A history of Jazz Music

by Piero Scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "A History of Jazz Music")

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Kansas City: Big Bands

TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

When New Orleans shut down Storyville (1917), many of its black musicians moved to Kansas City that, thanks to Tom Pendergast (1925-38), had become the vice capital of the USA.

Kansas City was for a while the only Midwestern city to keep the pace of New York and Chicago in jazz development, de facto relieving St Louis of the role it played during the "gay nineties". In fact, Kansas City jazz musicians prospered at a time (the "Great Depression") when most jazz musicians of other cities were in trouble.

In the clubs of Kansas City jazz music met a new vocal style (the "shouters") and a new piano style (the "boogie-woogie"), besides the very old bluesy style that was still very much alive in the south. But, mainly, Kansas City avoided the excesses of arrangement that were common in New York, and relished simpler, more immediate rhythmic patterns.

The Kansas City style had debuted in 1923, when the band of pianist Bennie Moten had cut its first record, soon to be followed by hits such as Harlan Leonard's South (november 1924), Kansas City Shuffle (december 1926) and Moten Stomp (june 1927). Several of its members (including the young Count Basie) were later recruited from Walter Page's Blue Devils Besides Basie, in the late 1920s Moten raised trumpeter Oran "Hot Lips" Page, guitarist Eddie Durham (the first guitarist to experiment with proto-amplifiers, for example in the solo of Band Box Shuffle in october 1929), saxophonist Ben Webster, and vocalist Jimmy Rushing. It wasn't until Just Rite (september 1928), though, that Moten's band clearly switched from ragtime to blues.

The Blue Devils, formed by bassist Walter Page in Oklahoma City in 1925 and that only recorded Blue Devils Blues (november 1929), vocalist Jimmy Rushing's debut recording, and Basie's instrumental Squabblin' (november 1929), were notable for a rhythm section made of piano, guitar, bass and drums (instead of bass horn, piano and banjo), the epitome of the more elastic rhythm section of the big-band era, and for alto saxophonist and clarinetist Buster Smith. Page was one of the first bassists to play four beats to the bar (as opposed to New Orleans' two beats to the bar) and coined a "walking" style on four strings that became a standard on five-string basses.

William "Count" Basie organized the Barons of Rhythm in 1936, which soon hired tenor saxophonists Lester Young and Herschel Evans, trombonists Dicky Wells and Benny Morton, vocalist Jimmy Rushing, and (replacing Oran "Hot Lips" Page) trumpet player Wilbur "Buck Clayton" Dorsey, propelling them with the formidable rhythm section of Basie on piano, Freddie Green on guitar, Walter Page on bass and Jo Jones on drums. The pillars of that line-up were tested in George Gershwin's Lady Be Good (october 1936) and Saul Chaplin's Shoe Shine Boy (november 1936), credited to the Jones-Smith Incorporated, a quintet with Basie, Page, Jones, Young and a trumpeter that featured Young's first (revolutionary) solos. Basie's big band indulged in a bluesier style based on the riff (often played in unison) and a "call and response" counterpoint between the brass and reed sections, while emphasizing extended improvisation: One O'clock Jump (july 1937), a 12-bar blues that became their first hit, several compositions by Moten's guitarist and trombonist Eddie Durham, notably Topsy (august 1937), Sent For You Yesterday (february 1938), Swinging The Blues (february 1938) and Every Tub (february 1938); then Basie's own Blue And Sentimental (june 1938), with Evans' most famous solo, Jumpin' at the Woodside (august 1938), Stop Beatin' Round the Mulberry Bush (august 1938), Goin' to Chicago Blues (february 1939), a two-sided version of Ray Noble's Cherokee (february 1939). Many of these were Rushing's personal showcases. Young contributed Taxi War Dance (march 1939), Lester Leaps In (september 1939), reminiscent of George Gershwin's I Got Rhythm, and Tickle Toe (march 1940). Evans died in 1939 and Young left the orchestra the following year, but the orchestra kept finding new talents and new hits, such as Open the Door Richard (january 1947) and Every Day I Have the Blues (may 1955), with new vocalist Joe Williams.

Lester Young's intimate, slow, lighter, laconic style (that was more about emotion than about vanity, more about melody than about innovation, and probably more inspired by the blues singers than by jazz trumpeters) made Armstrong' syncopated generation sound outdated. In 1934 Young had briefly replaced Coleman Hawkins in Fletcher Henderson's orchestra, but it was only in the Jones-Smith Incorporated, a quintet with Count Basie, Walter Page, Jo Jones and a trumpeter, that Young's style became a sensation. His first solos in George Gershwin's Lady Be Good (october 1936) and Saul Chaplin's Shoe Shine Boy (november 1936) introduced Young's tenor saxophone as almost the exact opposite of Coleman Hawkins' saxophone: light, breezy, vibrato-free, more similar to an alto than to Hawkins' tenor, and improvising on the melody rather than on the chords. Young then became a key element in Count Basie's orchestra, to which he contributed Taxi War Dance (march 1939), his signature theme Lester Leaps In (september 1939) and Tickle Toe (march 1940). His artistic peak, though, was perhaps achieved in another small setting, the Kansas City Six (1938) with guitarist Eddie Durham. Young did not seem to belong to the swing age at all: his role was essentially to provide a bridge between Bix Beiderbecke (or, better, Frankie Trumbauer) and cool jazz.

Eddie Durham introduced the electric guitar (just invented in 1931) into jazz music. It was a slow incremental process that started in Kansas City, when Durham was playing trombone in Bennie Moten's orchestra, and continued in Jimmi Lunceford's band (Durham introduced the amplified guitar into jazz music in 1935 via Lunceford's cover of Harold Arlen's Hittin' The Bottle) to finally return to Kansas City, with a combo that was drawn from the Count Basie orchestra: the Kansas City Five, formed in 1938 with trumpeter Buck Clayton, drummer Jo Jones, bassist Walter Page and rhythm guitarist Freddie Green, featured Eddie Durham's electric guitar as a replacement for Count Basie's piano. The Kansas City Six of 1938 were augmented by Lester Young on clarinet and tenor sax.
Durham composed for Basie's groups and orchestras: John's Idea (july 1937), Time Out (august 1937), Topsy (august 1937), Out The Window (october 1937), Sent For You Yesterday (february 1938), Swinging The Blues (february 1938), Every Tub (february 1938).

Kansas City's most influential tenor saxophonist, Ben Webster served Bennie Moten (1932), Fletcher Henderson (1934), Duke Ellington (1940-43). In the 1950s he became a mainstream entertainer with romantic collections such as King Of The Tenors (december 1953), featuring alto saxophonist Benny Carter and pianist Oscar Peterson among others, and Soulville (october 1957), again with Peterson on piano.

Pittsburgh's pianist Mary Lou Williams was the most innovative composer of the Kansas City school. She mainly wrote for Andy Kirk's big band, Twelve Clouds of Joy (formed in 1928), where she played piano: the bluesy Froggy Bottom (november 1929), Cloudy (november 1929), Mess-A Stomp (november 1929), the boogie-woogie Little Joe From Chicago (february 1938), the subversive Walkin' and Swingin' (march 1936), and Scratchin' In The Gravel (january 1940). After she retired from jazz, she composed a Duke Ellington-inspired Zodiac Suite (december 1945) for an 18-piece orchestra, the cantata Black Christ of the Andes (november 1963), and the Mary Lou's Mass (completed in 1970).

The golden age of Kansas City ended in 1938 when Tom Pendergast ended in jail and a wave of moral renewal swept the city. Most night clubs had to shut down and their stars had to move elsewhere or retire. TM, ®, Copyright © 2003 Piero Scaruffi All rights reserved.

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TM, ®, Copyright © 2005 Piero Scaruffi. All rights reserved.