A short history lesson: Story is that jazz began in New Orleans then moved up the Mississippi River. But Kansas City doesn’t share that route. So how, in the 1920s and '30s, did our unique style develop? I'll cite three reasons. And news this week reminds us that one of those reasons is equally vital today.
Best known is that during the Great Depression, Kansas City was an open, no prohibition town. Bandleader Andy Kirk, in his autobiography Twenty Years on Wheels, tells of a tour through Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee in 1933. Theaters where his band was booked had closed. In those still open, few customers showed. But when the band returned to KC, “The whole town was wide open, as usual. Clubs were going full blast, lights were bright....And we had a job practically waiting for us.” Musicians from throughout the south and southwest came here. In KC, they found work.
Less known is TOBA, the black vaudeville circuit. The letters stood for Theater Owners Booking Association, though participants said they meant Tough On Black Asses. Starting in New York, the show toured west to KC where it reorganized before heading back. And when it reorganized, some were left behind. Among those: a young piano player from New Jersey named Bill Basie.
But also crucial to jazz developing, of all places, here was the music program at Lincoln High, then Kansas City, Missouri’s black high school. It produced musicians who formed and performed in KC’s most historic bands. Blue Devils leader and Basie bassist Walter Page is a key example.
Leading the program stood Major N. Clark Smith, a disciplinarian who musicians recalled with respect. Saxophonist Bill Saunders, in the book Goin’ to Kansas City, says this: “One day Major Smith told the class that music was melody, harmony and rhythm. Being a kid, I paid no attention. The next week the first thing he said, ‘Saunders, stand up here and tell me what music is....You don’t know, do you?’ He had a ruler and he said, ‘Put your head on the table. Music is melody.’ BOOM! ‘Harmony.’ BOOM! ‘Rhythm.’ BOOM! ‘Now go home and tell your Mammy I hit you.’ But I know what music is.”
Lincoln High’s music tradition survives Major Smith. Charlie Parker attended there as did, much later, vocalist Kevin Mahogany. And just this past school year the Lincoln College Preparatory Academy (its official name today) jazz band played Carnegie Hall.
So why this history lesson now?
This week, Lincoln Academy nearly ended its jazz band due to budget cuts. First noted on the news and opinion blog TKC (here) then on Channel 41’s news (here), the crisis now appears over with the band director reinstated.
But it brought to mind a critical part of the mix that resulted in Kansas City jazz.
The building most of those musicians attended, at 19th and Tracy, is gone (the current location opened in 1936). And today lessons aren’t reinforced with a whack.
But that doesn’t diminish the history that Lincoln High helped produce. Or the role that education served. Education is critical to exposing young people to the arts, to music and to jazz. And through that exposure, to discover with whom the music will stick.
That always will be the case. And always was.