One of his favorite stories was of New Year’s Eve, 1932. He paid Kansas City vice squad members $10 each to raid his club at 12:30 and 3:30 a.m., to clear the joint out and turn the crowd.
In 1974, a writer for Atlantic Monthly described Milton’s like this:
“For more than 20 years, Milton Morris’ dark vault of a bar has been a way station for suburban kids who sensed there had once been some ineffable richness to this city and that if any of it still existed, Milton would know where.”
I was one of those suburban kids.
A 1989 cover story in The Kansas City Star’s Sunday Star magazine described Milton Morris like this:
“Milton Morris was about five feet, six inches, and though most people today remember a skinny little man, he once weighed close to 240 pounds and looked very much like the comedian Lou Costello. Back then, as late as the 1960s, he drank a case of beer every day, usually Heineken’s.
“In his later years his drink was Cutty Sark with a splash of water. He drank from his own special glass, a 14-ounce ‘Texas size’ highball glass. Though his choice of liquor had changed, his consumption remained prodigious. He drank at least a fifth of Scotch each and every night. He smoked huge Macanudo cigars – $2 each – and bought six or eight boxes at a time. He truly loved those cigars….
“Milton talked something like a hip W.C. Fields, sprinkling his conversation with musician’s jargon. When a patron left the bar, Morris always muttered, ‘Later.’ His advice to one and all: ‘Drive fast, talk back to the cops – and tell ’em you know me.’
“The last part of this oft-repeated slogan took on new meaning to those underage drinkers astute enough to notice an interesting pattern. There were times when the phone rang and then [Milton’s wife] Shirley quietly walked around the bar telling the underage customers they had to leave. Such calls were always followed – after a decent interval – by a police visit.”
For many of us, Milton Morris was the link to Kansas City’s illustrious past of gangsters and jazz. He sold “medicinal” whiskey from a drugstore at 26th and Troost during prohibition. When prohibition ended, he opened the Hey Hay Club at Fourth and Cherry. He employed Count Basie and Charlie Parker and Ben Webster and Jo Jones when they called KC home. And until his death, he told us stories about the Kansas City that was, stories often grounded in dubious truth, from a stool at the front of Milton’s Tap Room at 3241 Main Street.
Next November will mark 30 years since Milton Morris passed.
This past Friday night, I enjoyed Eddie Moore and his group The Outer Circle at Take Five Coffee + Bar in Leawood. The audience was fairly small. I suspect more Kansans were watching, then mourning, KU’s NCAA Tournament basketball game than were out listening to music. But the performance of Eddie Moore on keyboards, Matt Hopper on guitar, Dominique Sanders on bass and Matt Leifer on drums was outstanding, riffing on Eddie’s original compositions.
Most, perhaps all, of these musicians were born after Milton Morris passed.
For many of us, Kansas City jazz began with that link to the past. It was a given. It was part of Kansas City’s jazz life. Kansas City and booze and mobsters and the origins of swing would always clutch a historical bond.
Which sometimes leaves it striking to hear jazz in Kansas City musically unbound and unlinked.
But that shouldn’t surprise when recognizing that jazz in Kansas City today is dominated by young musicians, most born after some of those most vital links were gone. These musicians could not have heard, first hand anyway, the stories I was told. Their interest in jazz is more purely musical, without taints of the the culture and history which fascinated me.
(It also shouldn’t surprise when realizing I was hearing the music in a location which was probably a wheat field an hour outside the city in Milton’s day.)
Friday night’s music fits just one definition of Kansas City jazz: It is music composed and performed by outstanding Kansas City jazz musicians.
True, Matt Hopper’s guitar sometimes riffed on the blues. But mostly, this group’s music held a contemporary, fresh feel while maintaining that accessibility some modern jazz performances lack. It doesn’t rage. Rather, it offers a hook to reel a listener into a vivacious, progressive feel.
It’s not music I would have heard in Milton’s. It doesn’t obviously tie back to Kansas City’s gangster-and-jazz past.
It is jazz by terrific musicians still evolving and growing the music three decades beyond the direct ties to the past I knew. It is a statement on jazz’s continued vitality in Kansas City some thirty years later.