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Clip: A Jazz Legend Rekindles Kansas City's Musical Past

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.nytimes.com/2004/01/03/arts/music/03MCSH.html A Jazz Legend Rekindles Kansas City s Musical Past By STEPHEN KINZER Published: January 3, 2004 ANSAS
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 3, 2004

      A Jazz Legend Rekindles Kansas City's Musical Past

      Published: January 3, 2004

      ANSAS CITY, Mo. ? When Jay McShann approached his piano to begin a concert
      at the Folly Theater here on a recent evening, he was emerging not just
      from backstage but from jazz history.

      Mr. McShann told the audience that he would spend the evening trying "to
      see how high the moon is," and then settled down to business. His
      performance showed that he still embodies the swinging, bluesy sound this
      city made famous.

      He played dozens of songs, most of them four-minute classics, gently and
      lovingly. "Hootie's Blues," his hit from 1941, sounded as fresh as if he
      had just written it. His few vocal numbers, including "One Woman's Man" and
      "Georgia on My Mind," showed that at 87 he can still coax pathos out of
      even the most familiar lyrics. Mr. McShann made no concessions to
      modernity. He never raised his voice or wandered into extended
      improvisations but played with the elegance and self-assurance of an old

      Duke Ellington, Count Basie and other leaders of the big bands that
      electrified audiences during the 1930's and 40's are long gone. So are most
      of the musical visionaries who, more than half a century ago, turned Kansas
      City into one of the world's most vibrant musical centers. After a long
      lifetime of achievement, Mr. McShann now finds himself in a new role, that
      of the great survivor.

      "Time went by, and I didn't realize I was as old as I am," he said after
      the show. "All of a sudden I stopped and said: `Oh, wow. Wait a minute.
      I've got to slow down.' Then I had to slow down, because I got diabetes and
      the old arthritis creeping in. But I still play around, enough to keep the
      bear from the door. That old bear, he's always around, outside the back
      door when you don't know it."

      The sound that wafts from Mr. McShann's piano is unlike that of any of the
      other old piano masters who are still active. He is less experimental than
      Dave Brubeck, closer to blues than Marian McPartland but not a pure blues
      player like Pinetop Perkins.

      These days Mr. McShann is enjoying a new wave of recognition. His latest
      album, "Goin' to Kansas City," which features Duke Robillard on guitar and
      includes a vocal turn by Maria Muldaur, is selling well and has been
      nominated for a Grammy. He was featured on the recent PBS series "The
      Blues," on which he played a blazing duet that led his partner, Mr.
      Brubeck, to rear back with a broad grin and tell him admiringly, "You still
      got it."

      Although the musical scene that produced Mr. McShann faded long ago, Kansas
      City still has more than two dozen clubs where jazz is played regularly,
      making it one of the country's leading jazz centers. Musicians here are
      caught in the perpetual bind of whether to respect the city's tradition by
      playing in the classic style that Mr. McShann helped develop or to embrace
      bebop, free jazz and other more modern approaches.

      The tension between these poles is a creative force that fuels the music
      scene here and keeps Kansas City on the jazz map.

      "The city doesn't know how to market itself as a musical destination, but
      there's still a very strong scene here," said Charles Haddix, a weekend
      disc jockey on KCUR-FM and director of the Marr Sound Archives at the
      University of Missouri. "It's really a very well-kept secret."

      Several musicians who created the dazzlingly innovative bebop style learned
      their trade in Kansas City, among them Charlie Parker, who played in Mr.
      McShann's big band before moving to New York. Bebop changed jazz forever,
      much as Abstract Expressionist painting, which also emerged in New York in
      the years after World War II, radically reshaped American art. Kansas City
      is one of the few cities where it is possible to listen to bands that play
      as if the bebop revolution never happened.

      Perhaps the most famous of these is the Scamps, who have been playing jazz
      since 1945. New members are initiated whenever a musician dies or retires,
      and today the Scamps range in age from 70 to 83. One, Art Jackson, played
      with Parker in the Lincoln High School band here during the 1930's.

      The Scamps played to a full house recently at one of the city's most
      elegant clubs, Plaza III. There were a fair number of graying heads in the
      audience but also more than a few younger people. Many got up to dance,
      some in exuberant styles that recalled the Lindy Hop of bygone days. It was
      a sight that would have horrified bebop pioneers, who considered their
      music appropriate only for quiet listening.

      In the 1930's Kansas City was one of the most wide-open towns in the United
      States. Under the rule of Thomas Pendergast's political machine, jazz
      flourished along with prostitution, gambling and a host of other licit and
      illicit entertainments. The city was known as Sin City and the Paris of the
      Plains, and it thrived while the rest of the country was mired in
      Depression. Today the American Jazz Museum, at the historic corner of 18th
      and Vine, tells the story of those days.

      Political reform and the rule of law finally took hold in Kansas City, and
      the jazz scene declined. "It had quite a dip," said Lucky Wesley, the
      76-year-old leader of the Scamps. "By the 1970's most places that used to
      feature live music were switched over to jukeboxes, or else gone
      altogether. Now the demand is for hip-hop or progressive jazz, which is
      O.K. for those who like it. We're among the last of those who came up
      through the old days, and we've lived to see our music come back into
      demand." Kansas City musicians still gather at the Mutual Musicians
      Foundation for late-night jam sessions. The foundation, a former union hall
      for black musicians, was once at the center of an active musical district
      where more than 100 clubs offered live music around the clock. Now it is
      surrounded by abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

      Inside, however, the jazz spirit thrives. As it approached 3 a.m. one
      recent Sunday, musicians were just arriving. With many of the city's star
      musicians away on holiday tours, the stage was open for younger players
      like Andy McGhie, an 18-year-old saxophonist.

      When a patron remarked that the Kansas City jazz scene seemed frozen in
      time, Mr. McGhie replied: "That's true, even though there's also new music
      coming out of here. When you live here, you can't help but absorb the
      tradition. It's all around you. You can't escape it, and that's not a bad
      thing. The younger cats coming up here dream mostly about making a name for
      themselves, moving out to Chicago or New York, and then maybe coming back
      here to join the tradition when they're older."

      The tradition seems likely to survive for a long time to come. "I've tried
      booking national acts here," said Joe Wilcox, manager of the Plaza III,
      "but whenever I do, people come up to me and say, `Where's the Kansas City
      stuff?" '
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