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Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good

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The following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 "Stomp to Swing" and Chapter 3 "Bennie Moten and His Competitors" from Con Chapman's Kansas City Jazz: A Little Evil Will Do You Good (Equinox, 2023).

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote that he couldn't define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it. In jazz, the same deference to the senses applies in the case of the word "stomp"; musicians and critics alike throw up their hands and say they can't define it, but they know it when they hear it.

Thus, a leading jazz dictionary defines "stomp" as "A word with no technical significance; it does not, as some have suggested, denote a number played in fast time." The Dictionary of American Slang defines "stomp" as "A jazz composition or arrangement with a heavily accented rhythm, usually in a lively tempo and, during the swing era, repeated riffs." Jazz scholar Gunther Schuller wrote that "stomp" was "A term synonymous with 'blues'" but "has an extra connotation of a heavy or strongly marked beat."

Of fifty-two works attributed to Jelly Roll Morton, perhaps the first jazz composer, one quarter are denominated stomps, including his 1906 "King Porter Stomp," which Morton claimed was the first of its kind. In 1938 when cartoonist Robert Ripley referred to W.C. Handy as the originator of jazz and blues on his "Believe It Or Not" radio program, Morton fired off an angry letter to Down Beat that claimed he invented jazz in 1902, signing it "Jelly Roll Morton, Originator of Jazz and Stomps." Morton maintained an agnostic attitude towards the meaning of the term, however. "I don't know what the term 'stomp' means, myself," he said. "There wasn't really any meaning only that people would stamp their feet." According to Rudi Blesh and Harriet Janis, authors of "They All Played Ragtime," the jazz connotation of "stomp" as Morton applied it referred to "a hot number of dynamic rhythm... derived in New Orleans from the stomping of bare feet" while dancing the Bamboula—a dance to west African drums—in Congo Square.

According to Gunther Schuller, while "most of the better New Orleans musicians worked their way up to Chicago" after the Storyville red-light district in New Orleans was shut down in 1917, "New Orleans musicians had drifted through Kansas City and other Southwestern cities from time to time, and eventually jazz in its more advanced form began to take hold in the area." This was in part because Chicago's musicians' union protected the jobs of local jazzmen by denying residency to visiting bands, and thus some New Orleans musicians had to look elsewhere. Despite the difficulty of defining "stomp" precisely, the generation of jazz musicians who came after Morton continued to use it. One who picked it up in the Kansas City area was Bennie Moten, whose bands recorded four numbers referred to as such: "Thick Lip Stomp" (1926), "Moten Stomp" (1927), "Terrific Stomp" (1929), and "New Moten Stomp" (1931).

However one defines "stomp," the term was associated with the music of Kansas City in the late 1920s when William "Count" Basie joined Moten's band. Basie began by working with guitarist/trombonist Eddie Durham on new arrangements to add to what he called the band's "original Kansas City stomp style. It had a special beat, and it really had something going." Basie, like others, was unable to put his finger on just what the word meant. "I don't really know how you would define stomp," he said. "But it was a real thing. If you were on the first floor, and the dance hall was upstairs, that was what you would hear, that steady rump, rump, rump, rump in that medium tempo. It was never fast. And you could also feel it." Before he joined Bennie Moten, Basie had played with Walter Page's Blue Devils, who he said "had a big reputation in [the Southwest]... Tulsa was a part of their stomping ground, and I do mean stomp." Stomp, Basie recalled, "was a very popular word in that part of the country in those days. A lot of tunes were called stomps, and a lot of bands were called stomp bands."

So "stomp" was a rhythmic transition between ragtime and jazz. As Blesh and Janis put it, "[s]tomp rags... are really ragtime jazz," with irregular syncopation and improvisation. As alto sax Eddie Barefield explained, "This whole thing [jazz] developed in the dances. In those days, everybody danced [in] every little town and little place, even places that weren't towns. We played places where it's forty miles out of town, and you wondered where the crowd was coming from, and that night it would be packed." The death of ragtime is generally dated to the year 1917; Scott Joplin died on April 1st of that year, and the next day President Woodrow Wilson went before Congress to request a declaration of war against Germany. Ultimately, jazz would replace ragtime; by 1925 ragtime composition had stopped altogether.

The transition from a two-beat ragtime tempo to a four-beat, blues-based scheme was facetiously commented on in the Moten band's "Get Low Down," recorded in 1928. The number opens with a fast two-beat piano introduction, which trumpeter Ed Lewis interrupts to say "Hey Bennie, stop that ragtime. Let's get real low down." The band then plays a blues with twelve four-beat bars at slightly half that tempo. Drummer Jo Jones described the transition: "Bennie Moten's band played one and three (first and third beats accented), but Walter Page's [band] played two and four. Walter joined Bennie in 1932... it became a wedding... Instead of one and three and two and four, it became one, two, three, four, and then it was like a lilt."

Walter Page is often credited with the development of the "walking" bass line—a succession of consecutive quarter-notes on each beat of a four-beat measure to provide "a solid rhythmic and harmonic foundation" for other musicians in a jazz group. He probably would have disclaimed sole credit for what seems to have been an instance of simultaneous invention; in particular, he acknowledged his debt to Duke Ellington bassist Wellman Braud. "I was sitting right in the front row of the high school auditorium," he recalled of the time when John Wycliffe's band from Chicago came to Kansas City. "All I could hear was the oomp, oomp, oomp of that bass, and I said, 'That's for me.'" The duple beat of ragtime had come to seem old-fashioned, and walking bass lines began to be heard from a number of players in the second decade of the twentieth century in addition to Page, including John Kirby; Bill Johnson (Jelly Roll Morton's brother-in-law); Steve Brown; and George Murphy "Pops" Foster.

The earliest account of the shift from two to four beats in jazz, André Hodeir's Jazz: Its Evolution and Essence, states that this "profound revolution" was led first by "the drummers and then the bass players" who "got into the habit of beating four to the bar." In the chapter titled "The Evolution of Rhythmic Conceptions" Hodeir does not cite Page or any other bassist as responsible for this "completely different kind of swing, one that was at the same time lighter and more concentrated" than the "waddling character of the New Orleans rhythm" that preceded it, noting only that musicians "got better at turning out the beats; they became more relaxed." The two-beat rhythm that had evolved from marches was "inimical to a full expression of swing," and "the four-beat rhythm was better suited for dancing; it was the solution that allowed groups to "play together with... rhythmic excellence," and not just polyphonically. "Riffs became important. . .the riff became the ideal vehicle for jazz's new conceptions."

To novelist Ralph Ellison—who was also a jazz musician—stomp was both the essence of swing, and a purer form of it, like a single malt scotch versus a blended one. "We didn't care about the big bands in the East because they didn't have that Southwestern swing, which we then called 'stomp music.' It was dance music first and foremost. The Southwestern musicians were from many different places, from the Southwest, from the Deep South. But wherever they came from, they all developed a way to lope through the rhythm. I remember hearing Fletcher Henderson when he came through Oklahoma City in the early thirties. He had Rex Stewart and he had the young Coleman Hawkins and they were all fine musicians—but that band did not stomp." Ellison's comparison of Eastern versus Southwestern bands was seconded by a columnist for The Call, a Kansas City African-American newspaper, who said that Noble Sissle's orchestra was "too perfect" and "the wrong kind of band for the dancers" of Kansas City.

Ellison's analysis glosses over the musical miscegenation that occurred in the Southwest, where despite Jim Crow restrictions in some aspects of public life, Black bands played for white audiences and tailored their music to the tastes of their customers, in the time-honored tradition of "He who pays the piper, calls the tune." As trumpeter Bernard "Buddy" Anderson put it, in the Southwest "black musicians [even] played [Western swing music]," popularized by white "cowboy" bands such as Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys and the Light Crust Doughboys. "They had to play it, because that's the thing people wanted to hear."

Count Basie eventually decided to leave the Blue Devils, as he had become discouraged by their lack of commercial success in Oklahoma City and he longed for the faster action of Kansas City. "I liked Oklahoma City fine, but not much was happening with the Blue Devils. We were still laying off, and I started thinking about getting back to... all of those joints around Kansas City." Basie had previously begun to save up for train fare to return to Kansas City, but in a moment of improvidence he had bought a hat he admired. It "cost something like three or four dollars... a lot back in those days," and Basie "couldn't afford it." The owner let him take it on an open-ended installment plan with no down payment, saying only to "pay him when he got something." When Basie had accumulated enough money to buy his train ticket back to Kansas City, he dropped off the hat at the restaurant owned by singer Jimmy Rushing's father with a note to his band mate, asking him to return it to the tailor shop. The note said "Once a Blue Devil always a Blue Devil, but I must go back."

The Blue Devils operated on a "commonwealth" basis, with all members sharing equally in revenue after expenses. "[W]hat usually happened was that Big 'Un [Walter Page] would get the money, and after we'd bought the gas and figured out expenses to get to the next town, we'd divide the rest among ourselves," Basie said. The competition between the Blue Devils and the Moten band—and the musical dominance of the former over the latter—eventually persuaded Bennie Moten that if he couldn't beat the Blue Devils, he would acquire them. Eddie Durham was one of the first to defect to Moten, in 1929. "The money was light," for the Blue Devils, he said, while Moten was offering "big pay... That's how [Page's musicians] started drifting away." Buster Smith confirmed the hard times the Blue Devils endured. "Most of the time we lived out of a paper sack. You stayed out on the road all the time, and nobody never had enough money to amount to nothing. We just lived from hand to mouth." Smith recalled that Moten solicited "a lot of us" in the band; he had been trying to lure Basie away from the Blue Devils for some time, but according to Booker Washington, Basie remained with the group until the lure of better money proved irresistible: "Basie stayed down around [Oklahoma], did all the little shows, but when [Moten got] the big jobs" he relented. Moten persuaded "Hot Lips" Page and Jimmy Rushing to leave as well, and the Blue Devils broke up. Eventually, Walter Page threw in the towel and left the band with which he'd been identified since 1923 to join Moten himself.

It took something more than a competing band to bring down Bennie Moten's musical empire. While his band was playing in Denver in April of 1935, he had stayed in Kansas City to plan for upcoming engagement in New York with a new line-up that would include a returning Count Basie and Jo Jones on drums. While Moten was thus idle, he decided to have his tonsils removed to alleviate throat infections he had suffered from; during the procedure an artery in Moten's throat was severed. Trumpeter Ed Lewis absolved the physician of blame, saying "it wasn't his fault. Bennie was a nervous type of person," and "wouldn't let them put him to sleep," allowing the surgeon to use only local anesthetic. Moten "got frightened when he felt the knife," Lewis said, "and jumped, severed an artery and bled to death."

Moten's funeral was, according to a local African-American newspaper, "the largest... Kansas City had witnessed in 20 years. Thousands of both races from all walks of life, filled every available space... and overflowed far out into the street." Moten's obituary in The Afro-American, a national newspaper that claimed to be the "Nation's Biggest Colored Weekly," described him as a "rotund band leader... famous for his 'stomp' rhythm that had wide appeal."

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