In 1932, in Kansas City, Mary Lou Williams turned 22 years old. Lester Young and Ben Webster turned 23. Count Basie turned 28.
Led in part by Bennie Moten (who, in 1932, turned 38), they and other musicians developed a style of swing derived from 12-bar blues, with extended solos, backed by riffs, a unique music which secured Kansas City in jazz history.
When I first went to the Mutual Musicians Foundation, in the early 1980s, some of the masters who played the music at its height could be found there, still playing. Herman Walder had performed with Moten. Bill Saunders, Joe Thomas, Step-Buddy Anderson, “Piggy” Minor, Ben Kynard, Sam Johnson, Sr., were among the regulars who would sit across a table from you and describe what Kansas City once was.
Or, you could head over to 32nd and Main and let Milton Morris regale you with tales from the days when Kansas City peaked. If you were lucky, you might walk into Milton’s Tap Room on a Saturday afternoon when Count Basie was visiting.
Claude Williams’s and Jay McShann’s music epitomized Kansas City swing. But when “Fiddler” passed eight years ago, and “Hootie” six years ago, we lost our last geniuses with direct ties to Kansas City’s internationally renowned past, who could often be found playing around town. And with that direct influence gone, jazz in Kansas City has changed.
Pockets of Kansas City swing can still be found here. The Wild Women of Kansas City are wonderfully fun. The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra still plays the music though, between booking acts like the Four Freshmen and pricing the cheap seats at $40 next season (they were $25), the Orchestra appears to be targeting a limited audience.
Kansas City today is brimming with outstanding jazz musicians around the ages that Mary Lou Williams and Lester Young and Ben Webster and Count Basie were in the days they were exchanging musical ideas and developing Kansas City’s signature sound. But these young musicians are seeking their own voice and their own sound. And in many cases, lacking direct links to decades past, that voice is the antithesis of Kansas City jazz.
That’s not entirely bad and it’s not entirely good. Charlie Parker came out of Kansas City and, with musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, developed the voice of bebop. Miles Davis was constantly moving forward, absorbing the music around him and adding his own signature, eschewing what he had played before. Some of jazz’s best musicians thrive on constant growth.
And some Kansas City groups have shed this city’s signature jazz sound with resounding success. The People’s Liberation Big Band has reinvented big band music in Kansas City, its wit bringing accessibility to some way-out-there sounds.
But other groups showcasing original compositions perform with mixed results. At one recent show I attended, I endured during one number a sonic debacle. This may be part of the process of young musicians finding themselves. Or it may be young musicians demonstrating that, nope, the 21st century’s Lester Young – a player regaled for his tone, his unique style, his masterful and original solos – isn’t in this group.
I understand musicians wanting and needing to find their own place in jazz. I understand their absorbing the influences immediately surrounding them. That’s what a young Basie and Lester and Ben and Mary Lou did in creating Kansas City jazz. But I’m not a musician. I’m an enthusiast, a fan. And I also understand that playing the unfamiliar can lead to limited audiences. Matt Otto noted, in an article in Jazz Ambassador Magazine, that he needed to play more accessible tenor sax to support himself in Kansas City.
There’s the key. The music needs to be accessible. I’m not going to buy a painting that I don’t understand no matter how good the painting technique. Likewise, I’m not going to enjoy sitting through a performance if the music fails to draw me in. Some of Kansas City’s young musicians venture into originality at the sake of accessibility.
It surprises and disappoints me how quickly, our masters gone, that Kansas City jazz has largely abandoned its signature sound. I’m booking acts for this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. The principal sponsor favored a more traditional Kansas City jazz sound, appropriate for the family audience this festival attracts. The purpose of this festival is not to force Prairie Village to understand something musically new. It’s to entertain up to 10,000 people, on blankets and lounge chairs, from a large stage. Much of what I hear today on Kansas City jazz stages does not fit that profile.
I was surprised at how difficult it was to fill the limited spots in the festival. Not every act booked fits the profile. And one musician agreed to play some more traditional jazz, because that’s what it took for his group to secure the booking. In Kansas City today, there’s a dearth of Kansas City swing.
Jay McShann performed in the 1986 Kansas City Jazz Festival with “Sweets” Edison, Buddy Tate, Al Grey, Gus Johnson and Major Holley. A recording exists of that concert. Not long before he passed, one of Jay’s daughters played the recording for him. She suggested he should put together a group like that one more time. He couldn’t, he told her, because everyone who could play like that was gone.
That’s not entirely true.
One of the best live music shows I’ve attended over the last year was Ernie Andrews at The Blue Room. There, Bobby Watson, known for more complex music with his group Horizon, swung like he’d played 18th and Vine in 1932 with Basie and Lester and Ben and Mary Lou.
I’m not suggesting that’s what musicians looking for their own voice should adopt.
But I will suggest music doesn’t get any more accessible than that.