the influence of New Orleans was there, it was just not as direct as Chicago.
JJM The Kansas City sound assumed a more urban style of blues…
CH Blues informed the early Kansas City jazz style considerably. It is really an orchestral expression of the blues, but it also accompanied blues singers. Ada Brown was one of the first to record Kansas City jazz, accompanied by Bennie Moten’s orchestra, and Mary Bradford was a great blues shouter who worked in Kansas City at the time. You can also hear the blues in Moten’s recordings of “Elephant’s Wobble” and “Crawdad Blues.”
JJM Was Moten’s among the first of Kansas City’s bands introduced to a national audience?
CH Yes. He was the first to take the Kansas City style to the East Coast. The great goal of Kansas City bands — beginning with Moten and continuing on through Jay McShann and Charlie Parker — was to go to New York and make it there, because that was where the entertainment center was, of course, and that is where many of the jobs were. In Kansas City, Moten could work at the Pla-Mor Ballroom, the El Torreon Ballroom, and Paseo Hall, but he really couldn’t gig every night, so he had to get out into the territories and to New York, where there were many ballrooms they could play in.
Moten’s trip was supported by his record company, Victor, a major national label who, in addition to selling records, would underwrite the tours of their artists. He returned to the East Coast on a number of occasions, and the audiences liked him because his sound differed from that of the bands of the East, notably Duke Ellington’s and Fletcher Henderson’s. It’s accented beat was known as the “Western Style,” which was a very distinctive sound.
JJM It has been said that Moten made the mistake of abandoning his style by trying to emulate the bands of Ellington and Henderson.
CH While he was influenced by the Eastern bands, ultimately he transcended those influences to create a hard, swinging Kansas City style that was anchored by a driving rhythm section and powered by Walter Page’s walking bass. In addition to that, the sections were riffing against each other for counterpoint, and the sections were riffing against the soloist in what became an orchestral call and response. All of this was played using head arrangements, which means the musicians played from memory. It created a hard, swinging style that was the hallmark of the Kansas City sound. This was in 1932, three years before Benny Goodman.
JJM Moten hired Eddie Durham as arranger after his battle with the orchestra led by George E. Lee, so, there was some precedent for arranging.
CH Yes, there was. One of the problems Moten had early on was that he didn’t have an arranger, and to address this he hired Durham in order to modernize the band so it could compete with the Eastern bands on their own terms.
JJM You talked earlier about how the Kansas City bands had to go out and play in other parts of the country. At the same time, there was a great deal of interest among the national bands to play the great ballrooms of Kansas City. How did these ballrooms help establish Kansas City as a stop for national bands?
CH The country was dance crazy during the twenties. The Pla-Mor Ballroom — known as the “Million Dollar Ballroom” – -opened on Thanksgiving, 1927. It was located on the corner of Linwood and Main, and it was actually an entertainment complex that also included an ice arena and a bowling alley, with the ballroom being upstairs. The El Torreon Ballroom, on Thirty-first and Gillham Road, opened the following month, giving Kansas City two major ballrooms within walking distance of each other. These venues gave the great bands a place to play on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday they would play at Paseo Hall, which was a big dance hall on Fifteenth and Paseo that held one thousand, five hundred dancers. They played there on Sunday because many of the local African Americans didn’t have to work on Monday.
JJM Did any of the nightclubs cater to an integrated audience?
CH Yes, a number of them were “black and tan” clubs — the Sunset, the Lone Star and the Reno among them. In these clubs, the African Americans were usually up in the balcony while the whites were down on the dance floor. The Reno Club, by all accounts, was integrated.
JJM Once the ballrooms opened, the territory bands began coming to Kansas City
CH Yes. Andy Kirk first arrived in July of 1929. He played the Pla-Mor, liked what he saw of the rest of the area, and ended up staying in Kansas City. The Blue Devils came here also, and Jesse Stone’s Blue Serenaders played regularly at Paseo Hall. That kind of sparked the great orchestra wars of the twenties and thirties. Stone would come to town and engage in musical skirmishes with George E. Lee at Paseo Hall, with one orchestra on a bandstand on one side of the hall, and the other at the bandstand at the opposite side. They would alternate sets, and the winner would be determined by the sound of the audience clapping. These were quite spirited affairs, and the band’s honor was usually at stake. At times the winner would get, for example, a summer engagement at Fairyland Park.
JJM You wrote, “The battles at the musician balls were usually waged in the spirit of a Texas death match in professional wrestling, more for show than blood, but the contest between Moten and Lee assumed deeper meaning.” Can you describe this 1929 battle between Moten and Lee?
CH Their rivalry dated back ten years. Moten’s had always been the top band of Kansas City, and Lee was always slow to catch up. To deal with this, Lee hired Jesse Stone — who was a brilliant arranger — to modernize the band’s sound. Lee subsequently defeated Moten at a battle of the bands at the Frog Hop in St. Joseph’s, Missouri, which called into question Moten’s status as the top-ranked orchestra in Kansas City, and actually caused Moten to reassess what he was doing as a bandleader. They later met at Paseo Hall in the battle you asked about. There was a lot at stake, and while no winner was declared, at least Moten maintained parity with Lee.
JJM Moten and Lee were two very different personalities, weren’t they?
CH Yes. Moten was a good businessman and a good bandleader who was very generous with his band financially and encouraged their creativity. Lee was just the opposite — while he was a talented saxophonist and vocalist, he was a very stingy bandleader. He alienated many of the musicians who passed through his band, even going as far as fining his own sister for violations. He wasn’t as creative as Moten and didn’t foster creativity from his band. Because he was an overbearing leader, his band suffered from constant turnover, whereas Moten led a very stable organization.