Heartfelt Portraits by a ‘Jazz Fiend’

Steve Penn’s “Last Call: The History of Kansas City’s Coda Jazz Fund” (cover design by Carrie Maidment), can be purchased for $25 through the author’s website pennbooks.com. (Kansas City, Kansas Public Library)

I don’t remember ever speaking to Speedy Huggins, but just spotting him around town left a lasting impression. Years ago, when I lived in Kansas City, I spent a lot of time in jazz clubs — and so did Huggins. The difference was, he was a legendary dancer and drummer, whereas I was merely a listener. But as jazz critic at the “Kansas City Star,” I was also a chronicler of the scene (and, some would say, a controversial one).

About the closest I got to Huggins — a diminutive man with gray hair, glasses and a moustache, with an admirable centeredness about him — was writing an article about a fundraiser organized to help him move into a new apartment. (I recall a particularly obnoxious co-worker at the paper making a snarky remark about the event: Why couldn’t Huggins pay his own way? Obviously, he had no clue regarding the esteem with which the tiny gent was held in the jazz community.)

Speedy Huggins is among the 19 jazz artists profiled in “Last Call: The History of Kansas City’s Coda Jazz Fund,” by former “Kansas City Star” columnist Steve Penn. Founded by Penn, the fund helps pay funeral and burial expenses for Kansas City area jazz musicians. That mission is reflected in the book’s roster of fine musicians.

A self-described “jazz fiend,” Penn offers heartfelt portraits of musicians who played important roles in maintaining Kansas City’s reputation as a jazz mecca — from bassist Milt Abel to violinist Claude “Fiddler” Williams.

In a preface, Penn recalls the inspiration for the fund’s name:

“I thought of many different names to call such an effort, but none seemed to fit. Then I remembered my teenage years as first-chair trumpet player at Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas, and learning that the musical signature that led to the end of a song was called the coda sign.”

Along with biographical information, readers come away with a sense of what each artist contributed to the Kansas City jazz scene. Williams, Penn writes, proved that he “was the very essence of originality” in switching from guitar to violin and choosing “to play an instrument that was not considered a top choice for young jazz musicians.” Renowned bandleader Bennie Moten “accomplished more in a mere 38 years on earth than many musicians achieve in a full lifetime.”

Jazz is one of America’s greatest achievements, and Kansas City — along with New Orleans, Chicago and New York — was essential to its evolution. In memorializing some of the people who upheld the music’s highest standards, “Last Call” not only provides a valuable service but also honors the spirit that keeps jazz alive.

About The Author: Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson

Calvin Wilson is an arts writer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He is also host and creator of the jazz program, “Somethin’ Else,” on 107.3 FM and 96.3 HD2 in St. Louis.

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