“There’s a common myth that Kansas City jazz ended with World War II,” local jazz historian and author Chuck Haddix says.
While the narrative of the 1920s and ’30s in Kansas City is an exciting tale—that of a newly bustling, “wide-open” town rife with Tom Pendergast’s political regime and free-flowing liquor throughout Prohibition—it continues to permeate the image of Kansas City jazz nearly a century later.
But Kansas City jazz is not a mere museum piece. It has been living, breathing, evolving and, most of all, thriving long past Pendergast’s reign or World War II. “We’ve always had a very vibrant scene, and we have one of the most lively scenes in the country today,” Haddix says.
Despite being far smaller than the other major jazz cities, Kansas City has live jazz of a high caliber every single night. This can be said of few other cities in the country today.
During a recent trip to New York City, while exploring the clubs and strolling through the streets of Harlem and the Village, I kept finding parallels between the jazz scenes—not in style but in quantity and quality. And as much as I profoundly enjoyed the NY scene and my evening at the Village Vanguard, I went home appreciating KC even more. Our jazz scene is world class, but it’s often overlooked, even by locals.
More plainly, KC’s jazz scene is slept on.
While artists like Bobby Watson, a living legend who made his homecoming back to KC over twenty years ago now, are renowned all around the world, most Kansas Citians don’t even bat an eye at the name, unfamiliar with much of Kansas City jazz beyond Charlie Parker.
Where is the interest in the music being created now?
From the early days of Bennie Moten and Mary Lou Williams to the eternally original Bobby Watson to the ultramodern yet irrefutably soulful Logan Richardson and every important figure in between, Kansas City has continually been home to innovators. Some of today’s trailblazers include, in addition to Watson and Richardson, Peter Schlamb, Eddie Moore, Adam Larson and Hermon Mehari. But no matter how “out of the box” the music of these luminaries may have seemed to some at the time, they remained deeply tied to the blues-heavy, unmistakable Kansas City style and tradition.
“We have to recognize that today’s artists on the scene are all an extension of the tradition,” Haddix says. “We need to celebrate and honor musicians that are on the scene today, too.”
THREE TO SEE
Three May shows that exemplify the cutting edge of KC jazz today
Chris Hazelton’s Boogaloo 7 with Julia Haile, Friday, May 6 at 9 pm, The Ship, 1221 Union Ave., KCMO
Eddie Moore, Sunday, May 8 at 6 pm, Corvino Supper Club, 1830 Walnut St., KCMO
Riff Generation, Friday, May 20 at 7 pm, The Medallion Theater, 300 E. 39th St., KCMO