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What Ultimately Killed Kansas City Jazz and What This Says About Necessary Evils
Feb 23–Mar 08, 2023
Praisingt the Past

kanas city jazz book cover

On January 1, 1920, America began an experiment that was doomed to fail. That day marked the beginning of “Prohibition” as an amendment to the U.S. Constitution went into effect that prohibited the manufacture and sale of intoxicating liquors. The law would be repealed thirteen years later, but in the interim, it forced formerly law-abiding citizens underground to get their booze and the highlife that often accompanies drink.

But not everywhere. In Kansas City, a corrupt municipal government allowed “speakeasies” to operate discreetly without interference. While it was impossible to conceal a store that sold liquor for consumption off the premises, bars could be easily converted to restaurants that served liquor by the drink. Women who had avoided saloons as disreputable were more willing to imbibe at the table, and a new era of “coeducational drinking” began.
The music has roots in ragtime, a genre that in hindsight has respectability, but which was born in the region’s “sporting houses” where gambling and prostitution were also available. 

With the wine and women in place, all that was needed to keep the good times rolling was music. With most of the wide-open territory around it shut down, Kansas City became a mecca for musicians who catered to popular tastes, and the golden age of Kansas City jazz began.

Musicians came from Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and elsewhere to Kansas City to make a living. Bennie Moten’s band emerged from a crowded pack to become the top outfit in the region, and with his death in 1935 during an operation the jockeying to succeed him began.  The winner was a cagey pianist from the East coast named Bill “Count” Basie, whose easy-going personality made him more attractive to musicians that Moten’s nephew “Bus.”

Basie’s band was ultimately the biggest name to emerge from Kansas City during this period, but not the first to win fame--that was Andy Kirk and His Clouds of Joy.  Like Basie, Kirk took over a band started by another man, Terrence Holder. Kirk had grown up in Denver, where congenial relations between the races led him to reject categorization as a “race” music artist; he aimed to appeal to a broader audience, and his “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” became the biggest hit by a Kansas City band of the era.

The jazz that emerged from the Midwest in the early part of the 20th century wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the rejection of Prohibition by the public, and the willingness of saloon-keepers to risk their money in an illegal trade.  When Mayor Thomas Pendergast--who allowed liquor to flow despite Prohibition--was sent to prison for tax evasion, do-gooders stepped in and as is often the case over-reacted.  Even though Prohibition had been repealed, reformers went after bars that didn’t strictly observe closing hour laws, bringing an end to all-night jam sessions that served as test kitchens and proving grounds for musicians on the way up, including Charlie Parker.

As to why the Midwest produced so many musicians who have enriched American life through jazz, the music has roots in ragtime, a genre that in hindsight has respectability, but which was born in the region’s “sporting houses” where gambling and prostitution were also available. Eventually, ragtime made its way to vaudeville stages where its syncopated rhythms shed their disreputable roots, but it also needed to loosen up its strict adherence to the beat and become less formal.  The man who did more than anyone to push ragtime into jazz was Wilbur Sweatman.

Wilbur Sweatman is the Rodney Dangerfield of jazz.  He gets no respect.

Born in Brunswick, Missouri, ninety miles from Kansas City and sixty miles from Sedalia, where Scott Joplin wrote many of his ragtime pieces --Sweatman claimed to have invented jazz in an argument with Jelly Roll Morton. While Morton is widely recognized as the first true composer in the genre, he was born eight years after Sweatman, so Sweatman had nearly a decade’s head start on him. Sweatman was born in 1882, thirteen years after Joplin, so chronologically he occupies middle ground between ragtime and jazz.

Sweatman is discounted by jazz authorities because he was a showman, but at the time jazz musicians needed “novelty” touches to win over vaudeville audiences, who were hearing the music for the first time. Sweatman could play three clarinets simultaneously, and a publicity photo of him doing so brought in the crowds to see this curiosity, while it repelled high-minded jazz critics. No one criticizes later musicians such as Rahsaan Roland Kirk who could perform the same feat, leading one to believe that our view of the role of entertainment in the presentation of jazz has changed more than the music itself.

Without the tolerance for a little nightlife—and the social ills that often accompany it-- we wouldn’t have Kansas City jazz, formed the foundation of the Swing Era. It just goes to show you—a little evil can do you good.
Con Chapman is also the author of "Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges" (Oxford University Press), winner of the 2019 Book of the Year Award by Hot Club de France. He is currently working on a biography of tenor saxophonist Don Byas.
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