the 1920s and ‘30s, Kansas City was known as a "wide-open town," with
gambling, bootleg liquor, prostitution, and other forms of vice protected by
the political machine of “Boss” Tom Pendergast. In this environment, nightclubs
and speakeasies boomed, creative spaces emerged, and a unique style of jazz flourished.
Jam session at St. Mary's ChurchKansas City Public Library
Jazz musicians, many of whom were associated with Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, took inspiration from older blues and ragtime traditions and developed the Kansas City style—featuring complex rhythms, carefully restrained drum beats, and riffs. Centered on the intersection of 18th and Vine streets, the jazz district nurtured such musicians as Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Andy Kirk, and George E. Lee.
Bennie Moten Orchestra by BertKansas City Public Library
This undated photograph shows Bennie Moten (seated third from left), Lammar Wright (trumpet), Thamon Hayes (trombone), Woodie Walder (clarinet), George Tall (banjo), Willie Hall (drums), Mary H. Bradford and Ada Brown (singers).
Battle of the Bands, 1930, Outside of Musicians Association Building (1930-05-04) by Miller, J.E.Kansas City Public Library
A 1930 panoramic photograph of the bands of the Musicians Protective Union Local 627, assembled for the annual Battle of the Bands at Paseo Hall, followed by a parade to the Musicians Association Building at 1823 Highland Avenue, where this picture was taken. Local 627, which is today the Mutual Musicians Foundation, formed in 1917 as a professional association to support African American musicians in Kansas City.
The eight contestant bands pictured are the Bennie Moten and George E. Lee orchestras, Elmer Payne's Music Masters, Paul Banks's Rhythm Aces, Andy Kirk's 12 Clouds of Joy, Jap Allen's Troubadours, Julius Banks's Red Devils, and Bill Little and His Little Bills.
Bennie Moten's Victor Recording Orchestra (1926) by BertKansas City Public Library
Of the countless musicians who played at nightclubs, ballrooms, social clubs, and all-night jam sessions in the 18th & Vine district during the Jazz Age, none embodied Kansas City jazz more than Bennie Moten. Moten was born and raised in Kansas City, where he studied piano with two of Scott Joplin's former students. He shined as a bandleader and businessman, collected talented players from rival bands, and he even nurtured political connections with “Boss” Tom Pendergast. The Bennie Moten Orchestra made nearly 100 recordings. Tragically, Moten died in 1935 at the age of 39, during what should have been a routine tonsillectomy at the segregated Wheatley-Provident Hospital in Kansas City.
This 1926 photograph shows, from left, Thamon Hayes (trombone), Lammar Wright (cornet), Willie McWashington (drums), Leroy "Buster" Berry (banjo), Bennie Moten (piano), Harlan Leonard (reeds), Vernon Page (brass bass), Woody Walder (reeds), LaForest Dent (reeds).
George E. Lee Singing Novelty Orchestra (1926)Kansas City Public Library
During the 1920s and early 1930s, George E. Lee fronted one of the most popular and successful bands in Kansas City and was the chief rival to the Bennie Moten Orchestra. George Ewing Lee as born in Booneville, Missouri, in 1896 and grew up in Kansas City. In 1920 he performed at Lyric Hall at 18th and Lydia streets, and by 1927 he formed a larger band. Known for singing, Lee was billed as the “Cab Calloway of the Middle West.” His organizational skills as bandleader were suspect, but his band lasted until 1935. Continuing on his own, Lee performed alongside saxophonist Charlie Parker in 1937. Lee retired in 1941 and opened a tavern in Detroit. He died in San Diego in 1958.
This 1926 photograph of the George E. Lee Singing Novelty Orchestra shows, from left, an unidentified trombonist, Bob Garner (clarinet), Thurston "Sox" Moppins (trombone), George E. Lee (baritone saxophone & vocals), Chester Clark (trumpet), Julia Lee (sister of George E. Lee, piano & vocals), and an unidentified drummer.
Coon-Sanders Novelty Orchestra by Strauss-PeytonKansas City Public Library
While the Kansas City style is most closely associated with African American bands, a white band, the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks Orchestra, became the first national radio sensation on Kansas City’s WDAF (one of just four U.S. radio stations in existence in 1922). The Nighthawks name came from their midnight radio program, airing between 11:45 p.m. and 1:00 a.m., and from a comment by announcer Leo Fitzpatrick, that “nobody will stay up to hear us but a bunch of night hawks.” They adopted a theme song, the “Nighthawk Blues,” and created a fan club named the Nighthawk Club. Within a year, 37,000 listeners had joined the “Enemies of Sleep.”
Jazz venues could be found throughout Kansas City from the late 1910s to the early 1940s, but they were especially concentrated around the intersection of 18th and Vine streets, in the heart of the segregated African American community. Many of the clubs were short-lived or changed ownership multiple times.
Group photo of four of the members of the Blue Devils band standing posed in Kansas City. Founded by Walter Page in Oklahoma City in 1925 and joined by William “Count” Basie in 1928, the group was one of the earlier bands associated with the Kansas City jazz style. Basie, however, left the band after just one year to join Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra, as did other several other musicians. The Blue Devils dissolved by 1933 and most of the remaining players also joined Moten’s band.
Alto Saxophone owned and played by Henry Franklin "Buster" Smith, who played with the Blue Devils before co-founding the Buster Smith-Count Basie Band of Rhythm. The saxophone is now on display at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.
Lammar WrightKansas City Public Library
Full-length portrait photograph of jazz trumpet player Lammar Wright Sr. in a tuxedo. Wright grew up in Kansas City and played in Bennie Moten's band starting in 1923, before relocating to New York City in 1927.
For a short time after their arrival in Kansas City in 1927, Chauncey Downs and His Rinky Dinks rose to prominence. With Bennie Moten touring in the East and George E. Lee gone to Oklahoma in 1928, Downs booked dozens of local engagements and became the biggest act in town, including at the Gayety Theater, the Pla-Mor Ballroom, and Fairyland Park. Shortly thereafter, Downs quit the band, but he returned to Kansas City in the early 1940s.
Leroy "Bus" Berry by Joseph Pase StudioKansas City Public Library
Leroy "Buster" Berry, an accomplished banjoist, was one of many musicians who became famous for playing in the Bennie Moten Orchestra.
Buster Berry's resonator guitar, now on display at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.
Count Basie at Municipal AuditoriumKansas City Public Library
In the rich and celebrated musical history of Kansas City, few individuals are more closely associated with hard-swinging, riff-based Kansas City jazz style than pianist and bandleader William “Count” Basie. As a member of the rhythm section of the Bennie Moten band starting in 1929, Basie played a key role in the development of the Kansas City style of jazz. After Moten’s death in 1935, the Count Basie Orchestra became the best-known big band to emerge from the region, and Basie brought Kansas City jazz to the national and international stage.
Their early recordings, including "One O'Clock Jump," "Jumpin' At the Woodside," and "Taxi War Dance," marked the pinnacle of Kansas City jazz, and by the end of the decade, the band was an international success.
Big Joe TurnerKansas City Public Library
Kansas City blues shouter Joseph Turner Jr., or "Big Joe." His big break came while working as a bartender at the Sunset Club in Kansas City, which was owned by the political figure and notorious gambler, Felix Payne.
Turner sang along with the house pianist, grabbed attention, and soon emerged as the "Boss of the Blues." His career continued after he left Kansas City, and he continued to record hits in the 1940s and ‘50s, and beyond. He participated in the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, with such hits as “Shake, Rattle, and Roll.” It is believed that he influenced stars including Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Elvis Presley, and his album “Blues Train” won a Grammy in 1983, just two years before his death.
Thamon Hayes’ Kansas City Rockets (1932) by Cresswell'sKansas City Public Library
A 1932 photograph of Thamon Hayes’ Kansas City Rockets, posed in front of the Fairyland Park stage at the southeast corner of Prospect Ave. and 75th St. in Kansas City. Musicians, from left, include Ed Lewis, Baby Lovett, Jesse Stone, Richard Smith, Herman Walder, Thamon Hayes, Vic Dickenson, Woodie Walder, Harlan Leonard, Booker T. Washington, and Vernon Page. Hayes was a Dixieland jazz trombonist who performed in the Bennie Moten Orchestra before created his own band in 1931.
Andy Kirk and Dick WilsonKansas City Public Library
Known less for individual musical accomplishments and more for his organizational talent as a bandleader, Andy Kirk (left) took over the Dallas, Texas, band, Dark Clouds of Joy, and dropped the word “Dark” from the title in 1929. Thanks to Kansas City bandleader George E. Lee, Kirk secured a contract to play at the Pla-Mor Ballroom in Kansas City that same year.
The ballroom was a perfect fit for the dance band, which performed ballads, waltzes, and pop tunes. Kansas City proved to be a stepping stone on the band’s way to New York City, where they moved in 1936. Kirk’s bandmembers included such names as Mary Lou Williams, Claude Williams, and, briefly, Charlie Parker. Also shown in the photograph are Dick Wilson (tenor saxophone) and Ben Thigpen (drums).
Jimmy Keith with his Band by ChristieKansas City Public Library
Photograph of Jimmy Keith posed with his tenor saxophone and his band in silhouette behind him. This Christie studio photograph was likely taken in the late 1930s or early 1940s.
Myra Taylor by Studna-Sims-MillardKansas City Public Library
Born in 1917 in nearby Bonner Springs, Kansas, jazz singer Myra Taylor grew up in the 18th and Vine jazz district of Kansas City. Her singing talent drew attention at the Sunset and Reno clubs on 12th Street, and in the 1930s she joined Clarence Love’s band. Taylor moved to Chicago in 1937 but returned to Kansas City in 1940 to sing for Harlan Leonard and His Rockets. She continued to perform until late-life, including at Jardine’s nightclub in Kansas City in 2011, less than a year before she passed away.
Jay McShannKansas City Public Library
Pianist, band leader, composer, and vocalist Jay "Hootie" McShann is recognized as one of the most influential blues and jazz artists of the twentieth century, with a career that spanned over 60 years. He was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, on January 12, 1916. In 1936, McShann stopped in Kansas City on his way to Omaha. Bassist Bill Hadnot advised, "Man, this is where you want to stay. This is where the music is. You don’t want to be going to Omaha."
In Kansas City, McShann quickly earned the reputation as a talented musician, and in 1937 formed his own sextet. In 1939 he assembled a big band and performed at the Pla-Mor Ballroom, Century Room, and Fairyland Park. In 1943, however, he was drafted into the Army, and the Jay McShann Orchestra disbanded. McShann continued his career after the war, recording and touring throughout the 1990s. He died at the age of 90 in 2006.
Jesse Price and Charlie Parker (1938)Kansas City Public Library
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, in 1920 and raised in Kansas City, Missouri, Charlie “Bird” Parker (at right) belonged to a younger generation of Kansas City jazz musicians. Today he is remembered as one of the greatest alto saxophonists in the world, thanks to his innovations in the "bebop" jazz style.
His upbeat style emphasized random harmonic structures rather than the melody-based compositions used in the traditional big bands. While undoubtedly influenced by the Kansas City jazz scene, Parker only became famous after he moved to New York City in 1938 and connected with Dizzy Gillespie in 1942.
The photograph was taken in Kansas City in the summer of 1938 and shows jazz drummer Jesse Price (at left).
This collection was developed by a consortium of partners in support of the website project, The Pendergast Years: Kansas City in the Jazz Age and Great Depression.
Contributing Institutions for this exhibit:
The American Jazz Museum
The Black Archives of Mid-America
The Kansas City Museum
LaBudde Special Collections at the University of Missouri – Kansas City
Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library