By Con Chapman

Equinox Publishing. 358 pages. £40. ISBN 978-1-80050-282-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

New Orleans, Chicago, New York. All cities having deep associations with jazz in one form or another. And Kansas City? Where does it stand in the history of the music? It was, for a time and because of specific circumstances, a hotbed of activity and inventiveness. It perhaps doesn’t quickly come to mind when the story of jazz is recounted, but the sounds spawned there were a major influence in the development of what became known as the “modern jazz” of the 1940s and early-1950s. Two of the leading exponents of bebop and “cool” jazz had their roots in Kansas City swing. I’m talking about Charlie Parker and Lester Young. And Count Basie’s band typified the easy moving, riff-laden style associated with the music of the city and the South-West of the United States generally. The rhythmic and emotional qualities of the blues were integral parts of Kansas City jazz. As someone said of Parker, whatever he played it was essentially the blues.    

Con Chapman does a good job outlining the ways in which what became known as jazz derived from a mixture of field cries and work chants, minstrel shows, touring circuses, ragtime, marching bands and more.  There isn’t the space to go into detail, but his account is colourful and rightly draws attention to the fact that the music had its base firmly in popular entertainment. Much as I love bebop there is no doubt that its arrival as primarily a small-group exercise, which made demands on listeners in terms of intensity and understanding, was partly responsible for a decline in the response of a mass audience for the music. There were other reasons, of course, involving economics, changing tastes, the rising interest in singers, but taking jazz away from dance halls and into small clubs might have been a major factor in limiting its appeal.

The number and variety of outlets for music in Kansas City in the 1930s came about because of its reputation as a place where, in a sense, anything went. With prohibition affecting the country generally, Kansas City quite openly flouted the law. Alcohol was easily available, and with it came degrees of criminality covering prostitution, gambling, and drugs. The city was under the control of Tom “Boss” Pendergast, bribery and corruption flourished, and the local economy boomed at a time when the Depression was creating hardship and misery across the rest of America. Musicians and other entertainers flocked to Kansas City and found employment in the clubs, bars, dance halls and similar places where people gathered to have a good time.

The musicians also, in their off-duty moments, got together for jam sessions which is where, essentially, the style known as Kansas City jazz was created. These were very much “cutting contests” where musicians competed to prove their worth as soloists. It took some nerve for a young musician to get on the stand with those who had already established a reputation. Newcomers who didn’t match up to the required standard would quickly be forced to quit in one way or another, sometimes even in a brutal manner. There is the famous story of a very young Charlie Parker not taking the hint when he tried to participate in a jam session. The drummer Jo Jones detached a cymbal from his kit and threw it at Parker’s feet as an indication that he wasn’t welcome.  There was certainly no sign at that stage of how important he would be as a soloist and someone who would radically alter the sound of jazz.

The Kansas City style emphasised a four beats feeling that a “walking” bass line laid down. And it placed “less emphasis on the bass drum, with time-keeping moved to the cymbals, particularly the high-hat/sock cymbal”. As mentioned earlier, the use of “riffs” (repeated phrases often used behind soloists) was popular, especially with big-bands, though certainly not limited to that context. Recordings by Andy Kirk, Jay McShann, and Count Basie demonstrate how effective riffs were in building up excitement. It’s also worth noting that “head arrangements” were in use. These were arrangements worked out “on the job”, so to speak, and shaped over a period of time. They were not initially written down in the way that a normal arrangement would be, though they might eventually be sketched out on paper. Their purpose was to provide a band with additional material, something essential when they were playing over a period of several hours and may not have had a very large library of written music. It’s easy to see how riffs would be a key element in a head arrangement.

Parker, once he’d mastered his instrument, found employment with various groups and bands, most notably that of the pianist Jay McShann.  It was with McShann that he played his first solos on records, though interestingly some commentators thought that John Jackson, his fellow-alto player in the McShann unit, seemed the more-promising musician. It was an opinion that the poet Philip Larkin, in his role as a jazz critic, agreed with when reviewing a McShann reissue many years later. But Jackson, for one reason or another, failed to develop as a soloist, and faded from sight as the Forties progressed. He seems to have stayed in Kansas City and appeared on records with a 1949 McShann small group, though not to any great effect.

It might be relevant to mention another musician from the McShann orchestra who had leanings towards a more forward-looking approach to improvising. Trumpeter Bernard “Buddy” Anderson can be heard briefly on early McShann discs, but suffered from tuberculosis and had to give up the trumpet.  Chapman suggests that he was a possible influence on Dizzy Gillespie and Fats Navarro. And he quotes Jay McShann as saying that Anderson “played in the same style as Bird – only, on the trumpet”. Would he have developed into a major artist like Parker? We have no way of knowing. Some people appear to be on the cusp of innovation, but never actually achieve it. I’m thinking of a trumpeter like Joe Guy who, if one hears him on recordings from Minton’s Playhouse in the early-1940s, seems to be as advanced as Dizzy Gillespie at the time. And yet a few years later he had slipped into obscurity, admittedly partly due to personal problems linked to drugs.     

Lester Young was already an established musician in the 1930s, though he had a hard time convincing both his fellow-professionals and jazz enthusiasts of his qualities as a soloist. He was told that he had a “cardboard” or ”feathery” tone which contrasted with the deeper, full-throated sounds that tenor saxophonists like Coleman Hawkins, Don Byas and Ben Webster produced. And Young largely shunned the vibrato typical of other tenormen. It’s often assumed that the predominant influences in jazz were derived from black musicians setting the style. In Young’s case, however, he cited the white Frankie Trumbauer, who played a C-melody saxophone, an instrument “that was pitched higher than a tenor but lower than an alto”. Young once said, “I tried to get the sound of a c-melody on a tenor. That’s why I don’t sound like other people”. Young also referred to several other white musicians – Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Bix Beiderbecke, Rudy Wiedoeft – as influences.

Of course, when it came to Young as an influence on others it was noticeable that a whole school of white saxophonists followed his example: Stan Getz, Zoot Sims, Al Cohn, Brew Moore, Allen Eager, Dick Hafer, Phil Urso, Buddy Wise and numerous others all aimed for the light tone and relaxed feeling that Young typified. I can think of only one black musician who copied him directly, and that’s Paul Quinichette whose dedication to Young’s style earned him the nickname of the “Vice-Pres”. He was sometimes dismissed as a mere Young imitator, but I always felt that he did manage to establish some individual characteristics while paying homage to Young stylistically. There were other black saxophonists, such as Dexter Gordon, Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt, who also absorbed ideas from Young, but not to the extent that Quinichette did.

One of McShann’s most popular records was a number called “Confessing the Blues” which featured the singer Walter Brown. I suppose it might indicate that singers were what really appealed to audiences. An inventive instrumentalist might be admired by fellow-musicians and knowledgeable fans, but a singer was more likely to attract the attention of the average listener. There were a number of vocalists with links to Kansas City. As well as Brown, Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing, Eddie Vinson, and Jimmy Witherspoon were among the male performers, while the females included June Richmond, Myra Taylor, Helen Humes, and Julia Lee. Their songs, with a firm base in the blues, could sometimes touch on sex in a humorous way with the use of double-entendre and the like. An example might be Helen Humes’s “Drive Me, Daddy”, with its opening statement, “Contact me Poppa, If you want my engine to turn”. Or Julia Lee’s “King Size Papa”.

In connection with the popularity of singers it’s worth noting Chapman’s comments about novelty items the bands recorded: “While the jazz purist of today may cringe at vocal novelty numbers, they were essential to a band’s business, both as light-hearted relief in live performances and as a source of revenue from recordings that caught the public’s ears and hearts”.  He mentions Count Basie’s “Open the Door, Richard”, which was “Based on a black vaudeville routine performance by comedian Dusty Fletcher”. As well as Basie, it was recorded by Louis Jordan, Jack McVea, Oran “Hot Lips” Page (who Chapman devotes quite a few pages to) and, though Chapman doesn’t mention it, in a version by Fletcher himself with some suitable tenor sax backing from George “Big Nick” Nicholas. 

The good times stopped in Kansas City when Tom Pendergast was convicted of tax evasion, heavily fined, and sentenced to fifteen months in prison: “Emboldened by the fall of Pendergast, reformers both public and private took the offensive against the culture that had allowed Kansas City jazz to flourish”. A large narcotics ring was broken up, gambling houses raided and closed down, prostitutes were driven out of town. Jobs for musicians dried up and many of them left in search of work elsewhere. There are all kinds of arguments that can be advanced about how one should react to a situation where circumstances adverse to a decent society nonetheless lead to creativity. And the fact that “None of the greats of the era was supported by a municipal or academic sinecure or grant-in-aid”. Their earnings came from more dubious sources. Chapman isn’t defending corrupt government as a spur to artistic excellence. But he does slyly refer to the words of the Harry Lime character in the film, The Third Man : “In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced, Michelangelo, Leonardo  da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love. They had 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock”.

Con Chapman has written an excellent, well-researched and informative book in telling the story of how and why Kansas City became a centre for jazz and the way in which its special kind of music was formulated. He raises the question of whether or not the time is ripe for a revival of local centres of jazz activity: “A regional axis such as that formed by Oklahoma City and Kansas City, around which the music covered by this book was spun, should be possible”. I’m not convinced by this argument. The social situation is vastly different to that which existed prior to 1950 or so. Jazz still had a broad following even into the 1950s, but it’s now much reduced compared to the heydays of the big bands and swing. It’s more consciously intellectual these days and is rarely, if ever, played for dancing. The entertainment aspect has been relegated to a subsidiary role.

Kansas City Jazz has almost sixty pages of notes, a short bibliography, and a number of illustrations.