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Improvising History: Jazz in Kansas City

by Michael Vinson

In the spring of 1935, the setting of Carter’s Way, Kansas City’s African-American community mourned the loss of respected jazz band leader Bennie Moten. One of the most prominent members of his community, Moten was given the largest, most elaborate funeral the city had seen in twenty years. As the Kansas City Call reported, “Many who were unable to gain entrance into the church formed a line on both sides of the street for blocks to view the procession as it passed. Many who stood on the sidewalks as the funeral cortege crawled by wept openly.” During Moten’s tenure, Kansas City had grown from a small, dusty town into a swinging artistic hotbed, home to talented performers who would later become dominant, iconic forces synonymous with the Kansas City jazz brand. Jay McShann, Walter Page, Count Basie and Charlie Parker all found their voices in “Kay Cee.” Situated outside of the cultural mainstream, both figuratively and literally, Kansas City was well positioned to have a distinctive musical style evolve and mature organically, unfettered by artistic proclivities prevalent in New York and Los Angeles. The convergence of three significant socio-economic and geo-political factors led to the cultivation Kansas City jazz: the expansion of a muscular, manipulative (and, ultimately, corrupt) political power structure, the emergence of a large, unified African-American community rooted in Southern mores and the systematic development of young, innovative artists. Throughout the twenty years prior to Moten’s death, Kansas City was able to avoid many of the economic calamities wrought by the Great Depression on the rest of the nation. The chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Club, Thomas J. “Boss” Pendergast, maintained his powerful political base by openly tolerating, even enabling, the gangsters, gamblers and pimps who relied on nightclubs, taverns and dance halls for their livelihood – venues that regularly hired promising, inventive musicians to keep the crowds entertained. During Pendergast's regime, there were at least 120 nightclubs and over 300 bars in the “wide-open” city but there was not one felony conviction for violation of prohibition statutes. Though Pendergast had no discernible active interest in or engagement with Kansas City’s burgeoning jazz culture, the economic vitality his corrupt regime afforded Kansas City provided the incubation necessary for the development of its vibrant artistic community. Jazz culture, particularly within African-American community, was able to flourish because the political and socio-economic conditions supported and sustained it. Kansas City's African-American community experienced a series of paradigmatic shifts during this period, as well. From 1910 to 1930, the Black population nearly doubled, swelling from 25,000 to almost 50,000. Cities throughout the North and Midwest experienced similar population booms as millions of African-Americans fled the Deep South, a phenomenon known as the Great Migration. Many Blacks were eager to escape both de facto and legal Jim Crow practices while still more, mostly sharecroppers, were compelled to migrate due to a boll weevil infestation of cotton fields. Others found themselves homeless after the 1927’s Great Mississippi Flood. Additionally, factories in the North and Midwest heavily recruited African-Americans to relocate in order to supplement the labor force following the passage of post-World War I anti-immigration laws, which limited the number of European workers. Many Black musicians found their way to Kansas City by way of the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), the largest Black vaudeville circuit in the county, of which Kansas City was the stop. Due to the steady work that could be found, countless TOBA musicians decided to stay, including William Basie, who later became known as “Count” Basie while serving as the pianist in Moten’s band. Despite the move from the Jim Crow South, Blacks were still confronted with segregation and widespread discrimination in Kansas City. Threats of violence and political maneuvering forced African-Americans to live exclusively in one area. Bomb threats against African-Americans attempting to move into White neighborhoods were routinely reported to the Call and there was at least one proposal to tear down 62 African-American homes in order to build a park that would serve as a buffer zone between Black and White neighborhoods. The situation was not unlike what was occurring at the time in Chicago, where African-Americans were restricted to live in the so-called “Black Belt.” In Kansas City, separate meant anything but equal; the economic disparities between the Black and White neighborhoods were striking. In 1912, the White per capita real-estate wealth was $543.69. For Blacks it was $59.40. As a result, the African-American community developed a strong sense of racial pride and unity in the face of this discrimination. Blacks built their own civic organizations, businesses, and institutions, such as the NAACP, the Young Negro GOP Club, the Homer Roberts car dealership and the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League baseball team from which a young short-stop named Jackie Robinson would emerge mid-century. The most important of these institutions was the church. It was the center of all activity, from the political to the financial to the artistic. Music was, and remains, an integral part of the Black church experience. Hip-hop, R&B, the Blues and Jazz all find their roots in the spirituals, sorrow songs, and gospels of the church. Kansas City churches nurtured and developed young musical talent during Sunday morning worship and also at church socials (usually picnics and dances) at which there was always live musical entertainment. Not surprisingly, it was the same music that could be heard at the nightclubs down the street on Saturday evening. Kansas City’s taste in music and dance was greatly influenced by the characteristics and cultural sensibilities of the Southern migrants who moved in. These poor migrants preferred the uniquely African-American, Southern styles of music and dance, which relied heavily on improvisation and call-and-response, whereas the Black elites rejected these "core cultural forms" in favor of Euro-American ones. Migrants brought with them a penchant for the “rural blues,” which often featured a male singer accompanying himself on the guitar. This music was introduced in Kansas City at the “rent-parties” tenants would organize in order to pay rent. These rent parties are an amalgam of two distinctly rural Southern traditions: the jook joint (where one could find live music, gambling and liquor) and the church social, where funds for the minister’s salary were raised. The music at these rent parties soon found its way into the nightclubs, saloons and taverns, such as the Panama Club, the Sunset Club and the Yellow Front. Black and White jazz artists would frequent the clubs along 12th Street and 18th Street after getting off their primary jobs and hold “jam sessions.” These nightly sessions were a proving ground for young artists. Innovation and improvisation were crucial to success. These “informal conservatories” would last all night, testing the skills of Kansas City’s most competent and creative musicians. One musician recalled, “I came to a session at ten o’clock… I came back a little after one o’clock and they were playing the same song,” offering a vivid testimony to the sheer physical and creative vigor needed to participate in these jam sessions. Bennie Moten’s genius was to take the jam session to the stage. The 4/4 meter, riffs, and extended, improvised solos were established as the staples of Kansas City Jazz. With the advent of the “race records,” recordings of Black jazz artists distributed to predominantly Black consumers by Okeh, Paramount and Columbia records, the Kansas City sound was disseminated throughout the country, leaving an indelible stamp on America’s rich musical heritage – an influence that continues to be felt today.