In Memoriam: Ida McBeth (1952-2023)

Ida McBeth (photo by T. Michael Stanley)

“I knew I had a song to sing.”

Kansas City lost a legend when “song stylist extraordinaire” Ida Mae McBeth died March 1, 2023, after an extended illness. She was 70 years old.

“She was a Kansas City musical force and light, unmatched in melody and soul. May the warmth of her smile and tone carry us through,” the American Jazz Museum shared on Twitter.

McBeth grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. She started singing in church at 5 years old and turned professional as a teenager. She was discovered by musician and music store owner Ray Naylor, who invited her to join his trio.

“I wanted to sing because I knew I had a song to sing,” McBeth told KCUR’s Chuck Haddix in 2016.

She graduated from Wyandotte High School, studied nursing briefly at the University of Kansas, moved out to California for a few years, where she worked steadily and recorded her first album, then came back to Kansas City in the mid-1970s. Over the next 40 years, she married, had a son, Jason, and built a career that made her a Kansas City staple, playing at The Point, the Blue Room, Jardine’s, and various clubs. McBeth’s eclectic repertoire, high-energy shows and boisterous personality made her a beloved figure, each show memorable and engaging.

“I feel like I’m telling the story. That’s why I don’t ever get tired of singing a song over and over again,” she told Haddix. Her performances were soulful, gritty, heartfelt and a whole lot of fun.

Though she did not limit herself to jazz (she was equally at home in gospel, soul, R&B, funk and songs from the American songbook), she kept that Kansas City legacy alive, following in the tradition of Julia Lee and Myra Taylor, and inspired others to do the same. In 2005, McBeth was crowned queen of the Kansas City, Kansas Blues Street Festival.

McBeth garnered many honors throughout her career. In 1984, the International Jazz Hall of Fame named her “Best Female Jazz Vocalist” and “Entertainer of the Year”; in 1990, she was named one of Ingram’s Magazine’s “People of the Year.” The Pitch Readers’ Poll voted her “Best of R&B/Soul” in 2004 and 2005, and she was inducted into the Kansas Music Hall of Fame in 2019.

In 1990, Kansas City Mayor Richard Berkley proclaimed April 27 “Ida McBeth’s 20th Anniversary Day,” recognizing her contributions to the city’s culture.

She was included in the American Jazz Museum’s Walk of Fame, with a bronze medallion in the 18th and Vine District and received an AJM Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016. AJM also hosts art exhibits in the Ida McBeth Gallery.

In March, a Celebration of Life concert was held at the Gem Theater, with musicians and the community paying tribute to McBeth’s life, career, joy and talent.

One of her last performances was at the Gem Theater in 2020, for the American Jazz Walk of Fame’s “Jazzy Jamdemic” virtual concerts. Her career spanned more than 50 years, five albums, performances across the country and countless memories, while she stayed completely, uniquely, herself.

As she said in that 2016 interview: “Can’t nobody be Ida better than I can be Ida.”

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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