The Rhythm Starts Here: Modernity’s KC Roots

The beat left Kansas City during the mid-twentieth century and travelled around the world. From the mid-1930s through the mid-1940s, the roots of American modernity in popular music and painting were set in the hot-house urban culture of Kansas City.

Forget the Cowtown moniker.

It was here that Thomas Hart Benton fully developed the twisting rhythmic compositions that inspired the airborne furling gestures of Jackson Pollock’s groundbreaking drip paintings.

And it was here that the clip-clop time-keeping of a rural population and horse-drawn vehicles made the shift to the propulsive urban rhythms of trains, planes and automobiles.

It would be hard to overestimate the role of Count Basie Orchestra drummer Jo Jones in making this shift. As a pre-war Kansas City danced to Basie warhorses such as One O’Clock Jump and Moten Swing, Jones was among a corps of Kansas City drummers who streamlined the beat, exchanging the snare and bass-drum accents favored by a preceding generation of jazz drummers for a fluidic, four-beat pulse on the high-hat cymbal with an accent on the second and fourth beat.

This was Kansas City’s legacy to rock and roll. In a recent interview, Kansas City percussionist and drummer Sam Wisman described Jones’s playing as “an important example of the dynamic and bouncy shuffle sound that contributed to the evolution not only of jazz, but all of popular music.”

“Basie constructed many of his songs with an intro, a melody section and an up-beat ending called a shout chorus,” Wisman added. “Rock and roll simply cuts to the chase where drummers emphasized the ‘back beat’ (beats two and four) from the shout chorus. A strong back beat is a key element in early r&b and rock drumming.”

At the beginning of the 1950s a young Chicago drummer named Fred Below began emulating Jo Jones while playing sporadic local gigs with ex-Basie tenor saxophonist Lester Young.

“Jo Jones was my inspiration. I’d play the records he was on and try to learn how he phrased things,” Below told me in the mid-70s while I was contributing to Downbeat magazine. With jazz jobs scarce, Below turned to popular music, eventually becoming the first-call studio drummer for Chess records during its hit factory heyday. Below played on seminal rock and roll and electric blues recordings including Maybelline, Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music by Chuck Berry, I’m a Man and Hootchie Cootchie Man by Muddy Waters and Don’t Start Me Talkin’ by Sonny Boy Williamson.

“Palisades” (ca. 1919-1924), part of Thomas Hart Benton’s “American Historical Epic” series, shows the rhythmic arabesques that inspired the sinuous, all-over abstractions of his student.
“Palisades” (ca. 1919-1924), part of Thomas Hart Benton’s “American Historical Epic” series, shows the rhythmic arabesques that inspired the sinuous, all-over abstractions of his student.

Kansas City’s contribution to modernism wasn’t limited to music. While Basie and company were making audiences dance to a new beat, Thomas Hart Benton expanded his use of a rhythmic and muscular arabesque in his paintings, setting the stage for the development of Abstract Expressionism.

During the early 1930s Jackson Pollock studied with Benton at the Art Students League in New York City. Theirs was a profoundly complex relationship between a mature artist entering into a period of national renown and controversy and his favorite student on the verge of catapulting American art onto a global stage.

In 1935 Benton moved to Missouri to work on a mural for the state capitol, eventually settling in Kansas City to take a teaching position at the Kansas City Art Institute. Throughout the next decade their relationship deepened as Pollock kept in touch with Benton through letters and phone calls. He even spent part of a summer with the Bentons in their house in the Valentine neighborhood. During those years Benton began constructing a persona as a rough-hewn country-boy.

It’s tempting to characterize Benton’s work as portraying an agrarian vision and Pollock’s abstractions as a visual allusion to urbanity.

“I think (that) has often been misrepresented,” Henry Adams, professor of American art at Case Western Reserve University and former curator of American art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, said in a recent e-mail.  “I don’t think it’s true that Benton was trying to retreat into a nostalgic agrarian past, and he explicitly rejected that approach in some of his writings. He saw the geographical divisions of America as both at war with each other, but also in need of each other.”

Jackson Pollock.  Pollock’s  No. 6  (1952),  while created after his famous drip paintings,”  retains those “Bentonesque”  rhythms.
Jackson Pollock. Pollock’s No. 6 (1952), while created after his famous drip paintings,” retains those “Bentonesque” rhythms.

Conventional wisdom has it that Pollock jettisoned the lessons of Benton after his student years. And yet when we look at the mature mural-sized compositions of both artists, there’s more than a passing resemblance.

In a 2010 interview with Art & Antiques magazine, Adams said, “It is no exaggeration to say that Benton created Pollock as an artist. What Pollock got was an underlying visual rhythm. When you see him absorbing modernist influences—Orozco, Picasso, the Surrealists—he has a way of taking these influences and ‘Bentonizing’ them, introducing the Benton rhythm. One aspect that Pollock got from Benton, (is the) idea of leading the eye all the way through the composition, so that you can basically pick it up anywhere. You’re led in a continual visual arc that circles around and eventually brings you through the whole.”

Everyone in Kansas City knows something about KC jazz and something about Thomas Hart Benton. They are among the stars of our shared cultural firmament.  But what started in Kansas City didn’t stay in Kansas City.

The contributions of Jo Jones and Thomas Hart Benton had a life that went beyond their work.

In 1947 Pollock began stripping away virtually all the modernist influences from his work except the bedrock undulating compositions of his mentor. Pollock’s breakthrough to Abstract Expressionism opened the gates for other artists of his generation to rush in and claim a style of painting that established the domination of America’s influence in contemporary art that continues until this day.

Jo Jones’s supple dynamic rhythm has evolved into the dance of youth, from jazz to rhythm and blues to rock and roll to today’s rock and its permutations. Jones was there at the invention of the rhythmic pulse of modernity that sent the body and the spirit forward.

About The Author: James Brinsfield

James Brinsfield

James Brinsfield, who was a regular contributor to Downbeat magazine, is an artist who teaches two classes in the painting department at the Kansas City Art Institute. He is represented by Haw Contemporary gallery in Kansas City.

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