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