It’s a busy weekend.
A hundred years before, on June 17, 1916, The Kansas City Sun ran a story headlined, “Band Master Organizing Band Chorus” The sub-head read, “Big Organization of Two Hundred and Sixty Members.”
|Kansas City Sun, June 17, 1916|
“A great phenomenal musical organization, that’s all. Tremendous in number, wonderful in ability. Think what it means. A band augmented to sixty pieces with highly developed musicians and two hundred thoroughly trained voices. Great, you say. Why, the heavens will acknowledge such music and such singing from such a band and chorus.
“In no place in America can a community boast such a thing on such a magnificent scale. This will probably be the high mark in big things musical. It will work wonders in civic affairs and racial matters. Nothing like music to win love, respect and confidence among the races. If music soothes the savage, it also reconciles the civilized to better race adjustment. All Kansas City will be proud of the Afro-American Band and all male chorus, with N. Clark Smith as master-director.
“You know about the famous Pickininny band which toured the world, taking in Australia and many foreign parts; you know who created the Tuskegee Concert Band that toured this country and opened doors never before opened to Colored musicians and won applause from the highest musical circles; you know who directs the best race band in these parts today, and you know in what comparatively short time he has accomplished this result. Mr. Smith has a reputation for doing big things musical, in band work and the intensive study of song by the many….”
Major N. Clark Smith educated many of the musicians who would create Kansas City jazz. At the time this article ran, he directed the bands at Western University, in what is today Kansas City, KS, and was once the town of Quindaro. But in September, 1916, he would move to Lincoln High School where he trained musicians like Walter Page, Harlan Leonard, Julia Lee, Jap Allen and Lamar Wright, each of whom would play key roles in the development and dominance of Kansas City jazz.
The Kansas City Sun unapologetically “reported” on January 9, 1915, when Smith landed in KCK:
|N. Clark Smith in 1914|
“More than 16 years ago he carried a band composed of youths of this community known as the Pickinny band [yes, it’s spelled differently in this article] to Europe and Australia and won fame for both himself and the band, many of the members of which have since developed into either exceptional musicians or successful business men. Upon his return to America, he was elected director and captain of the Famous Eighth Regiment Band of the Illinois National Guard, which he brought to a high degree of efficiency until it was publicly acknowledged by the military authorities to be the greatest band of the state of Illinois. His services were later secured by the Wizard, Dr. Booker T. Washington, for the great school at Tuskegee, and here he built up another famous musical organization that has toured America….”
In the book Goin’ to Kansas City, saxophonist Bill Saunders recalls being a student under Smith at Lincoln High School:
“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 [was], ‘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.”
Saxophonist Herman Walder related:
At Lincoln High School, “I got into a band with some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever known…. I was under Major Smith…. Oh, that cat was a masterpiece. Man, I remember, he come by me and I made the wrong note. Man, he took that baton and hit me right on the top of the head…until I got it right. He was a masterpiece, but after he left, we had a helluva band.”
By 1917, Bennie Moten was organizing his first band (B. B. and D., with Bailey Hancock and Dude Lankford). And the Musicians Protective Union Local No. 627 was founded, initially with 25 members. With N. Clark Smith moving to Lincoln High School the previous September, the puzzle pieces that would lead to the creation of a unique style of jazz in Kansas City were starting to fall into place. By 1930, the union would be dedicating its new headquarters at 1823 Highland with 347 members. Among those members were Bill Basie, Bennie Moten – and Walter Page, Harlan Leonard, Julia Lee, Jap Allen, Lamar Wright, Herman Walder and Bill Saunders.
In June, 2016, a festival honoring Kansas City swing will be staged at 1823 Highland. At the same time, major jazz festivals will swing Overland Park and Parkville.
In June, 1916, a man crucial to why jazz developed in Kansas City was preparing a very big concert.