Since the early 1900s, Kansas City has been synonymous with jazz. Today, those jazz roots still run deep and the genre is as vibrant here as ever, fueling more than 40 jazz venues on a regular basis.
The history of Kansas City jazz can be traced back to the blues, which began in the Mississippi Delta region near New Orleans, eventually migrating north. Once here, it melded with a sort of jump timber that soon became the distinctive sound the city still calls its own.
Back in the Day
KC’s jazz heyday in the 1920s and 1930s was found along 12th and 18th streets downtown, both part of the hub of the city’s African-American community and where many great musicians got their start in jazz groups. As the Kansas City sound flourished, increasingly larger numbers of musicians flocked here to practice their craft in the numerous nightclubs, dance halls and vaudeville houses regularly featuring jazz music. They of course were followed by legions of fans which together helped create what is now the 18th & Vine Historic Jazz District.
During the Prohibition era, musicians who couldn’t find work in other cities came to Kansas City. Here they took full advantage of the city’s “wide-open" town image created by political boss Tom Pendergast, who maneuvered around the laws to allow the free flow of alcohol throughout the city. That’s when folks like Ella Fitzgerald, Claude “Fiddler” Williams, Louis Armstrong, Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, Count Basie, Orin “Hot Lips” Page and Duke Ellington came, becoming some of history’s greatest jazz icons and putting Kansas City at the epicenter of the Jazz Age.
At its peak, jazz could be heard in more than 200 venues including The Gem Theater, The Blue Room nightclub, and the Mutual Musicians Foundation. The latter is where musicians gathered in the wee hours of the night after performances to exchange ideas and experiment with the best playing methods. The result was the now famous “jam session,” lasting all night and well into the next day at many downtown clubs. Today the Foundation—which was also the home of Black Musicians Union Local 627—is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and holds the distinction as the longest running jazz place in the world.
Goin’ to Kansas City … Kansas City, Here I Come
Popularized by Fats Domino and other artists in the 50s and 60s, “Kansas City” was adopted as the city’s official song in 2005 and its legacy helps draw denizens and visitors alike to the wide variety of exciting venues boasting the Kansas City jazz sound.
Still a quintessential jazz spot, The Blue Room, highlighted by vintage photographs, memorabilia and artifacts, hosts a bevy of local contemporary, national and prominent international artists several nights a week. It also serves as a unique multifaceted attraction within the American Jazz Museum. Honoring the careers and legacies of Charlie “Bird” Parker, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and other jazz greats, the museum is designed to celebrate and exhibit the experience of jazz as an original American art form through research, exhibition, education and performance.
Situated in a historic building built in 1911 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, The Majestic Restaurant was once a prohibition-era speakeasy. Today, the lower-level club is a classic Kansas City steakhouse and jazz hotspot featuring some of the best jazz acts in the country. Other local faves include The Phoenix Jazz Club and the Kansas City Blues & Jazz Juke House, as well as reasonable newcomers like the Green Lady Lounge.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2014 and billed as the world’s largest free jazz and music festival, Jazz in the Woods draws tens of thousands of jazz fans from around the Midwest to hear headline acts like Norman Brown, Mindi Abair, Angela Hagenbach and The Elders, just to name a few.
Let the Music Play!
Founded in the 1980s, the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors is dedicated to preserving the rich Kansas City jazz tradition and helping to ensure its future. Gary Becker, President of the Kansas City Jazz Ambassadors, credits a great deal of the city’s current and future jazz heritage to one of its most renowned native sons: celebrated jazz saxophonist, composer, arranger and educator Bobby Watson.
Watson, who plays regularly at several venues around town, returned to Kansas City after traveling the world to become director of jazz studies at the UMKC Conservatory of Music, internationally recognized as a center for artistic excellence, innovation and engagement.
“Bobby traveled with the legendary Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers, where he learned how to play, dress and behave as an artist,” Becker says. “He’s also traveled for over 25 years with many other notable jazz artists. Now he’s brought back all of his experience and unique style, and imparted it with students that have been under his tutelage for years now.”
Those students have created their own high standard of musicianship and style, while simultaneously passing that knowledge and experience down to the next generation, allowing jazz in the city to continue to grow.
“When people go out and have a jazz experience here, they get the gist of what Kansas City is all about,” Becker says. “I do not believe that the Kansas City jazz scene would be where it is today if not for the Jazz Ambassadors, and Bobby Watson coming back to Kansas City.”