Beyond the Hubs
While New Orleans
, Kansas City
and New York City
were the incubators of modern jazz, they were by no means the only locations with an appetite for live music. Jazz artists whose point of origin could not sustain multiple venues ventured to locations near and far to practice their trade. In some cases a jazz scene grew up around the migration of musicians, though not always for the long term. Through the first two parts of this series
it was evident that there were common denominators that applied to most of the original jazz clubs in the major cities: prohibition and race. The nationwide ban on the manufacture and consumption of alcoholic beverages began in January 1920 and ended in December 1933. It is not a coincidence that many jazz clubs in Chicago, New York and Kansas City were fronts for selling alcohol. The speakeasies, run by various organized crime families, took advantage of the popularity of Jazz Age music and presented that form of entertainment, often as the most thinly veiled approximation of legitimacy. It was a fundamentally unstable platform for promoting jazz and for longevity of clubs. Racial issues were a built-in detriment to permanency as well. Black performers, typically working at the pleasure of white audiences, were the rule rather than the exception. Tensions rose across the range of socio-economic issues from the beginning of the Jazz Age through the 1970s as segregated jazz venues represented a microcosm of the larger social issues. In at least two cases, jazz scenes came to be completely obliterated by their own backstories. Corruption in Kansas City and racial unrest in Philadelphia
and Los Angeles
destroyed thriving jazz marketsmarkets that never returned to their previous status. Kansas City
Kansas City's distinction as a jazz hub in the 1920s and 1930s was aided by simple geography. Traveling musicians from Oklahoma City
, San Antonio
, saw Kansas City as a stop-over that provided opportunities to play and recruit from a growing talent pool. In contrast to the city's nearest source of talentNew Orleansthe Kansas City style of jazz was a bigger, more complex sound with roots in both rustic regional blues, and the related boogie-woogie form, as well as orchestrated ragtime. Much of this musical development was influenced by those outsiders who lent their own take on the music.
The infamous Kansas City mayor and political boss Tom Pendergast established a dogmatic climate that allowed jazz to grow during Prohibition. For more than a decade beginning in 1925 and ending with his arrest for tax fraud in 1938, Pendergast exercised a sprawling control of the city and allowed vice to run rampant. The speakeasies and cabarets where Kansas City jazz developed, were the domain of mobsters and corrupt politicians, just as they often were in Chicago and New York.
More than one-hundred nightclubs and dozens of dance halls existed in 1930s Kansas City. The historic jazz district at 18th and Vine was densely populated with theatres whose programs revolved around jazz. The Gem
were originally ragtime venues that evolved with new musical developments. Prior to joining the Benny Moten
Band, Count Basie
played organ at the Eblon Theater
and the Lincoln Theater hosted Saturday shows with live broadcasts. The "Vine Street Varieties," as they were called, featured local talent such as Herman Walder, Joe Turner
, Pete Johnson and Julia Lee. The Subway Club
, El Capitan Club
, and the Sunset Club
, were among the popular smaller venues of the time.
Not surprisingly, the consequence of Pendergast's downfall was a political reformation that took much of the local jazz scene as collateral damage by the early 1940s. Urban renewal began by plowing under a nineteen block area in the historic district, driving nearby businesses into bankruptcy and leading to years of infrastructure and economic corrosion throughout the district. Though Charlie Parker
had left Kansas City for New York by the late 1930s, future stars were still drawn to the city by the halo effect that he had left behind. Sonny Stitt
, Dexter Gordon
and Miles Davis
all made a point of staying and playing in Kansas City when a tour would take them that way.