Wide open city. Vice. Pendergast. Depression-era jobs. Moten. Basie. Prez.
We know the big picture. We know the stories and names, the ones repeated in every book and article, of how a unique form of jazz developed in, of all places, Kansas City.
But there were also fascinating people and places on the periphery. People who may have laid a single brick of the foundation on which Kansas City jazz would be built, perhaps by their interaction with or influence on a key player. Or places integral to the community which add texture to our understanding of the times but which books and articles rarely note. Wheatly-Provident Hospital, which I wrote about in this post, is one such place.
There’s space with a blog to remember the characters and locales on the periphery of Kansas City's jazz history. From time to time, I’ll offer a post which does just that, pulling facts mostly from out-of-print books and articles.
Bennie Moten’s first band, formed in 1918, was B.B. and D., for piano player Bennie (Moten), singer Bailey (Hancock) and drummer Dude (Langford). The musicians joked it stood for “Big, Black and Dirty.”
In 1977, researchers recording oral remembrances of Kansas City’s jazz history were told by musicians that Dude Langford might still be around, though nobody knew where. Through government records, the interviewers found him, blind, impoverished and forgotten. And living in Kansas City.
Dude Langford (from the book Goin’ to Kansas City):
“[When] I first met Bennie, he was playing around town, little old joints here, some of ‘em just little fronts, a bar and a gambling room in the back. Just have a piano and drums in there, [dice] and pool tables in the back there…. Bailey was a blues singer. We picked him up [in 1918].
“The Labor Temple…was the big dance hall…. We went up there and got [our first job] on a Friday night [December, 1918]. It was our first dance, and we had the bills all up, tacked up all them posters in windows and things, ‘Labor Temple...Bennie, Bailey and Dude.’ We had big placards made up, in great big letters, would put ‘em all up in windows and things for our dances. Now we got cold feet, ‘cause a streetcar strike was on, [it was] snowing and cold…. Now it was so bad we were scared to go up in the hall, and we didn’t think no one was coming, scared we wouldn’t make the limit, and we didn’t have no money to pay [the owner].
“In those days you could get dago red, dago wine. Well, we used to go to the North end and get that dago wine, a quart bottle for a quarter, and ‘twould knock you out.
“We went over there and got that wine, got a little nerve [to] go on up there to the dance. A few people are standing outside, and say, ‘Look here, these people must be fools to come out on a night like this.’ But the dance hall is so nice, big nice dance floor… We went in, took the elevator on up to the second floor, and still was kinda shaky but that wine kept us going.
“We had one of those [counters] you press like that, to count people. We had a fellow would press that thing every time a couple would come in, and at one time we had twenty-three hundred on the floor…. Things was on in them days. That place was packed, you couldn’t get in, the first floor and the second floor….
“I’ll tell you, we got blowed, knocked us out. Got about seventy or eighty dollars a piece. That was during World War I….
“B. B. and D. didn’t last too long, but I’ll tell you, we didn’t think there was going to be a B. B. and D. at all that first night we opened.
“We stayed there for over a year, I guess…. We had three nights up there, Monday night, Thursday night and Saturday night…. We gave Bailey a dollar and a half for singing them three nights, and of course me and Bennie split the spoils. I wouldn’t tell a lie, God strike me dead. I wasn’t [ashamed] then. I am now. [Bailey] didn’t care, just as long as he was singing, and there was a lot of pretty girls….
“We got to be big shots on account of making money. A hundred and something a piece [per night]…. We knew a fellow that was in show business and a pretty good friend of ours, got to be a car agent. He sold me a car and he sold Bennie a car, a Chalmers and a Peerless. Then we were big shots then, sure enough….
“We played waltzes, schottisch, all kinds of things. We never did practice. Most of the musicians [would] just come, sit in, blow their heads off…. Different people would come to sit in, just to be blowing, you know, and sharpen their stuff up.”
Trumpeter Booker Washington:
“Dude was an excellent drummer in those days. In fact, he was one of the top drummers in those days, ‘cause he had the experience and the knowledge…. Bennie started out as B. B. and D., Bennie, Bailey and Dude, and then kept adding to the orchestra. He come up with five [pieces, by 1922], then he come up with seven, until he got to fifteen pieces.”
And there it is, the start of the Bennie Moten Orchestra which would lead, of course, to the Count Basie Orchestra. The story isn’t much different from how many musicians start out today.
The interviewers wrote that when they found Dude Langford, they found a lonely man, but a stroyteller with a vivid memory. In particular, in Goin’ to Kansas City, they recount this:
“His greatest interest was in chasing women and he regaled us for hours with tales of exotic days on the road. Particularly interesting was his winter-long interlude as a house guest of a Montana brothel. It was too cold to go outside.”