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Jay McShann

Jay McShann is an NEA Jazz Master

“The Last of the Blue Devils”

Jay “Hootie” McShann landed in Kansas City in the 1930s, and along with fellow pianist and bandleader Count Basie, established what came to be known as the Kansas City sound: blues rooted jazz driven by swinging horns laid over a powerful but relaxed rhythmic pulse.

James Columbus McShann was born in Muskogee, Okla., on Jan. 12, 1916. He learned to play piano as a young boy by tagging along with an older sister to piano lessons and imitating music he heard on the radio. One of the piano men he heard and would be influenced by was Earl “Fatha” Hines whose live broadcasts from Chicago’s Grand Terrace Hotel he would listen to. By 15, he was working with saxophonist Don Byas and other groups across the Southwest.

While traveling to Omaha in 1936, his bus stopped for two hours in Kansas City. McShann walked into a club, heard the music and never left. Within two days, he found work. He absorbed the energetic, blues-drenched style of Pete Johnson and other boogie-woogie masters, and in a city filled with now legendary musicians McShann established himself as a leading pianist and bandleader.

In 1937, he was walking past a Kansas City club when he heard an alto saxophonist who played unlike anyone he’d heard. It was 17-year-old Charlie Parker. While in McShann's band, Parker made his first recordings in the early 1940s. They had a hit in 1941 with "Confessin' the Blues," soon followed by "Hootie's Blues." For some other tunes featuring “Bird” swinging with McShann listen to “Jumpin The Blues,” “Sepian Bounce” and “Swingmatism.” The band also recorded Parker's "What Price Love," which later became one of the saxophonist's signature works under the title "Yardbird Suite”. In addition to Parker, the McShann big band included other great players as bassist Gene Ramey (1940- 44), drummer Gus Johnson (1940-42), and saxophonist Paul Quinichette (1943). Blues shouter Walter Brown was hired as the bands vocalist in 1940 and the McShann big band cut its first records in Dallas, Texas in November of 1941. This band at the time was rivaling Count Basie, as the hottest act in town.

Traveling to New York’s Savoy Ballroom in February of 1942 they did a stellar performance that was broadcast live, gaining them a huge audience in the process. Just as they seemed poised to take its place among the Swing era’s elite, WWII and the Petrillo Recording Ban put an end to the group’s rise to the top. As all commercial recording was to come to a halt in August of 1942 the Jay McShann big band made its last recordings on July 2nd. McShann himself was drafted in 1943 and served in the Army during part of World War II. After being discharged he settled in Los Angeles, where he started working with singer Jimmy Witherspoon. Between 1945 and 1950 they found success with a string of R&B flavored recordings like “Money’s Getting’ Cheaper”, “Shipyard Woman Blues”, and the huge hit in ’49 “Ain’t Nobody’s Business”. Sometime in 1950, McShann returned to Kansas City, where he owned a trash-hauling business and limousine service for a few years. Although out of the limelight he never strayed far from music. In December of 1957 he teamed once again with Witherspoon on a date for RCA Victor, after which he spent many years in relative obscurity.

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