It’s September, 1936. Picture two cars leaving New York City bound for Kansas City. One takes the northerly route, cutting through Chicago and across Iowa into Missouri. The other heads due west through St. Louis. The drivers are two very different men, but have the same goal in mind.
An heir to the Vanderbilt fortune drives the Chicago car. He is tall, excitable, a cultured intellectual and connoisseur of jazz.
The other driver is a sleekly groomed, hard-nosed businessman with an ear for the new and an eye on the bottom line. Each man carries an unsigned recording contract for William “Count” Basie. And neither is prepared for what he will find on reaching his destination.
The “discovery” of Kansas City jazz by the world outside the Midwest happened by chance in January 1936, when fledgling New York record producer and music critic John Hammond walked out of the Congress Hotel in Chicago and turned on the radio in his car. It was late in the evening, and the only thing on was a live performance of the Count Basie Orchestra from the Reno Club on east 12th Street in Kansas City.
“I couldn’t believe my ears,” Hammond said in his autobiography, John Hammond on Record. He cajoled his brother-in-law, Benny Goodman, who was playing at the Urban Club in the Congress Hotel, to come out to the car and hear the band. Goodman was less than impressed. “So what’s the big deal?” he asked Hammond.
The big deal, which Goodman didn’t grasp at first, was the Kansas City band’s formulation of a musical aesthetic that defined and mirrored the modern era in a way no others had.
Critics have noted that much of the music the Basie band played was blues based. Hammond cited Basie’s spare, haiku-esque piano and the improvisational skills of the band’s individual players as defining qualities of the orchestra.
It should be added that the complete formula included a fluidic rhythm section and repeated motifs (riffs) from the brass and reed sections that produced an irresistible propulsive sonic force. In live performances, the band would stretch out the ending of up-tempo numbers like One O’Clock Jump. Premier musicians such as Lester Young and Hot Lips Page soloed over cascading riffs piled atop one another, leaving listeners and dancers breathless.
Bottom line: Goodman’s band played music you could dance to. Basie played music that made you dance.
In the 1930s, Basie was a star of the Kansas City music scene, although he and his band were only a small part of a music and entertainment world that ran the spectrum from big-city blues shouters like Jimmie Rushing and Big Joe Turner, to society dance orchestras, to country and hillbilly bands. In addition to music, clubs featured floor shows with dancers, comedians and magicians. Irish, Swedish, Italian and Polish neighborhood bars had amateur bands that performed the music of the old country.
But it was jazz and the people who played it that put KC on the map.
In his book, Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop, music historian Chuck Haddix quotes pianist/composer Mary Lou Williams, who recalled, “Kansas City was a heavenly place with 50 or more clubs and cabarets rocking on 12th and 18th Street.”
In a recent interview, Haddix estimated that there were “over 500 bars and clubs in Kansas City and its unincorporated areas that had some kind of live entertainment” during the 1930s.
How did it come about and why did it happen here? The circumstances are complex. Kansas City was home base for many of the bands that toured Iowa, Colorado, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. And Kansas City didn’t suffer the ravages of the depression or prohibition as severely as the rest of the country. (This was due to an uneasy, some might say unholy, alliance between Tom (Boss) Pendergast’s political machine, with its army of civil servants and the organized crime families who controlled liquor and gambling.)
Additionally, Kansas City was a center in lending and real estate. It was a hub for the railroads, and the city was heavily industrialized with steel and automobile plants. Kansas City was segregated. Although segregation here was not as virulent as in the deep South, then as now, there was an economic and geographical separation of the races with Troost Avenue as the dividing line.
Back to the two drivers: John Hammond was late to the party, a victim, perhaps, of his own enthusiasm. Over the summer of 1936 he began telling people in the record business and readers of his Downbeat magazine column, “(the Basie band) was the best band I’ve ever heard.” By September he had convinced Dick Altschuler of Brunswick Records to authorize a recording deal for the Basie band. With contract in hand, Hammond left New York and set out for KC.
But the St. Louis driver, Dave Kapp of Decca Records, had gotten to Kansas City first and signed Basie and his band to a penurious contract stipulating an exclusive three-year “24 sides”-per-year at $750 for the entire band—total—with no royalties paid from sales. The Decca sides are the classic recordings of the band at its zenith.
Hammond would go on to a legendary career at Columbia Records, notably producing albums ranging from Billie Holliday to Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen over the next four decades.
The vital music and club scene of Kansas City withered as wave upon wave of KC jazz artists moved to New York. By 1938 the Count Basie Orchestra had left town and Tom Pendergast was sentenced to 15 months at Leavenworth for tax evasion. Thus began the slow demise of the free-wheeling days of corruption and vice, as Pendergast’s empire collapsed under civic pressure to clean up the city.
Five years later another artist would begin to come of age in KC. Like Louis Armstrong, he would assume the mantle of the singular jazz soloist of his generation and take the music to new heights.
His name was Charlie Parker.
Thanks to the experts at UMKC’s Miller Nichols Library: Scott Gipson, senior library specialist, LaBudde Special Collections; Stuart Hinds, assistant dean of special collections and archives, and Chuck Haddix, director, Marr Sound Archives, for their thoughtful input and assistance with images.