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Swingin’ since KC was ‘wide open’

Jazz pianist Jay McShann has been thrilling audiences with his brand of bebop and swing for many decades.

Born in Muskogee, Okla., McShann’s career took off when he moved to Kansas City in the mid-1930s. Upon arrival, McShann discovered what he called a “wide open town” where musicians played from evening to morning. When McShann moved his band to New York in 1942, his music and style became a big hit.

Five questions for this remarkable musician:

Q. Name a couple of your more memorable places to perform in Kansas City.

A. I used to play the Municipal Auditorium here quite a bit. I’m going way back. They used to have something going almost every weekend. I forgot the man’s name but he’d bring me in on various occasions.

I also enjoyed playing at Martin’s on the Plaza. We used to play there almost every night. And we always had an overflowing crowd even during the weekdays. That was also a good place to play. When I first went to work on the Plaza during the 1930s, I took (saxophone great Charlie) Parker with me. The first time I played on the Plaza, Parker was right along with me.

Q. What’s your biggest influence musically?

A. Basie’s band. Even when we had intermission at some place like Martin’s we’d go to the car, then sit and listen to those guys on the radio. They were up and coming around New York. So every chance we got, we were listening to Basie. Lester Young was blowing everything and everybody out. You see, Basie had these two tenors battling each other. He had a lot of great men that people liked to listen to. We liked to listen to those guys. After intermission, we’d go back in and do a set.

Q. What was one of your proudest moments?

A. The competition between the band on stage one (at the Savoy in New York) and the band on stage two in 1942 was fiercely competitive. One group would play on stage two for 20 or 30 minutes then give way to the other. Between performances, the musicians would carouse around downstairs. Everybody in New York thought everything from Chicago on was western. So they called us those “western dogs.”

One of the bandleaders was Lucky Millinder, and his valet came downstairs. He said: “Lucky, you better come upstairs and see what those western dogs are doing. We blew them right on out. Lucky took me out on the town that night. Everywhere he went, Lucky told people we were those western dogs who blew them out of there.

Q. What are the favorite tunes you’ve written and performed?

A. I guess you could say that “Swingmatism” was one of my favorites. People used to like it. People also like “Jumpin’ the Blues.” The one that set the pace was “Confessing” as well as “Hootie’s Blues.”

Q. What was it like performing for former President Ronald Reagan at an indoor concert in Washington? Was it very formal?

A. So many people came by to shake your hand. … It was like some of your friends coming by to yell at you.

— Steve Penn/The Star