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What is jazz music? A single definition cannot be found. Many writers have attempted to define jazz music only to regress to trying to define what it does. Even this approach is difficult. Writers have only been able to find broad areas to agree up, such as agreeing that jazz is music. But alas, even this is a shortcoming in the eyes of some. Jazz has been so many things throughout it long and illustrious history that it's even hard to point out its origins, which stem from many places, many styles of music, and many people. However there is an ongoing debate as to its precise origins. It is known to have evolved out of New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century and from there spread to the north and Midwest. Based in blues and ragtime, jazz was seen to have geographical "hot spots" throughout the country; New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and Kansas City. Each "hot spot" has its own history containing significant events and people that helped shape the musical style of that culture center. Kansas City is no exception. There are innumerable persons that helped make Kansas City jazz what it has become.
Jazz emerged in a time that one might think that something new, such as the jazz movement, would not succeed. Jazz began to gain notoriety in the midst of The Great Depression. Kansas City's ability to sustain throughout such a horrible time can only be accredited to one thing; the administration of Thomas J. Pendergast, "boss" of Kansas City (and much of Missouri) from 1911 until his arrest for tax evasion in 1938. His methods, however, where not of the most reputable morals. Pendergast openly tolerated a "wide-open town" in Kansas City in exchange for political and financial benefits. Pendergast's tolerance of such laws as Prohibition were so extreme that from the year 1920 to 1933 there was not a single felony conviction for violation of that law. This is seen as more unusual when one realizes that there were over 300 bars in the city that employed live musical entertainment (Pearson, Political 181).
Pendergast and his followers were not avid supporters of black music, in fact, "he scarcely listened to music at all. Throughout his life he made it a rule to be in bed no later than nine o'clock, an hour at which musical happenings in the nightclubs of Kansas City were barely getting started (Russel 6).
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Kansas City was a center of commerce that brought in many starry-eyed American men to the "heavenly place." "When a cattleman sold his beef, he did so at the Kansas City fattening pens and slaughterhouses lying between the older and poorer sections of the city and the Missouri River". In the same sense, raisers of hogs and sheep, growers of wheat and barley, and many other items made their way to the alluring Kansas City market and night life. The lure of the good food, good beer and liquor, dancing, exciting women, and dice rolling, all accompanied by the sauce of lively music was irresistible to many men (Russel 4).
Since jazz emerged during the "Roaring Twenties" and it was not out of the ordinary for it to be associated with gangsters and their kind. "There was no Depression for the gangsters," says pianist Sammy Price, who was there during the heart of the era. Due to the wide-open town the gangsters did well and therefore, because of their lavish lifestyles and the lurid nightlife that they indulged in, the jazz bands of the day didn't lack for employment. This influence spread as far as Texas Negro dance bands (Stearns 187).
There were a few influential people in Kansas City that stood out above the rest of the countless musicians to have graced the stage with their gifts. One such person was Bennie Moten. There was no jazz in Kansas City at the end of World War I and this was the time that Moten started his first trio Called the BB&D trio named after its principle members; Bennie Moten, Bailey Handcock, and Duke Lankford. After abandoning the trio Moten had the idea that, "instead of staking his career in ragtime piano, which he played fairly well, he wanted to try to project ragtime style by means of other instruments." Moten became the leader of a band named The Blue Devils who, in 1921, opened at the Panama Club, in the Afro-American district of Kansas City, one of the first cabarets in the area (Russel 88-89). They began as a six piece playing adapted versions of piano ragtime (Russel 15). In September 1923, The Blue Devils, along with blues singers Ada Brown and Mary H. Bradford became one of the first local bands to record an album. However, the band's true influence did not come about until after Moten died and the band was taken over by the piano player, William Basie (Ostransky 195).
William "Count" Basie, born in Red Bank, New Jersey, literally learned the piano at the feet of Fats Waller, was stranded in Kansas City in the late twenties, where in 1928 he joined Walter Page's Blue Devils, later led by Bennie Moten, in Oklahoma. "Aside from his considerable keyboard skill Basie was blessed with good organizational instincts, an even temper, and an uncanny rhythmic sense." After Moten's death in 1935, Basie and a group of several members of The Blue Devils began to play together and formed the best renown and longest lasting big band to emerge from Kansas City. Instead of continuing with Moten's big band and the "flabbiness" that Basie thought was inescapable with a band of that size he focused on having tighter group by having fewer performers and having them all be stars (Pearson, Goin' 135-136). After hearing Basie's nine-piece Reno Club band on the radio, "record producer John Hammond was drawn to Kansas City and engineered the enlargement of Basie's band to full big-band scale and booked them on tour leading to New York (Pearson, Goin' 135)."
One cannot list influential jazzmen of Kansas City and go without saying the name Charlie Parker. Parker did not have a background in jazz to shape him and had not heard much of any of the early jazz greats. Parker had incredible technique and improvisational ability that seemed rootless and partly unexplainable (Ostransky 268). Parker is also remembered as possibly the most tragic figure to come out of the Kansas City jazz scene. After only picking up the saxophone at age 11 and finishing school at age 15, Parker tried to jam his way into the jazz world by gigging the city all around and playing with anyone and everyone that would let him ("Charlie Parker").
"He could play something and make is sound just pretty. He knew what to do; he would pick the right notes. But when he first started playing, nobody wanted to hear him. They did not understand what he was doing." (Pearson, Goin' 205)
Having not had great luck with this approach, Parker found solace in heroin that some less upstanding individuals taught him how to use (Ostransky 269). Charlie Parker was pawning off his instrument nearly every day to get enough money to pay for his heroin addiction. John Tumino would have to get the money, get his horn back, and put him to work the next night with the promise that he would not pawn it the next day (Pearson, Goin' 208). Charlie Parker was the saddest character to come out of the early jazz scene.
Though the jazz scene greatly declined rapidly in the late 1830s, the nightclubs that used to overflow with the jazzmen of the age continued to be active through the 1960s. Though there are multiple factors that can be pointed out as the death of the jazz age in Kansas City (i.e. early closing hours of 1 a.m. in the forties), racial conflict stands out above the rest, due to the fact that the black downtown was the center of the jazz scene. Kansas City would not have been the same if it had not been for it being the commercial center it was for buying, selling, and trading of cattle, wheat, barley, and other items from the plains that brought the cattlemen and farmers to the nightlife of the city. In the same way, if it had not been for people such as Bennie Moten and Count Basie for their orchestras, Charlie Parker and his innovative techniques, and Thomas J. Pendergast and his tolerance for a wide-open town, the jazz scene in Kansas City would not have existed at all. It is to these occurrences, these people and countless more, and innumerable more influences on the music scene that it is owed gratitude that jazz has become what it is and that it has survived so long.
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