A new book on the early 20th-century Kansas City jazz scene by Con Chapman is a treat for anybody interested in music in the Reconstructionist US. Densely packed with countless historical details that are delivered with a deft hand, this book sails along smoothly and easily, relating the little-known facts surrounding the genesis of ragtime, the blues, and finally, jazz. That these genres begat one another shows they are all related on a musical continuum, all impacted by the attitudes and sensibilities of a post-Civil War society with its racial violence, exclusion and barriers mixed in with the drive, determination and talent of countless remarkable Black musicians and their White colleagues. In a word: fascinating. Such timestamps as traveling medicine shows, the circus phenomenon, and even universal (as well as contemporary) ills like political graft and bribery affected the growth and reach of the music from this region. Chapman’s use of historical photos with descriptive captions, quoted material from a wide array of musicians and insights into individual songs and discographies make this book a must for any historian who, whether specifically curious about the Kansas City legacy or not, has a thirst for the sometimes unflattering and tragic truth behind what made the music sparkle and sing. A resounding “recommend.”
Chapman is also the author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (Oxford University Press, 2019).
What is your connection to music, through your education or hobbies or career etc.?
I’m a way-below-average musician, so I greatly admire anyone who has mastered an instrument, especially those who can improvise. I play a little guitar, not much piano, and harmonica, which I learned when I went to college on the South Side of Chicago. I’ve had an interest in African American music from early on. The first album I bought was by Ray Charles, and the first 45 rpm record I ever bought was “Charlie Brown” by The Coasters, and except for digressions into rock and country, that’s still my favorite genre. I had various bands in high school and college, and the debate was always do you play the latest pop music, like the Top 40 hits or psychedelic music, or do you play music people actually get up and dance to? My preference was always the latter kind.
What is your connection to Kansas City?
I was raised in Sedalia, Missouri, which is around 80 miles away, so Kansas City was the closest big city when I was growing up, and I have a sister who lives in the Kansas City area. Sedalia, as you may know, is the place where Scott Joplin wrote some of his most famous rags, which was the foundation for jazz. Sedalia went through an evolution much like Kansas City: the era that produced their greatest contribution to American music was one marked by saloons and whorehouses, where Joplin and other ragtime players developed a sophisticated musical form from very low-down beginnings.
What inspired this book; how long from concept to publication?
I became intrigued by the fact that this flowering of an art form had thrived in, and in part because of, an environment that tolerated booze, sex, gambling and other supposed social ills that do-gooders would prefer to banish. Musicians flocked to Kansas City after Prohibition was passed because the areas where they were working shut down, but the good times continued in Kansas City largely because a corrupt city administration tolerated what other cities prohibited.
What was the biggest challenge in doing the research and planning your outline?
Since there have been two good survey books about the subject, Ross Russell’s and a later one by Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, I had a roadmap to start from. There were other works that laid groundwork: Nathan Pearson and Howard Litwak wrote an oral history on the subject, interviewing many of the musicians involved. And Douglas Henry Daniels wrote a good book on Walter Page’s Blue Devils, a band that many of the musicians central to the development of Kansas City jazz passed through.
So with this raw material, plus that which has been donated to the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Kansas City Museum, I had a mound of information to start with, but much of it was contradictory: one musician remembered things his way, another gave an entirely different history or interpretation. So as much as I could, I had to go back to the original sources, or at least the earliest known source, and try to untangle the conflicting strands. Thankfully I had the benefit of the internet–which wasn’t available to those who wrote the earliest works on the subject–so I had a more powerful tool to research genealogical records.
What were some of the highlights in meeting and interviewing these musicians and their family members?
Unfortunately, everybody I wanted to talk to was dead. I did hear Count Basie, Joe Turner and Jay McShann when they were still active.
Were you surprised by what you found about the historical aspect of music in that region?
I was surprised by how much Kansas City jazz was fueled by outsiders from far-distant states. Many of the musicians came from Oklahoma and Texas, even states further north like Nebraska.
Talk about how racism within the early to mid-century era was reflected in the music of that period.
Well, Black musicians had no economic leverage. They played for very little in terms of guaranteed compensation from bar owners. The greater part of their income would usually come from tips deposited by patrons in a “kitty”–which were often elaborate, like a figure of a cat with electrified eyes and whiskers to entice patrons to part with their money. They were also subject to the whims of the criminal element that owned and operated the bars where they played–this was Prohibition, so by definition if you operated a bar you were a criminal. The mob made it clear to the musicians by ways both subtle and direct that the musicians should keep their eyes and mouths shut and just provide entertainment.
How does the scene there today compare with the period you studied?
I went back for research and was encouraged by what’s happening in Kansas City to promote the area as a jazz center. The American Jazz Museum is quite nice, you can do it in one day, and it has good exhibits on Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and Charlie Parker. My only hope is that eventually they’ll shift their focus to the regional form of jazz that became centralized in Kansas City between the 1920’s and 1940s and that the area should be known for. Substitute, for example, Mary Lou Williams instead of Ella, Count Basie instead of Duke, and “Hot Lips” Page instead of Armstrong. This is no knock on Fitzgerald, Ellington or Armstrong–all giants of jazz–but none of them have any connection to Kansas City. Charlie Parker, the other artist featured by the museum and one who ranks with Armstrong and Ellington, does have a Kansas City connection, so he’s an appropriate subject.
What are the key things people need to know about this book?
The first few chapters present some rather new and I think important research on topics prior works have overlooked: Jelly Roll Morton’s presence in the Kansas City area, the role played by Wilbur Sweatman, a pioneering clarinet player who’s been dismissed as a vaudeville showman but actually has a claim to making the first jazz records, and the important of “stomp” rhythm–usually dismissed as a meaningless term–to the Kansas City sound.
For more information, visit https://www.amazon.com/Kansas-City-Jazz-Popular-History/dp/1800502826.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of the author.
© 2023 Debbie Burke