Monday, February 20, 2012

Kansas City in the Early '30s, Part 1

The facade of the Cherry Blossom. The ruins of the hospital. Of all the places and all the people recalled below, that’s all that’s left. 

And the music.

Seventy five to eighty years ago, here, in Kansas City:

“Oh my, marvelous town. Clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs, clubs. In fact, I thought that was all Kansas City was made up of, was clubs at one time…. I mean, the cats just played. They played all day and tomorrow morning they went home and went to bed. The next day, the same thing. We’d go to one job we’d play on, then go jamming until seven, eight in the morning.... We never really thought too much about bread. Just wanted to make your rent, something like that. Everybody chipped in. It was good times….”
— Count Basie, Goin’ to Kanss City

“Anybody that came through town, they’d come and get me. If I was home and somebody was in the city, Ben Webster or somebody would come and scratch on the window and say, ‘Come on out, everybody’s jammin’,’ and I’d get up and go out with ’em. [There were] just thousands of clubs. I’ve never seen so many clubs in all my life. On Twelfth Street, there must have been fifty. They were clean clubs, but not anything classy.”

— Mary Lou Williams, Goin’ to Kansas City

“Now Eighteenth Street, from about Charlotte up to Prospect, was mostly joints. You know, booze houses.”

— Charles Goodwin, Goin’ to Kansas City

“The Yellow Front Saloon was at Eighteenth and Lydia, near [Wheatly Provident] Hospital, and sometimes, when things were really jumping in the joints in that neighborhood, you could come in there and there would be musicians leaning out of the windows of the hospital, playing their horns. I’d never seen and heard anything like that in my life.”

— Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

“…We’d go down to the Sunset Club. That was really something, about twelve feet wide and maybe sixty feet long. It was like going down a hallway. They hired a piano player and a drummer to come on at midnight, but we’d get there before that and there’d maybe be ten musicians on the stand. That’s where I first met Prez [Lester Young] and Ben Webster…. They’d fight it out ’till daylight, sometimes to ten o’clock…. Around nine o’clock in the morning, we’d go across to the Sawdust Trail, a dining room with sawdust on the floor, where all the musicians met. The Lone Star, where Pete Johnson was playing, was directly across from the Sunset…. The Sunset was not a bucket of blood, but you might see some fighting in it, and you’d have to break out of there.

“Another place where we had after-hours jam sessions was the Subway, over on 18th Street [1516 E. 18th Street]. Piney Brown ran it and he was a big man in all that black neighborhood, although Felix Payne was actually the boss. Piney was a friend to the musicians and in with the politicians, because he could get you out of jail. Felix Payne had an open lottery right on the street, with a roulette wheel and everything. You could go right in there and gamble, and there was always peace, although that was the area where you found the hustlers and the good restaurants.”

— Gene Ramey, The World of Count Basie

“In Kansas City all them big clubs were [run by] them big gangsters, and they were the musician’s best friend. They give you a job, and something to eat, and work regular. We didn’t know nothing about their business, they didn’t know nothing about ours. All they want to do is play the music and keep the crowd happy.”

— Buster Smith, Goin’ to Kansas City

“Some people seem to think the Cherry Blossom was a ballroom, but it was the old Eblon Theater turned into a huge nightclub. It was on Vine Street, between 18th and 19th, directly across the street from the Booker T. Washington Hotel, which had become the most popular one for musicians. Next door to it, on the right, was the Kentucky Tavern, where jam sessions would usually start around two o’clock in the afternoon. ‘Spook breakfasts,’ we called them in Kansas City! Anybody who stayed up all night we called spooks or ghosts. Jay McShann got his name ‘Hootie’ because he’d stay up so late he was up with the hoot owls. They also used to say that he would hoot like an owl when he’d drunk some whiskey!

“I slipped away from school the night Hawk played at the Cherry Blossom. Ben [Webster], Herschel [Evans], Dick Wilson and three or four other local tenors were there, and Hawk was cutting everybody out. Until Prez got him. He tore Hawk apart. He tore Hawk up so bad he missed a date in St. Louis. Hawk was still trying to get him at twelve o’clock the next day. Seemed like the longer Prez played, the longer that head-cutting session went on, the better Prez got. He played more creative things.

"The adage in Kansas City was – and still is – say something on your horn, not just show off your versatility and ability to execute. Tell us a story and don’t let it be a lie. Let it mean something, if it’s only one note, like Louis Armstrong or Duke would do.”

— Gene Ramey, The World of Count Basie

“Kansas City was a musicians’ town, and there were good musicians everywhere you turned. Sometimes you just stayed at one place, and sometimes you might hit maybe two or three or more, but you could never get around to all the jumping places in that town in one night. There were just too many.”

— Count Basie, Good Morning Blues

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