Jazz inspired and defined the 1920s, an era that became known as the Jazz Age. During the Roaring Twenties, Kansas City and the other cradles of jazz (New Orleans, Chicago, New York) attracted record labels eager to record up-and-comers. They discovered a wealth of talent in Kansas City. Isolated from the other jazz centers, Kansas City developed a distinctive style that evolved quickly from ragtime to bebop. The intemperate spirit of the music provided the soundtrack for a wild and wicked decade in Kansas City. Here are ten high notes from that era. – Chuck Haddix
1. Ada Brown / Evil Mama Blues
The first recording of Kansas City jazz, “Evil Mama Blues” featured vaudeville veteran Ada Jones accompanied by Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra. Drawing on a lethal blues theme, Jones blames her no-good man for turning her into an “evil mama” intent on revenge and armed with a “good and sharp” razor.
2. Coon-Sanders Nighthawks / Nighthawk Blues
Nightly radio broadcasts from the Hotel Muehlebach by the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks first established Kansas City as a beacon of jazz. “Nighthawk Blues” celebrated this new media, inviting listeners to “tune right in on the radio, grab a telegram and say hello.”
3. Lena and Sylvester Kimbrough / Cabbage Head Blues
Lena Kimbrough — aka Lottie Beaman — and her brother Sylvester recorded “Cabbage Head Blues” in the back room of the Winston Holmes Music Store at 18th Street and Highland Avenue for Holmes’ Meritt label. The novelty blues dialogue between Lena and Sylvester is reminiscent of recordings by the popular vaudeville duo Butterbeans and Susie.
4. Jesse Stone & His Blues Serenaders / Starvation Blues
A brilliant arranger and composer, Jesse Stone led the Blues Serenaders, a territorial band based in Kansas City. The soloists spiced the melodic lines of “Starvation Blues” with blues notes, creating an orchestral expression of the blues that became an early hallmark in the Kansas City style.
5. George E. Lee / St. James Infirmary
A strong vocalist, George E. Lee recorded “St. James Infirmary” in the studios of radio station WDAF, which was located in the Kansas City Star building. Originally published as “Gambler’s Blues,” “St. James Infirmary” is a meditation on mortality by a gambler looking at his deceased lover “stretched out on a long white table so sweet, so cold, so fair.”
6. The Missourians / Prohibition Blues
The Missourians held court at the Cotton Club before Duke Ellington began his long residency at the famed Harlem haunt. Rendered in the popular heavy rhythm Jungle style, “Prohibition Blues” vigorously protested the nationwide ban on the sale and import of alcoholic beverages.
7. Julia Lee / Come On Over To My House
Known as “Kansas City’s Sweetheart of Song,” Julia Lee specialized in risque songs “her mother taught her not to sing.” Although tame by today’s standards, “Come On Over To My House” was quite scandalous at the time.
8. Blue Devils / Blue Devil Blues
One of the leading territorial bands, the Blue Devils ranged widely across the western United States, vanquishing all rivals in bare-knuckle battles of the bands. Count Basie’s staid piano intro leads to Jimmy Rushing’s impassioned, blues-drenched plea, “That’s all right baby, baby, that’s all right for you… After all I been to you, baby, that’s the way you do.”
9. Bennie Moten / Oh! Eddie
The Bennie Moten Orchestra was Kansas City’s most popular band in the 1920s, and it defined the local jazz style. With “Oh! Eddie,” the band’s arranger and composer, Eddie Durham, anticipated the sound of the swing era by using contrasting riffs between the reed and brass sections for counterpoint.
10. Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy / Mess-A-Stomp
Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy played an extended engagement at the Pla-Mor Ballroom, Kansas City’s “Million Dollar Ballroom” located at Linwood Boulevard and Main Street. At a jaunty tempo, “Mess-A-Stomp” features a muscular, two-fisted piano solo by pianist Mary Lou Williams.