Kansas City jazz musician Ben Kynard, the man who wrote the standard “Red Top” when he performed with the famed Lionel Hampton Orchestra, has died.
The Kansas City Star
The accomplished saxophonist died Thursday at Kansas City Hospice of complications from a stroke that he had in late June.
He was 92 and approaching his 59th wedding anniversary to his wife, Joyce.
“He was one of America’s greats … and a wonderful guy,” said Luqman Hamza, longtime friend and admirer from Raytown. “He was a fine writer.”
In his jazz career, Kynard was known for exceptional chops on the saxophone, and also for elegant skills as a composer and arranger.
Kynard played with Lionel Hampton from 1946 to 1953. That came after a stint in the U.S. Army, where he played with a military band that frequently played officers’ clubs and funerals.
His life as a musician started at a young age, and by the time he graduated from Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kan., in 1938 he was already performing in nightclubs.
In an interview posted on a family website before his death, Kynard told of being born in Eureka Springs, Ark., where he remembered his mother washing clothes in a tub and dying of a stroke at the age of 36.
He told of learning the saxophone from his older brother on an instrument purchased at Sears. He recalled playing in Kansas City clubs as a teenager, splitting maybe $1.25 a night with fellow musicians and enjoying the audience dancing.
“It would make me play better,” he said. “But sometimes the fella would have us cut down on the music so people would drink more.”
He would later join Hampton’s band and share in its national reputation. Although he said the famed “Red Top” was his work, Hampton shared the writing credit. Kynard said, “I didn’t get what I earned on it. But I am happy to know … that it’s still in everybody’s repertoire.”
His gigs with Hampton took him across the country. He admitted not having the talent of some other musicians, but said his punctuality played well with the bandleader, along with his ability to quickly pick up a tune.
Kynard ultimately left the band and worked for the U.S. Postal Service in Kansas City for 32 years, delivering mail in the day and playing jazz at night. He also frequently wrote music for local jazz musicians, typically without charging them.
His oldest son, Brett, recalls him showing up for an impromptu father-and-son clarinet duet in the first grade.
“The two of us played our instruments before the student body to a standing ovation. … He took off work to do that. And he bailed me out,” Brett Kynard said. “He was a dedicated husband and a great provider.”
Kynard was repeatedly the subject of mayoral proclamations and Oct. 4, 1996, was declared Ben Kynard Day in Kansas City, Mo.
“The Kansas City jazz community has truly lost a champion and legend of jazz,” said Brett Kynard, “and a great husband, father and grandfather.”
A memorial jam session has been scheduled for 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Watkins Heritage Chapel, 4000 E. Emanuel Cleaver II Blvd.
The funeral service will be 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church, 2732 Benton Blvd.