As Bennie Moten, George E. Lee, and other African American bandleaders based at 18th and Vine pioneered a new style of jazz, a number of white bands in downtown Kansas City were performing a style of hot jazz modeled after nationally popular white bands. Ironically, while Kansas City would gain renown for its great African American bands that barnstormed across country, it was a white dance band, the Coon-Sanders Nighthawk Orchestra, which first established Kansas City’s national reputation as a jazz center.
When people think of Kansas City jazz in the 1920s and ‘30s, certain images come to mind: political corruption, gangster activity, and music that catered to and benefited from this type of environment. But vice and corruption were not the only elements that made the city a center of innovative music. The black middle and upper classes also supported the music and the musicians, especially at dance halls such as the Paseo Hall. And there were black organizations such as the NAACP, men’s groups like the Elks Lodge, and ladies’ groups like the 12 Charity Girls, who organized formal dances to raise funds for various institutions in the community.
In the rich and celebrated musical history of Kansas City, few individuals are more closely associated with hard-swinging, riff-based Kansas City jazz style than Count Basie. The Count Basie Orchestra became both the best known and the longest-lived big band to emerge from this region, and Basie made Kansas City jazz nationally and internationally renowned.
His booking agent gave him the nickname "Speedy" for his slow, soft-shoe dance style and his relaxed pace. While the multi-talented dancer, drummer and singer never gained national fame, as did contemporaries Count Basie and Charlie Parker, Speedy Huggins was one of the most beloved musicians in Kansas City. Prior to his death at the age of 85, he was a living legend, as well as a cherished Kansas City icon. He was one of the few jazzmen still working whose musical roots reached back to the heyday of Kansas City jazz, when the 18th and Vine district boasted one of the liveliest music and nightclub scenes in the country.
Charles Johnson was one of just a few white men who studied and mastered the African American ragtime music of the turn of the twentieth century. Although his early music training was not in this type of music, he found his musical talent well suited for ragtime piano playing and composing.
Kansas City’s Edward Harry Kelly became a nationally recognized ragtime composer just as ragtime became the most popular music in the country. Ragtime, jazz, and musical comedy have often been called Americans’ gifts to music. Ragtime gave birth to Dixieland music and contributed to early jazz. When ragtime is played on the piano, it has a ‘ragged’ sound because the pianist plays regular rhythmic bass with the left hand and a complex melody with the right.
Andy Kirk was never a topnotch instrumentalist, composer, arranger or personality, yet he parlayed his musical talent, organizational skills, and a series of lucky breaks into an enormously successful career as a bandleader. Although his musical legacy is not as great as that of rival bandleaders Benny Moten and Count Basie, Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy was one of the most popular big bands during the heyday of jazz in Kansas City and one of the first regional orchestras from the southwest to achieve national prominence.
During the 1920s and early 1930s, George E. Lee fronted one of the most popular and successful bands in Kansas City. Though more akin to a vaudeville troupe, George E. Lee’s Novelty Singing Orchestra was the chief rival of the Bennie Moten Orchestra for supremacy among the city’s many outstanding black bands.
Pianist, band leader, composer, and vocalist Jay "Hootie" McShann is recognized as one of the most influential blues and jazz artists of the twentieth century, with a career that spanned over 60 years. A bluesman at heart, McShann helped shape the Kansas City sound which was heavily influenced by blues and swing.
Nightclub owner, raconteur, and aspirant to political office, Milton Morris was one of the great champions of Kansas City jazz. His storytelling skills, wisecracks and foot-long cigars also secured his reputation as one of the city's most colorful characters
Kansas City jazz, a hard-swinging, blues-based musical style that flourished in the 1920s and '30s, is arguably this city's greatest contribution to the uniquely American art form of jazz. Of the countless musicians and bandleaders who played at nightclubs, ballrooms, social clubs, and all-night jam sessions in the 18th & Vine district during that golden era, none embodied Kansas City jazz more than Bennie Moten.
Parker was born in Kansas City, Kansas, on August 29, 1920. He grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he played in jazz clubs as a teenager and young man. The local jazz culture based in the Vine Street nightclub district cultivated his talents as a teenager. Indeed, it was during this period that Kansas City made notable contributions to jazz with hometown artists such as Count Basie, Bennie Moten, and Buster Smith.
The advent of radio broadcasting in the early 1920s made a local Kansas City musical group popular all over the country. Joe Sanders together with Carleton Coon formed a band that became known as the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks. They started out playing at the Plantation Grill in the Hotel Muehlebach, and local radio station WDAF broadcast their show across the airwaves.
Harlan Leonard once described N. Clark Smith’s impressive persona as the segregated Lincoln High School’s band leader in Kansas City, saying that Major Smith held a “commanding personality”: “He was short, chubby, gruff, military in bearing, wore glasses, and was never seen without his full uniform and decorations. His language was rather rough and occasionally shocking to the few young ladies who were taking music classes, though never offensive. Major Smith simply ran a tight ship. . . . He drilled the Lincoln marching bands until they were the best in the area, some said the best of their kind in the Middle West.”
Joe Turner had a tremendous voice and a talent for improvising lyrics. He was called the "Boss of the Blues," and during the 1930s—Kansas City's musical heyday—"Big Joe" Turner was the greatest blues singer in town.
Claude "Fiddler" Williams didn't play the instrument for which he became best known until after he had already mastered the guitar, mandolin, banjo, cello, and bass. Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on February 22, 1908, Williams began his musical career 10 years later.
In a remarkably productive career that spanned a half century, Mary Lou Williams established herself as a pianist, composer, and arranger, an unprecedented feat that has remained an inspiration to women in jazz.
Lester Willis Young was one of the premier saxophonists of the 1930s and 40s whose style and sound was emulated by future generations of jazz musicians. Hailed as “The President of the Tenor Sax” by his close friend Billie Holiday, he was simply “Prez” to his peers. While in Kansas City, Lester freelanced with Bennie Moten, George Lee, Clarence Love and other bands, before joining the Count Basie-Buster Smith band at the Reno Club in 1934.
On September 23, 1923, the Bennie Moten Orchestra made its first recording consisting of eight songs. By strict musical standards, the songs themselves were unrefined and not much removed from existing blues music. But the Bennie Moten Orchestra would soon build upon its earliest recordings to develop a distinct Kansas City style of jazz that later dominated the jazz scene in the late 1930s and 1940s.