In the 1920′ and 30’s Kansas City was most definitely a JAZZ TOWN to be reckoned with. Most if not all of the famous jazz musicians lived in, passed through, or came to Kansas City. They were a talented and interesting bunch. Their lives were hard, complicated by long hours of playing in smoke-filled rooms, endless days of travel, and little pay. Many suffered from drug and alcohol addiction. Here are some of the lesser-known details of a few.
Scott Joplin: I gave him a small part in JAZZ TOWN because I love ragtime and because I think it is so much fun for a pianist to play. No one really knows where he was born — east Texas maybe — around 1876.His father was a former slave. It is said that everyone in his family played an instrument and that he learned as a child to play on a piano where his mother was employed. His famous Maple Leaf Rag flew off the shelves, selling 10,000 on its first printing.
Charlie Parker. He was born in Kansas City, Kansas. His mother was part American Indian. His instrument of choice was the bass saxophone. Somewhere along the line, he picked up the nickname Bird either because he was known to be free as a yard bird or because he hit a chicken while driving on tour with a band.
Together with Dizzy Gillespie he invented bebop, a new style of jazz at the time, and composed songs such as Embraceable You, yet another brand of the jazz genre.
Parker converted to Islam in the 1950’s. He abused drugs and alcohol and sold his saxophone to buy both. He died at the age of thirty-five of Cirrhosis of the liver. Sadly, this was a common ailment among musicians of that time.
Jelly Roll Morton. His real name was Ferdinand Joseph Lemotte (Lamothe). Born a Creole in New Orleans, he called himself the inventor of jazz.He worked in brothels in Biloxi, Mississppi and Storyville in the red light district of New Orleans. It’s not known exactly when he changed his name to Jelly Roll Morton, but probably he did it for theatrical reasons. He was most definitely a ladies man. We know that Jelly Roll was black slang for the private parts of a woman. Jelly Roll Morton and the Red Hot Peppers brought together the best of the New Orleans musicians. Though in the end he fell upon hard times, he is recognized as one of the most creative and innovation jazz musicians of all time.
Cab Calloway. He introduced the term JIVE in 1934. Four years later, Glenn Miller introduced a song called Doin’ the Jive but for some odd reason, it never caught on. Miller’s famous theme song, In The Mood was written in the Kansas City riffing style as defined by Benny Moten and others. It is the “frequent, elaborate riffing by the different sections,” and quickly became known throughout the world.
Red Nichols. Prolific is the word most associated with this musician who played a variety of musician instruments, cornet being his favorite. He made over 4000 recording in the 1920’s. While he most famously recorded under the name of Jed Nichols and His Five Pennies, he used many other names: The Arkansas Travelers, Mill Mole and his Molers, and the Red Heads. Danny Kaye stared in a movie about him call The Five Pennies in 1959.
Euday Bowman. A lot written about this composer is controversial. Was he black or white? Did he lose his leg in trying to hop a train? When was he born? No one seems to agree, but he did have a colorful life as an itinerant piano player and composer.
I always thought Euday composed The Twelfth Street Rag about Kansas City. Actually, it was probably written in Fort Worth where he purportedly played in a shoe shine parlor between 11th and 12 streets which was probably a red-light district. Sadly, he never made much money from the song and once sold the copyrights and royalties for it to the Jenkins Music Company in Kansas City for a few hundred dollars. He did write Kansas City Blues however.
“Among the dozens of musicians, groups, and arrangers to interpret Bowman’s rag are Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven (1927), the Bennie Moten band (1927), Duke Ellington with Benny Payne (1931), Fats Waller and his Rhythm (1935), Count Basie with Lester Young (1939), Andy Kirk and his Twelve Clouds of Joy with Mary Lou Williams (1940), and his Sidney Bechet New Orleans Feetwarmers (1941), and Walter “Pee Wee” Hunt (1948). Jazz critics and enthusiasts credit “Twelfth Street Rag” with helping reignite an interest in ragtime.”
Joe Turner. He was known as The Boss of the Blues. His father died in a train accident when he was four years old. Joey sang on street corner to make money for his family. Later, his 300 pound, 6’2” frame could be seen working as a barkeep and cook in many of the Kansas City clubs. The Singing Barman was his name.
Fats Waller also weighed over 300 pounds. He had a great sense of humor and hated to bathe. He drank heavily and died of pneumonia at the age of thirty-nine.
Billie Holliday. Her real name was Eleanora Fagan. Her father was a jazz guitarist in Fletcher Henderson’s band. She grew up running errands for a local brothel and later was arrested for prostitution.
Louis Armstrong. Louis had a satchel-sized mouth that was so big that people nicknamed him Satchmo for short. Patriotically, he told people he was born on the 4th of July 1900 but he was really born on August 4, 1901. Joe “King” Oliver taught Armstrong how to play the cornet. Lillian Hardin, Satchmo’s second wife, was the pianist with his band in 1922. He recorded with his Hot 5 and Hot 7 in the 1920’s. He is credited with creating the roll of the jazz soloist and for turning folk music into an art form.
Most if not all of these musicians are mentioned in JAZZ TOWN. More later.