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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.

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During the 1890-1930 heyday of vaudeville, a number of female impersonators enjoyed impressive, successful careers and became household names across the country. Even during 1920s Prohibition, the tradition expanded into nightclubs and cabarets and drew enormous crowds in large cities like New York and Chicago. American entertainment tastes started to become more conservative, repressive oversight of liquor consumption followed Prohibition’s 1933 repeal, and female impersonation almost immediately disappeared from “legitimate” and cabaret stages throughout the United States. But in wide-open Pendergast-era Kansas City, female impersonators remained popular until the late 1930s.

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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.