Kansas City: The Birthplace of Modern JazzMarch 9, 2010
There are many cities associated with Jazz, yet few have had as much of an influence upon the genre as Kansas City. Not only is it the birthplace of Jazz legends, a city where Jazz evolved, and a place where jazz matured.
The history of Jazz in Kansas dates back to the 1920’s but the scene really boomed in the early 1930’s. Kansas had become a crossroad city, with the transcontinental airliners stopping in the city to refuel and a hub of the railroad network being based in city. This led to great growth and drew people from all across the United States, bringing their music, culture and experiences to the city.
At the time of this great growth a man named Tom Pendergast was helping fuel the city’s notoriety. Pendergast was the ‘City Manager’ who controlled the city council and due to the immense political power he held ‘ruled’ the city. His influence extended across all city institutions including the police force. This led the force as whole to turn a blind eye to alcohol and gambling during prohibition. This disregard to prohibition and the all night party scene it created attracted many musicians from across the country. Musicians from the previous Jazz centres of New Orleans and Chicago were attracted by the relaxed nature of the city and the burgeoning musical scene.
The mixing of musicians made a hotpot of creativity leading to the creation of the city’s own style, ‘Kansas City Jazz‘. Kansas City Jazz differed from the more traditional forms of the genre that had been played in New Orleans and Chicago previously, creating what was regarded to be a more modern sound. One of the main differences between the styles came in its bar structure. Kansas City Jazz had a heavy blues influence which led it to be played with a 12 bar structure (blues style) as opposed to the traditional jazz 8 bar structure. It also became famous for improvisation and use of solos. Due to the length of the sets at clubs, (in many cases 8-12 hours) songs could go on for hours with a band improvising with frequent and elaborate riffing. The skills and techniques the musicians were acquiring began to really shape the music in the city. This new and innovative form of jazz began to dominate the national scene influencing many musicians from across the country. Kansas City Jazz can also be credited with being the catalyst for the transition from the dominance of big band, by creating swing and then the improvisational style of Bebop.
Kansas City’s ties to jazz are strengthen as the birth place and home to many key figures in jazz history. The city’s most famous son is probably Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker. Born in August 1920, Parker grew up in a time when Kansas reigned supreme in the world of jazz. Although being too young to be an active participant in the early Kansas scene, Parker was undoubtedly influenced by the music and creativity in the city in his formative years. After his untimely death in New York in 1955 at the age of just 34 Parker’s body was returned to Kansas City where he was laid to rest in Lincoln Cemetery. Another jazz legend Count Basie spent many years in the city and was one of the major innovators in this new form of music. Basie played regularly with his band at the Reno Club in the 18th district which was home to the city’s jazz scene.
Kansas City today still has many links to its Jazz history. The 18th and Vine District is synonymous with jazz in the city and is home to the American Jazz Museum. The museum houses numerous items from jazz history and has exhibits focusing on key figures in jazz. It also operates the Blue Room and Gem Theatre which hold live performances of jazz. The whole area is also filled with establishments playing and dedicated to jazz and blues music.
The jazz era in Kansas City was effectively ended in 1940 when Tom Pendergast was arrested and subsequently jailed for tax evasion. The political vacuum left was filled by more conservative figures leading to a crackdown on liquor laws and on the jazz clubs of the city. This led to many musicians to leave the city. Kansas City would never recapture this vibrant and creative scene, but in that brief 15 year period the world of jazz and music had been changed forever.
Take a tour of the 18th and Vine Area of Kansas City with Google Street View
- Kauffman Foundation Announces $1 Million Grant to Kansas City Public Library to Support Black Archives of Mid-America (kauffman.org)