“If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris, go to Kansas City”. Omaha Herald.
Kansas City from the mid 1920’s to the end of the 1930’s was a melting pot akin to what Storyville was in New Orleans at the turn of the century. It is at this time that KC becomes a major factor in the development of jazz. Perhaps it was the hardships of the Great Depression that turned people away from the popular sweet dance tunes of the time to the more sexually unabashed rawness of what was to become “swing” music and, from 1935 to the end of World War II, the only time in its history that jazz was the popular music of the day. KC seems to have been the most natural place for this to happen – and probably because of one man, Tom Pendergast.
Tom Pendergast was not a jazz musician. He was the Democratic Boss of Jackson County who shaped the fortunes of KC and its surroundings from 1926 right through the 1930’s. He was no doubt corrupt, with powerful mob ties but, along with his ownership if the Ready Mixed Concrete Company, he ensured that his city and county would benefit from a massive public works program that went in some way to insulating them from the effects of the Wall Street Crash. His connections with the police department ensured that Prohibition was essentially null and void – not one conviction was made under the Volstead Act during his reign. Contrast this with the 27,301 convictions made in the rest of the country between 1920 and 1933.
Thus Kansas City was to become the place to be. There were bars and nightclubs everywhere, most notably at 18th Street and Vine, that stayed open all night. This is an important factor that goes hand in hand with the style of music that was developing in KC at this time – the idea of forming songs from riffs and giving the rhythm section a whole lot more responsibility that freed up the saxophonists and pianists to improvise more. This is the time when the walking bass comes to the fore, essentially making the stride piano form redundant. A lighter, airier piano style was now complemented by a new style of drumming, where the drummer would keep time on the ride cymbal, not the snare. I personally have played gigs in bars that have gone on into the wee small hours. After your original material has been exhausted you are forced to become a little more innovative and it’s surprising the amount of new music that can come from a long jam session (with the wheels of inspiration being highly lubricated!)
The man synonymous with the evolution of Kansas City jazz was Bennie Moten. Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra was the most popular jazz band in what was known as the “territories”, and over its existence it incorporated a who’s who of Kansas City jazz men, most notably Count Basie. Recordings made by the band from 1929 to 1932 are a clear demonstration of how the music was evolving. Here’s “New Vine Street Blues”. The style is very much of the 1920’s with a tuba providing the bass lines.
A few years later Moten hired Walter Page, who is regarded as a pioneer of the walking style bass. ( Here is an article about Page and his band The Blue Devils) Check out "Moten Swing” from 1932, with Page on bass and Count Basie on the piano. Contrast this with the previous song – here the rhythm section is a lot more controlled and fluid, a precursor to the swing explosion that was to happen in a few years
Here's a video with some commentary on Kansas City jazz and Tom Pendergaast.