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Happy 100th to the late, great Jay McShann, legend of KC jazz

Jay McShann in 1989
Jay McShann in 1989

Editor’s note: Jan. 12 marks the 100th birthday anniversary of Jay McShann, a pillar of Kansas City jazz who died in 2006.

Here is the obituary from Dec. 8, 2006. On Saturday at 7 p.m., Gem Theater will host a Jay McShann centennial bash.


Jay McShann, an internationally recognized giant of Kansas City jazz, died Thursday.

Books, official records and other sources disagree on his date of birth, but he was thought to be 90.

The legendary bandleader and composer was one of the city’s last living links to its glory days as a jazz town.

“Jay is the last of his generation,” said jazz historian Chuck Haddix, co-author of “Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop.” “His passing really marks the end of an era.”

McShann reportedly had been feeling well and enthusiastic about music in recent months. Within the last few weeks he had granted an interview to a correspondent working on a jazz documentary for the BBC. But he was admitted to St. Luke’s Hospital on Nov. 27 because of breathing problems.

With a performing career spanning more than 70 years, McShann established himself as a versatile musician who was equally comfortable with the blues, ballads and bebop. His piano technique revealed a delicate and sophisticated sensibility, but he could pound out driving blues and boogie-woogie in the best tradition of barrelhouse piano players.

“I think he served as a bridge between swing and bebop,” said saxophonist Bobby Watson. “He was open to young people coming with new ideas that weren’t traditionally thought of as swing. He was really a man with an open mind to all styles of music.”

Watson, who had performed with McShann periodically through the years, said sharing the stage with McShann was “big fun. Just the flavor and the swing and the voicings, his blues sensibility — it’s like being in heaven. It’s like I’m touching history.”

McShann also possessed a rich, honey-flavored singing voice that brought out the poetry in such standards as “Georgia” and gave authority to blues numbers, such as his own “Hootie’s Ignorant Oil.”

Like his fellow Kansas City jazzman, the late Claude “Fiddler” Williams, McShann was born in Muskogee, Okla., where he taught himself to play piano by ear. It was only after years of performing and leading a nationally known band that included the young Charlie Parker that McShann decided to take lessons to read music.

McShann was on his way to Omaha, Neb., when he stopped off in Kansas City in 1936 and discovered the city’s smoking jazz scene.

“My bus stopped in Kansas City, and I knew the Reno Club was just a few blocks away, so I went and checked it out,” McShann said in an interview in 1998. “Bus Moten had a band. I went in, and I knew most of the cats. Bill Hadnott told me I shouldn’t leave here. He handed me his keys and said, ‘Stay at my place until you get a gig.’ I did two days later.”

During that stopover he first heard boogie-woogie piano and was stunned to see pianist Pete Johnson and singer Joe Turner play entire sets consisting of one tune.

“Joe would keep singing for 30 or 40 minutes straight through,” McShann once recalled. “And maybe between times he’d tell Pete to roll ’em on piano for maybe 10 minutes, then Joe would come back and sing 10 or 15 minutes. You know, they’d play one tune, and it’d last 45 to 50 minutes, and that was the set.”

Musicians gravitated to the city from all parts of the country during the 1920s and ’30s, attracted by the jobs created by the proliferation of gambling joints, dance halls and ballrooms. McShann said it paid for a musician to learn many styles.

“If you wanted to learn, you could learn,” he said. “If you played a gambler’s tune, that was a money tune. ... This was a hustlin’ town. Everything’s a hustle. That was another thing that made musicians keep up. They had to learn a lot of tunes because it meant money.”

Although jazz in Kansas City long teetered along the racial divide, McShann helped bridge the gap in the late 1930s when his seven-piece band played extended gigs at Martin’s Cafeteria and Plaza Tavern, also known as Martin’s-on-the-Plaza. McShann’s group was one of the first African-American bands to play on the Country Club Plaza.

The club had a cafeteria in back that doubled as a little dance pavilion.

“We played soft music from 8 to 10 o’clock,” McShann’s bassist Gene Ramey once recounted. “Then the waiters moved the chairs and tables in the restaurant, and we played dance music.”

McShann, backed by a wealthy Kansas City insurance man named Walter Bales, formed a big band in 1939. Among the players was the young saxophonist Charlie Parker, who was with the band when it cut its first records in Dallas in 1941.

Thanks to a record producer who insisted that the band record only blues and boogie-woogie, McShann’s band became known principally as a blues band. In fact, the band had arrangements that prefigured the modern strain of jazz that would become known as bebop.

Yet those sessions established McShann nationally because one cut, “Confessin’ the Blues,” became a hit.

Many of the band’s tunes were “head” arrangements that existed only in the band’s collective memory. Others were written, although McShann played simply by consulting chords jotted down on paper.

In 1944, McShann’s big-band career came to an abrupt halt when Selective Service agents literally drafted him off the stage of Municipal Auditorium.

After World War II, McShann put together another big band, but the business had changed. A big touring band was too expensive, and McShann had to settle for playing in small groups.

After a stint in California, McShann settled in Kansas City permanently in the early ’50s. Although he was never forced to take a day job, he once ran a trash-hauling service and owned a limousine that he rented out.

“Jay never got the economic rewards commensurate with his talent,” said friend and filmmaker Bruce Ricker. “But other musicians certainly knew and respected him — Wynton Marsalis, Dave Brubeck, people like that.”

In the ’60s, McShann began touring as a solo act and frequently performed with small groups, setting the pattern for the rest of his professional life.

“Jay had this inner strength, leadership strength,” said Ricker, who more than 30 years ago used McShann as the central character in “The Last of the Blue Devils,” his documentary about Kansas City jazz.

“He was the last important band leader coming out of Kansas City in the ’40s, a guy able to understand Charlie Parker’s genius. He was absolutely at home with the blues, but he also had the sophistication of an Oscar Peterson, a fast mind hidden behind a very deliberate, calm exterior. That was exemplified by the way he played the piano. He was always thinking through his fingers.”

In his later years McShann rarely played in Kansas City, mainly because he was in such demand around the world. He toured extensively from the 1970s to the ’90s, often in Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

When he did perform locally, jazz fans viewed it as a major event. He played the Kansas City Jazz and Blues Festival in 1992, the Kansas City International Jazz Festival in 1996; and in 2003 played the Folly Theater, the Kansas City Spirit Festival and the second annual Coda Jazz Fund concert. In 2005 McShann opened the Folly Jazz Series at the Folly Theater.

McShann recorded scores of albums for various labels, from Decca in the ’40s to the Canadian roots label Stony Plain in recent years. Many of his early recordings have been anthologized and repackaged. He was nominated for Grammys (but didn’t win) in 1992 and 2004.

In 1988 McShann’s music was introduced anew to dance audiences when choreographer Alvin Ailey created “Opus McShann,” a series of dance pieces set to some of McShann’s recordings. The 30-minute ballet was commissioned by the Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey and received its world premiere at the Folly Theater.

In addition to appearing in “The Last of the Blue Devils” (1980), which captured a reunion of old-time Kansas City musicians at the Mutual Musicians Foundation at 1823 Highland Ave., McShann was the subject of another film, “Hootie Blues.” He was one of many noted jazz figures interviewed for “Jazz,” the Ken Burns documentary miniseries for PBS. And McShann was featured in “Piano Blues,” a 2003 documentary directed by Clint Eastwood that was part of another PBS series called “The Blues.”

McShann, through his popularity in the world jazz community, kept the legend of Kansas City jazz alive. But McShann put little stock in labels and saw music in philosophical terms.

“Music is music, “ he once said. “Music is just like a big river, and it’s got a lot of tributaries. When the river gets too full, it empties into the gulf, and when the gulf gets too full it empties into the ocean.

“It’s all music.”

Robert Trussell: 816-234-4765, @roberttrussell

The Star’s Robert W. Butler, John Mark Eberhart and Steve Paul contributed to this report.

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