Exploring the Roots of Jazz in Kansas City

When you think of jazz, the first city that comes to mind is likely New Orleans. However, many music historians consider Kansas City one of jazz’s most important cradles. The city developed its unique jazz sound during the 1920s and 1930s and played a vital role in shaping the music genre as we know it today. In this article, we’ll take a look at the history of jazz in Kansas City, exploring its background, style, and impact on the national music scene.

The Birth of Kansas City Jazz

The Coon-Sanders Original Nighthawk Orchestra was the first band from Kansas City to gain a national reputation in the 1920s. However, the Kansas City jazz school is typically associated with black bands like Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk, Harlan Leonard, George E. Lee, Count Basie, and Jay McShann. Kansas City in the 1930s was a cultural melting pot, attracting people from all over the country. 

The city’s jazz musicians often engaged in friendly musical competitions, performing variations of a single song throughout the night. Jazz clubs like the Amos’ n’ Andy, the Cherry Blossom, and the Spinning Wheel were scattered throughout the city. However, the most fertile area was the inner city neighborhood of 18th Street and Vine, where many jazz musicians lived and performed.

Kansas City Jazz Style

Kansas City jazz is characterized by its preference for a 4 feel (walking), which gave it a more relaxed, fluid sound than previous jazz styles. It also included extended soloing, as the non-stop nightlife under political boss Tom Pendergast fueled highly competitive jam sessions that often continued until later than sunrise. The musicians’ goal was to “say something” with their instruments rather than simply show off their technique. The KC big bands often played by memory, composing and arranging the music collectively rather than sight-reading as other big bands did. This further contributed to the loose, spontaneous Kansas City sound.

Kansas City jazz was heavily influenced by the blues, with many songs based around a 12-bar blues structure. Riffing was also a defining characteristic, with different sections often improvising collectively. The Count Basie’s signature tunes “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside” are examples of this riffing, as they are mainly collections of riffs memorized in a head arrangement and punctuated with solos.

Impact on National Music Scene

Kansas City jazz was a major influence on the larger music world, with its style overtly transferring to the national scene in 1936 when record producer John Hammond discovered Count Basie on his car radio. However, the city’s jazz era came to an end when Pendergast was convicted of income tax fraud in 1940, and the city cracked down on the clubs.

Notable Kansas City Musicians

Kansas City produced many influential jazz musicians, including Count Basie, Charlie Parker, and Lester Young. Other notable musicians associated with Kansas City jazz include Buck Clayton, Herschel Evans, Coleman Hawkins, Andy Kirk, Julia Lee, Jimmie Lunceford, and Benny Moten.

Jazzoo: A Celebration of Kansas City Jazz

Each year, Kansas City celebrates its jazz heritage with Jazzoo, a charity fundraiser dedicated to raising funds for the Kansas City Zoo. In 2011, Jazzoo was one of the nation’s largest charity fundraisers, raising over $800,000.

Final Thoughts

Kansas City played a vital role in the development of jazz during the 1920s and 1930s. The city’s jazz musicians developed a unique style characterized by a relaxed, fluid sound, extended soloing, and heavy blues influence. Kansas City jazz was also defined by its use of riffing, in which different sections of a band would improvise collectively, creating a dynamic and unique sound. Although Kansas City’s jazz era was relatively short-lived, it left a lasting impact on the national music scene and continues to be celebrated through events like Jazzoo.

In conclusion, the history of jazz in Kansas City is a fascinating and important chapter in the development of one of America’s most celebrated music genres. The city’s jazz musicians developed a unique style that blended a relaxed, fluid sound with extended soloing, riffing, and a heavy blues influence. Kansas City played a major role in shaping jazz during its formative years, and its impact can still be heard in the music we listen to today. Whether you’re a fan of jazz or just appreciate great music, the history of jazz in Kansas City is one worth exploring.

Sign In


Reset Password

Please enter your username or email address, you will receive a link to create a new password via email.