Count Basie at the piano in 1955. (James J. Kriegsman, CC)
The city of Kansas City, Missouri, is known around the world for its barbecue, its beautiful parks and fountains, and its legacy of jazz. Located between the Midwest and the Southwest, Kansas City was a hub of economic development. The city’s growth in the 1920s and ‘30s supported a special kind of musical innovation.
Kansas City jazz is not a single musical style. It is a way of playing that focused on virtuosic improvisation and a strong rhythmic groove. This new approach arose in the 1920s and ‘30s and was quite different from the jazz styles of New York, New Orleans, Chicago, and California. The style was created by legendary musicians such as Charlie Parker, Count Basie, and Lester Young, and many others who were not so famous, but were important to the music’s evolution.
Kansas City jazz musicians made their music for the Black community who lived and maintained businesses in the area around 18th and Vine Streets. Many people moved to Kansas City in the 1920s to take jobs in the manufacturing sector and to move agricultural products to global markets. Newly arrived Black citizens were segregated into a few specific neighborhoods. The Black community supported musicians. Dancing was very popular in large ballrooms such as those at the Labor Temple and the Paseo Hall. Musicians also benefited from political corruption. Although alcohol was illegal during Prohibition, bar owners bribed the police to let them serve alcoholic drinks. The thriving bar scene created even more work for musicians. No other American city had this combination of factors. The resulting style of jazz could only have come from this town.
The city’s jazz scene was highly competitive. By the late 1920s there were over a dozen bands and hundreds of musicians that called Kansas City home. This competition led to innovation as band leaders and soloists sought to win fans and gain more work. The rhythm sections of the larger bands, like the Bennie Moten Orchestra, strove to play with a more driving energy, and the soloists honed their technique through late-night jam sessions.
We can define Kansas City jazz and trace its evolution through a few innovative bands and soloists. In the 1920s no band was more successful in the city than the Bennie Moten Orchestra. Bennie Moten formed his group in 1922. By 1923 they were one of the few bands from the Midwest to have a recording contract. By 1927 the Moten Orchestra was the best-known band in the region; however, their soloists and arrangements were not the most innovative. The Oklahoma City Blue Devils had a stronger rhythm section, led by bassist and Kansas City native Walter Page, dynamic soloists like Lester Young, and ground-breaking arrangers like Eddie Durham and William “Count” Basie. By 1929 Moten had hired all these musicians, who moved to Kansas City to join his band. The result was a fresh new style, exemplified by the song “Moten Swing.”
“Moten Swing” was arranged by Durham and Basie and recorded in 1932. The rhythm section is powerful, driven forth by bassist Walter Page. In addition to the fierce rhythm, the song’s arrangement features “riffs,” musical ideas that are combined and repeated. The riffs serve as accompaniment to solos and to drive the feet of the dancers. Compared to works by East Coast bands such as the Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson Orchestras, the arrangement is minimalist, but the groove is powerful, and the solos are vibrant. When the song debuted at the Pearl Theater in Philadelphia, the audience demanded seven encores.
The Bennie Moten Orchestra plays “Moten Swing,” 1932
The Moten Orchestra made a few trips outside of Kansas City, and they were beginning to establish a national reputation. However, they struggled during the Great Depression, and Bennie Moten died suddenly after a tonsillectomy in 1935. Not long after his death, Count Basie established a band with many of Moten’s former musicians at Kansas City’s Reno Club. In this late-night venue musicians sharpened their skills even more. Soon, the Basie Orchestra was booked in Chicago, where they were discovered by record producer John Hammond. The Orchestra obtained a recording contract and brought the sound of Kansas City jazz to the world.
The style of the Basie band can be heard in this clip, “Lester Leaps In.” It features a solo by tenor saxophonist Lester Young, accompanied by Basie’s minimalistic piano style, and the “riffs,” or repeated harmonized brief ideas played by reeds and brass.
Count Basie and his Kansas City Seven with Lester Young as soloist play “Lester Leaps In”
The competitive jazz scene made individuals work hard to distinguish themselves from others. This competition also affected the style of Kansas City jazz. From the mid-1930s to the 1950s, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker was foremost among a group of young musicians who changed the style of the music. Parker excelled by developing a powerful sound, playing at lightning speed, and constantly inventing new ideas. With contemporaries such as his friends Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, Parker helped to create Bebop, a new style that emphasized star soloists. Early Kansas City jazz had focused on dancing; but now the focus was showcasing the technical skills of the lead players. In this style, the band plays a supporting role and allows the soloist to shine. We hear Charlie Parker’s brilliance in this example, “The Song is You”.
The Quartet of Charlie Parker, “The Song is You,” 1952
Kansas City jazz features a driving rhythm, formed by great bassists, pianists, and drummers. These jazz bands developed strategies that supported the achievements of great solo artists. The legendary improvisers who forged their abilities in the city’s late night jam sessions and competitive environment were key to Kansas City’s distinctive sound. The city’s music scene was shaped by Black migration and community development, political corruption, and economic opportunity. Kansas City jazz could have come from no other place in the world.
Marc Rice is Professor of Musicology at Truman State University and is the Area Chair of the Perspectives of Music program. He has extensively published on gender and race issues concerning jazz in the Midwest. His book Black Music in the Black Press: An Anthology of Essays from the Heartland exams the representation of music in Midwest African American newspapers from the 19th century to World War II. Learn more…