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Kansas City jazz

Towns which are popular with Kansas City jazz

Kansas City jazz is a style of jazz that developed in Kansas City, Missouri and the surrounding Kansas City Metropolitan Area during the 1930s and marked the transition from the structured big band style to the musical improvisation style of Bebop. The hard-swinging, bluesy transition style is bracketed by Count Basie who in 1929 signed with the Bennie Moten's Kansas City Orchestra and Kansas City native Charlie Parker who was to usher in the Bebop style in the 1940s. According to a Kansas City website, "While New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, America's music grew up in Kansas City".[1] Kansas City is known as one of the most popular "cradles of jazz". Other cities include New Orleans, Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh and New York City.[2][3]


  • Background 1
  • Style 2
  • Aftermath 3
  • Musicians 4
  • Selected discography 5
  • Literature 6
  • References 7


The first band from Kansas City to acquire a national reputation was the Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra, a white group which broadcast nationally in the 1920s. However, the Kansas City jazz school is identified with the black bands of the 1920s and 1930s.

Kansas City in the 1930s was very much the crossroads of the United States resulting in a mix of cultures. Transcontinental trips at the time whether by plane or train often required a stop in the city. The era marked the zenith of power of political boss Tom Pendergast. Kansas City was a wide open town with liquor laws and hours totally ignored and was called the new Storyville. Most of the jazz musicians associated with the style were born in other places but got caught up in the friendly musical competitions among performers that could keep a single song being performed in variations for an entire night. Often members of the big bands would perform at regular venues earlier in the evening and go to the jazz clubs later to jam for the rest of the night.

Claude Williams described the scene:

Kansas City was different from all other places because we'd be jamming all night. And [if] you come up here ... playing the wrong thing, we'd straighten you out.[4]

Clubs were scattered throughout city but the most fertile area was the inner city neighborhood of 18th Street and Vine.

Among the clubs were the Amos 'n' Andy, Boulevard Lounge, Cherry Blossom, Chesterfield Club, Chocolate Bar, Dante's Inferno, Elk's Rest, Hawaiian Gardens, Hell's Kitchen, the Hi Hat, the Hey Hey, Lone Star, Old Kentucky Bar-B-Que, Paseo Ballroom, Pla-Mor Ballroom, Reno Club, Spinning Wheel, Street's Blue Room, Subway, and Sunsetx.


Kansas City jazz is distinguished by the following musical elements:

  • A preference for a 4/4 beat over the 2/4 beat found in other jazz styles of the time. As a result, Kansas city jazz had a more relaxed, fluid sound than other jazz styles.
  • Extended soloing. Fueled by the non-stop nightlife under political boss Tom Pendergast, Kansas City jam sessions went on well past sunrise, fostering a highly competitive atmosphere and a unique jazz culture in which the goal was to "say something" with one's instrument, rather than simply show off one's technique. It was not uncommon for one "song" to be performed for several hours, with the best musicians often soloing for dozens of choruses at a time.
  • So-called "head arrangements". The KC big bands often played by memory, composing and arranging the music collectively, rather than sight-reading as other big bands of the time did. This further contributed to the loose, spontaneous Kansas City sound.
  • A heavy blues influence, with KC songs often based around a 12-bar blues structure, rather than the 8-bar jazz standard.
  • One of the most recognizable characteristics of Kansas City jazz is frequent, elaborate riffing by the different sections. Riffs were often created - or even improvised - collectively, and took many forms: a) one section riffing alone, serving as the main focus of the music; b) one section riffing behind a soloist, adding excitement to the song; or c) two or more sections riffing in counterpoint, creating an exciting hard-swinging sound. The Count Basie signature tunes "One O'Clock Jump" and "Jumpin' at the Woodside", for example, are simply collections of complex riffs, memorized in a head arrangement, and punctuated with solos. Glenn Miller's famous swing anthem "In the Mood" closely follows the Kansas City pattern of riffing sections, and is a good example of the Kansas City style after it had been exported to the rest of the world.


Kansas City influence overtly transferred to the national scene in 1936 when record producer John H. Hammond launched his career by discovering Kansas City talent, starting with Count Basie.

Pendergast was to be convicted of income tax evasion in 1940 and the city cracked down on the clubs effectively ending the era.

Beginning in the 1970s Kansas City has attempted to celebrate the heritage by taking off the rough edges for family friendly environments. In the 1970s, the city tried to create a jazz enclave in the River Quay area on the Missouri River in the City Market neighborhood. Three of the clubs were bombed during a mob war that ultimately also led to the demise of mob influence of Las Vegas casinos that was depicted in the 1995 movie Casino.

In 1979, Bruce Ricker filmed The Last of the Blue Devils, a documentary starring Basie and singer Big Joe Turner, and featuring many performers from the original era.

In 1981 114 people died in the Hyatt Regency walkway collapse in an attempted recreation of the jazz scene during a tea dance.

In 1996 Kansas City native Robert Altman released the film Kansas City depicting the Kansas City jazz era.

In 1997 the American Jazz Museum opened in the 18th and Vine neighborhood with a mission of celebrating Kansas City's jazz heritage.

Each year Kansas City celebrates "Jazzoo" - a charity fundraiser dedicated to Kansas City jazz and raising funds for the Kansas City Zoo. In 2011, Jazzoo was one of the Nation's largest charity fundraisers, raising over $800,000.[5]


Selected discography

Early jazz and swing era music:

  • Various artists, The Real Kansas City - Columbia (1996)
  • Various artists, Jazz Kansas City Style - Pearl (1996)
  • Various artists, Cradle of Jazz - The International Music Co. (2000) [6][7]
  • Various artists, Kansas City Jazz 1924-1942 - Fremeaux & Assoc. Fr (2005)


  • Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop--A History New York: Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 978-0-19-530712-2
  • Haddix, Chuck. Rags to Be-bop: the Sounds of Kansas City Music, 1890-1945. [Text by] Chuck Haddix. Kansas City, Mo.: University of Missouri at Kansas City, University Libraries, Marr Sound Archives, 1991. Without ISBN
  • Nathan W. Pearson, Jr., Goin' to Kansas City. Urbana, Il.: University of Illinois Press, 1988, ISBN 0-252-06438-0
  • Nathan W. Pearson, Jr., Political and Musical Forces That Influenced the Development of Kansas City Jazz. In: Black Music Research Journal Vol. 9 (2), (1989), pp. 181–192
  • Ross Russell, Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1971, ISBN 0-520-01853-2
  • Gunther Schuller, The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (The History of Jazz, Vol. 2), New York: Oxford University Press, 1991


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