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Kansas City was home to a unique jazz orchestral style developed in the 1920s urban American Southwest that differed from the styles of New Orleans, Chicago or New York because of its local variant of ragtime and blues tradition. Kansas City (KC), with its geographical strategic position - the meeting point of the rivers Kansas and Missouri - and trade in livestock, was its focal point.
Of great significance was the 'Prendergast prosperity': KC's corrupt political leader, Tom Prendergast, promoted its underground economy and nightlife, until his conviction for tax fraud in 1938, and created a gambling precursor to Las Vegas. Many of the effects of the depression, at least for musicians, were absent, and there was plenty of work, especially in the big bands which thrived.

From the mid-1930s the Kansas City sound was incorporated into the mainstream of swing.

Bebop had a strong Kansas City derivation with its use of a less prescriptive rhythm section.

New ideas brought in by the travelling vaudeville shows were incorporated with the local musical traditions of the brass band, ragtime orchestra and rural blues.

Saxophones were prevalent, and emphasis was placed on simple memorized arrangements and the 12-bar blues (many of its leading singers such as Joe Turner & Jimmy Rushing were 'blues shouters'), which gave a stylistic unity. A 4/4 conception of time superseded the two-beat pulse of New Orleans and Chicago, which allowed greater freedom for the soloist, as did the riff - a repetitive ensemble device against which soloists improvised. This in turn led to soloists becoming more competitive: 'cutting contests', where soloists duelled with each other and where reputations were won and lost, took place after hours, one notorious contest taking place in 1934 when Coleman Hawkins took on Lester Young, Herschel Evans and Ben Webster, and lost!

Pianists began to 'comp', playing backing chords and becoming less reliant on a full stride piano repertoire; the idea of a walking bass line was developed and the drummer's hi-hat was emphasised at the expense of the bass drum. The rhythm section par excellence was Bill Basie, Walter Page and Jo Jones.


Bennie Moten (1894-1935), from Kansas City, had studied with two of Scott Joplin's pupils. His first recordings in 1923 were all blues, and he was one of the first to replace the tuba with a string bass. The early-1930s was his heyday, and he attracted members of Walter Page's Blue Devils (Count Basie, Lester Young, Eddie Durham, Jimmy Rushing, Hop Lips Page). He died whilst undergoing surgery in 1935.

Walter Page (1900-57), a trained musician who formed his group the Blue Devils in 1925, he was able to attract good musicians but unable to keep them.

Count Basie

Andy Kirk (1898-1992) grew up in Denver and studied music theory with Paul Whiteman's father. He joined Terrence Holder's Dark Clouds of Joy in 1925 and assumed leadership in 1929, renaming the band Clouds of Joy. He moved to Kansas City in 1929, where they recorded and began to rival Moten's band for popularity. Mary Lou Williams was the band's pianist, skilful arranger and composer until 1942. The band was much more subtle than its rivals and less dependent on riffs; it had commercial leanings. Kirk's soloists included Dick Wilson, Don Byas, Shorty Baker, Howard McGee, Fats Navarro and Charlie Parker. The band dissolved in 1948, although Kirk remained active until the 1960s.

Jay McShann. 'Hootie', a self-taught pianist with a percussive style who drew on the blues and boogie-woogie, moved to Kansas City only in the mid-1930s where he formed, before a big band in 1939, a sextet. The big band was first recorded in 1941 but moved to New York in 1942, now including Parker. McShann returned to KC in the 1950s and continued to tour widely, especially in a trio format.

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