JJM The Blue Devils were one of the most significant territory bands. What was their sound like compared to that of Moten’s band?
CH The style and sound of the Blue Devils really informed what the Moten band eventually became. The Blue Devils were led by a bass player, Walter Page, who played a string bass that could be heard above the orchestra. He was a pioneer of the instrument, having developed the walking bass line technique for jazz music. His playing and their driving rhythm section set the tone for the entire band. Also, the Blue Devils were the first territorial band to use pronounced riffs, played by some of the greatest musicians anywhere; Page, Count Basie, Eddie Durham, “Hot Lips” Page, and Buster Smith were all members of the band. They had real thick books because a number of arrangers worked for the band. So, while they were not as well documented as Moten’s band, it was clearly the sharper band, which is why Moten coveted members of the Blue Devils. At one point he even announced that he had taken over the Blue Devils, but it was a little premature. In the end, though, he picked them off one by one, and once they were in his band, he absorbed the Blue Devils style.
JJM Count Basie was one of the Blue Devils who left to join Moten…
CH That’s right, and Basie actually hadn’t heard a big band before he heard the Blue Devils. Although he was in the band for just a short while, he used to say, “Once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil,” so he was always a Blue Devil in his heart.
photo Driggs Collection
“There was such a team spirit among those guys, and it came out in the music, and you were part of it. Everything about them really got to me, and as things worked out, hearing them that day was probably the most important turning point in my musical career so far as my notions about what kind of music I really wanted to try to play was concerned.”
– Count Basie
Blue Devil Blues, by Walter Page’s Blue Devils (Jimmy Rushing, vocals)
Tickle Toe, by Count Basie
Limehouse Blues, by Hot Lips Page
Harvard Blues, by the Count Basie Band
Lester Leaps In, by Count Basie’s Kansas City Seven (Lester Young, saxophone)
JJM What led to Basie taking over Moten’s band?
CH He took over the band, but not directly after Moten’s death. Basie didn’t particularly like working with Bus Moten, Bennie’s brother, and felt things weren’t the same after Bennie’s death. While he was close to Bennie, he wasn’t quite as close to Bus, and felt that the band was headed for a musical dead end. He wanted to move on, and did so by going into the Reno Club. Once there, he began bringing in the former Blue Devils who didn’t want to stay in Bus Moten’s band. One by one, Basie brought in former members of the Blue Devils and of Moten’s band to the Reno Club, which resulted in the formation of his great nine-piece band.
JJM It was at the Reno Club where he introduced the spook breakfast parties…
CH Yes, they were something he remembered from his days in Harlem. The “spook” referred to the late night hours of the jam sessions, which would begin at four o’clock Sunday morning and continue all day Monday. These would later be known as Blue Monday parties, which is a tradition that continues in Kansas City.
JJM You write, “As the Depression ravaged the entertainment industry nationally, Kansas City managed to hold its own as the entertainment Mecca of the Midwest. The Depression actually enriched Kansas City’s musical stock.”
CH Yes, it did. The Depression did take its toll on the great territorial bands from Texas and Oklahoma — an area that was hit particularly hard because the dust bowl blew away all financial opportunities. Many of the musicians from those areas came to Kansas City and joined local 627, and their presence really enriched Kansas City’s musical style. Kansas City did fine during The Depression — the liquor flowed unabated during Prohibition, the red light district was open for business, and there were as many as fifty clubs between Twelfth and Eighteenth Streets, which created plenty of work for musicians.
Corruption and vice were specific undertakings in Kansas City during this time. Drug stores had a slot machine on the counter, and there were Keno parlors and speakeasy’s as well. This sort of activity was going on all over the city. Tom Pendergast was a saloon owner, and he was a gambler, so he fought to advance those things in Kansas City. Since Pendergast’s political machine controlled the police department, they looked the other way during Prohibition.
JJM An interesting person who came in and out of your story was the journalist Dave Dexter, who was a young man in his early twenties while all of this was going on.
CH Yes, he was really the champion of Kansas City jazz, bringing it to the nation’s attention. Dave was a Kansas City native, having grown up in the northeast section. He was a writer for the Journal-Post, which was the local democratic paper. He started out writing obituaries, and worked his way up to writing nightclub notes, which allowed him to cover the music scene all over town during its heyday. Kansas City jazz received very little, if any, national press before 1935. Moten had gone east but nobody was writing about the Kansas City music scene in a major publication. When Downbeat started in 1935, he wrote about Kansas City jazz in it, and did so in Metronome as well. His contributions to these publications is when the rest of country was first made aware of what was happening in Kansas City.
JJM It sounds as if Dexter may have goaded John Hammond into coming to Kansas City.
CH Yes. He and Hammond both contributed to Downbeat, and in July of 1935, Dexter challenged Hammond to come to Kansas City to check out the Count Basie band at the Reno Club. Once he threw the gauntlet down publicly, it made other promoters like Milt Glaser aware of what was happening in Kansas City. As a result, Hammond really had to come, and when he did, he absolutely fell in love with the Basie band, and began working on his behalf — using his contacts with booking firms and the record labels to bring Basie to the national forefront. He was ultimately undercut by Jack Kapp and Decca Records before he could record Basie, but he worked tirelessly to bring the band along.
JJM And there was the Benny Goodman connection as well.
CH Yes, Goodman was Hammond’s brother-in-law, and Goodman also helped with Basie’s career — it was his nod that got Basie the contract with the Willard Alexander Agency. Goodman was also the one who breached the color barrier, having brought Lionel Hampton and Teddy Wilson into his group. When he played at Carnegie Hall, he invited Basie and members of his band to sit in, which really helped established Basie’s career, as well as define Kansas City jazz as a distinct form.
JJM What was Jay McShann’s introduction to Kansas City?
CH He came to Kansas City by accident. He was on his way to Omaha to see his uncle, and while taking the bus here, stopped off to check out the Basie band at the Reno Club, but instead found Bus Moten on the bandstand. This was in late 1936, after Basie left town. The bassist Billy Hadnott convinced Jay to stay, and he did, settling right into the bright lights, having a ball.
JJM Dave Dexter was a big fan of McShann’s but not of Charlie Parker’s. Why?
CH Dexter really liked McShann. Jay played a gig at the Monroe Inn on Independence Avenue in the northeast section of town, not far from where Dexter lived with his parents. He would stop by and check Jay out. He recognized his potential and wrote about it in his Metronome column, which really helped McShann’s career along. Unfortunately, Dexter did not like Charlie Parker. While he admired him and his music, and wrote that he could charm the leaves off the trees, he didn’t like him personally. Evidently, they had a run-in where Parker, according to local legend, gave Dexter a “hotfoot,” and Dexter never forgave him for it. But it may not have mattered anyway because Dexter didn’t really like bebop. He was kind of an old-school cat.
JJM When you think of Kansas City jazz, you can’t help but think of Parker and the impact he made on music…
CH He started playing when he was still in short pants. Mary Lou Williams remembers squiring Charlie to gigs — along with Mary Kirk, Andy Kirk’s wife — and he was still in short pants at the time, probably around twelve or thirteen years old. He gigged around town at that age, playing in small combos in joints owned by Felix Payne. He became a professional musician in 1935, after joining a group called the Ten Chords of Rhythm, led by Lawrence Keyes, who was a friend of his from Lincoln High School. So, he began his professional career literally when he was fifteen years old. He joined the union and left school in December of 1935 because he knew he wanted to be a professional musician.
The bar was set very high at the time because there were so many great alto and tenor players in town — Lester Young and Buster Smith were both there, playing with the Basie band, and Dick Wilson and Budd Johnson were also around then. These musicians set a pretty high standard, and it is important to remember that Bird was only fifteen years old at the time all this was going on. By the time he was sixteen, after about a year of apprenticeship, of playing in jam sessions, and after Jo Jones’ rebuke of him and his subsequent retreat to Musser’s Ozark Tavern near Eldon, Missouri, he had become a musically changed man.
Bird’s story is one of the more interesting aspects of the book, really, because so much of what has been written about Bird and Kansas City is wrong. He was actually a big star in Kansas City as a member of the Harlan Leonard band, and was advertised as “Little Charlie Parker, saxophonist.” So, he was very well known and well respected within the musical community. He did move around quite a bit, and played at Greenleaf Gardens on Twelfth Street before joining the Ten Chords of Rhythm, who eventually folded in early 1936. After that he went back to work in the clubs, played a short stint with Jay McShann and eventually landed with the Harlan Leonard band. The work with Leonard didn’t last, which is when he went to New York. Legend has it, however, that he went to New York and made his musical breakthrough, when in fact he had actually already made it in Kansas City, and where he had already been experimenting with the harmonic changes that would lead to bebop. The old cats here called it “crazy music.” On his way to New York he stopped in Chicago and played at Club 65 with a borrowed saxophone, where he proceeded to just blow everybody away, according to Billy Eckstine. He was already a fully formed musician when he left Kansas City.
JJM Ultimately the climate that spawned much of the creativity in Kansas City was scrutinized by politicians whose political agenda was in opposition to that of Tom Pendergast’s. How did the musicians of Kansas City become the casualties of the cultural war between Pendergast and Missouri governor Lloyd Stark?
CH Stark was from eastern Missouri, where he owned an apple orchard. In 1936, Pendergast helped get Stark elected governor, but once he took office, Stark turned on Pendergast because he had aspirations for the Senate. Stark was a bit of a zealot, and as governor embarked on a mission to clean up Kansas City and the state of Missouri. Pendergast was able to fend him off for a while, but eventually Stark joined forces with J. Edward Hoover and the local district attorney Maurice Milligan in an effort to clean the city up. Pendergast was indicted on income tax evasion and the political machine fell apart at that point, and the cleanup began in earnest, eliminating some of the work for the musicians. Clubs had to close at midnight, which cut their profits and caused owners to replace musicians with jukeboxes. Many of the musicians had to find day jobs, and many others moved out of Kansas City. It put a damper on the Kansas City jazz scene, which changed the tone of the entire city.
JJM I can’t help but wonder if this cleanup was motivated because many of the central characters of the Kansas City culture were black?
CH Yes, you are absolutely right, and African Americans were an easy target at the time.
JJM It could also be that the culture they were popularizing was looked upon as a threat by the Lloyd Stark’s and J. Edgar Hoover’s of the world, and it inspired them to shut it down. Perhaps if the Coon-Sanders Orchestra was at the center of the Kansas City entertainment culture rather than the bands of Jay McShann and Harlan Leonard, they would have looked the other way.
CH The cleanup was concentrated on Twelfth Street and in the Eighteenth and Vine area. There were a few safe havens in what they called “out in the county,” which was beyond Seventy-fifth Street and outside the city limits. The clubs there — primarily white — were kind of spared.
JJM Was there ever an attempt made at reviving the clubs?
CH The clubs rebounded in the forties, when a number of them sprang up. Scott’s Dinner Playhouse at Eighteenth and Highland was a very popular club, and the site of the Cherry Blossom became the Chez Paris. The El Capitan returned to Eighteenth Street, and other clubs returned to Twelfth Street, and there was Tootie’s Mayfair on Highway 40, and there was the Half-a-Hill Tavern. This continued through the sixties, and actually the scene is vibrant today as well.
JJM What is at the intersection of Eighteenth and Vine today?
CH The American Jazz Museum is there, and the Lincoln Building is still there. A vital part of Kansas City remains at that junction.
JJM Do people have a good understanding of Kansas City’s role in the history of American music?
CH We could certainly do a better job in celebrating Kansas City jazz, and understanding Kansas City’s contribution to the development of music in general. If you think of it, ragtime came out of Kansas City, as did the blues, swing music, bebop, and Joe Turner — who had a great deal of influence on rock and roll. So many different genres of music have been influenced by the Kansas City style.
photo Driggs Collection
Famous Kansas City location, 18th and Vine, 1940’s
“Don’t hang your head when you see those six pretty horses pullin’ me.
Put a twenty-dollar silver piece on my watch chain,
Look at the smile on my face,
And sing a little song to let the world know I’m really free.
Don’t cry for me, ’cause I’m going to Kansas City.”
– Music by Charlie Parker and lyrics by King Pleasure, “Parker’s Mood,” 1953
From Ragtime to Bebop — A History
Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix
About Chuck Haddix
JJM Who was your childhood hero?
CH My childhood hero was Ray Charles. It was through Ray that I first heard soul music and became introduced to African American music forms.
Chuck Haddix is the Director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. A native of Kansas City, he hosts a weekend radio program on KCUR FM called “Fish Fry.” His writing has appeared in Down Beat and Living Blues.
Chuck Haddix products at Amazon.com
Frank Driggs products at Amazon.com
This interview took place on September 30, 2005
If you enjoyed this interview, you may want to read our interview with William Kenney, author of Jazz on the River.
# A portion of the text from publisher.