KC Blues History

Kansas City Music History

The Kansas City Musician’s Foundation has been known for its after-hours jams. Originally home to the Black Musicians’ Protective Union Local 627 A.F. of M., The Foundation has immunity to liquor laws and to this day supports an all-night jam every Fri and Sat night.

18th and Vine is the KC jazz district and where the KC Jazz Museum can be located. The Baseball Negro Leagues Museum neighbors the jazz museum. The Charlie Parker memorial bust has residence here, the KC Musician’s Foundation holds it jams here and 12th and Vine is immortalized in song by Pete Johnson and Big Joe Turner in Piney Brown’s Blues. The innovative jazz and blues are featured nightly at clubs across KC. The Kansas City Sound was born in the 1920s and grew up in the – 30s and – 40s as a swinging blend of the blues with attitude, with stride piano, or as Count Basie called it “swing.” The road to swing music began in Kansas City through a series of jazz musicians and legends who honed their craft in KC, articulating the blues into a new note – from blues to bebop to swing – in the 18th & Vine St. district, and the 12th and Vine area, jazz and blues received their KC stamp here.

Kansas City, much like New Orleans, has a unique distinction of being a melting pot and a swingin’ capital of Jazz and Blues alike. While Kansas City is often recognized more for it’s Jazz than it’s Blues, the two sounds often fused and overlapped into jazzy blues jams ,making  the musical output of the Missouri border city into what is known as Kansas City Blues or Jump Blues.

Much like it’s cross-state counterpart Saint Louis, Kansas City’s blues and musical style played no small part in influencing what would become R&B and Rock n’ Roll in the 1950s. Artists such as Tommy Douglas, Jelly Roll Morton’s sideman, and Big Joe Turner recorded a number of notable songs with many of the same techniques that would later become R&B and Rock, not the least of which was the classic “Shake, Rattle & Roll”. Several famous blues artists have come out of KC or been pivotal in the development of Kansas City Blues. Charlie Parker and William “Count” Basie are a couple worth noting.

On September 23, 1923, the Bennie Moten Orchestra made its first recording consisting of eight songs.  By strict musical standards, the songs themselves were unrefined and not much removed from existing blues music.  But the Bennie Moten Orchestra would soon build upon its earliest recordings to develop a distinct Kansas City style of jazz that later dominated the jazz scene in the late 1930s and 1940s.

Bennie Moten was born on December 13, 1893.  During his childhood, Moten’s family lived on either Michigan or Woodland streets near the bulk of Kansas City’s dance halls.  Eventually dropping out of high school, Moten pursued a musical career.  He learned ragtime piano and developed into a good piano player.  In 1918, Moten joined with drummer Dude Langford and singer Bailey Handcock to form Moten’s first band, the B. B. and D. trio, or simply “B. B. and D.”

B. B. and D. got started with a gig at the Labor Temple, an important gathering place for Kansas City’s African American community as well as for local labor leaders, both black and white.  Between 1918 and 1922, B. B. and D.’s performances became a staple of a thriving jazz scene that was a great source of pride within the black community.  By 1922, the group seems to have changed its name to “B. B. and B.,” and Moten was serving as its manager.

Moten shrewdly hired some of the most promising musicians in Kansas City to bring them within one band.  Most notable among them were cornet player Lamar Wright, trombonist Thamon Hayes, clarinet player Woodie Walder, and drummer Willie Hall.  In 1923 the group officially became the  “Bennie Moten Orchestra,” Kansas City’s first great jazz band.  The well-known jazz artists who later joined Moten’s band included Eddie Barefield, William “Count” Basie, Eddie Durham, Thamon Hayes, Joe Keyes, Harlan Leonard, Ed Lewis, Willie Washington, Dan Minor, Hot Lips Page, Walter Page, Jimmy Rushing, Buster Smith, Woodie Walder, Booker Washington, Jack Washington, Ben Webster, and Lester Young.

On September 23, 1923, the Bennie Moten Orchestra became the first Kansas City band to make a phonograph recording of its tunes.  With the help of Kansas City’s Winston Holmes Music Store, which previously concentrated on blues records, the orchestra arranged a recording session in Chicago with the Okeh Recording Company.  The songs were an early form of jazz that really just added additional beats to blues songs.  They included ‘Selma ‘Bama Blues,’ ‘Chattanooga Blues,’ ‘Break o’ Day Blues,’ ‘Evil Mama Blues,’ ‘Elephant’s Wobble,’ ‘Crawdad Blues,’ ‘Waco Texas Blues,’ and ‘Ill-Natured Blues.’

This first recording session would have been unremarkable were it not for the continued evolution of the orchestra’s style after 1923.  Moten continued aggressively hiring the best performers he could find, and their form of jazz matured into some of the best examples of big band swing.  Their music became known as the “Kansas City style,” characterized by complex rhythms, carefully restrained drum beats, and especially riffs.  Riffs referred to the practice of using rhythms to accompany the soloists who became the main focus.

From the mid-1920s through the Depression years of the 1930s, Kansas City’s nightlife thrived under the protection of political boss Tom Pendergast and gangster Johnny Lazia.  They ensured that the police would ignore the illegal alcohol, gambling, and prostitution that permeated the night scene.  Kansas City’s golden age of jazz thrived in this environment.  By the 1940s, the Kansas City style of jazz had spread throughout America, playing in important role in shaping modern music.

Sadly, Bennie Moten did not live to see his broader impact on jazz.  Instead, he died at Wheatley-Provident Hospital during what should have been a routine surgery to remove his tonsils in 1935.  Most of the musicians in the Bennie Moten Orchestra followed a talented pianist named William “Count” Basie, who himself had been a part of Moten’s band.  Count Basie and his bands went on to eclipse Bennie Moten’s fame.  In 1937, Basie moved to Chicago and then New York, bringing Kansas City jazz to national prominence in the process.

Basie carried on the Kansas City jazz style until his death in the 1980s.  In the process, the Kansas City style blended with national jazz trends and inspired artists such as swing musician Benny Goodman and jazz musician Charlie Parker.  Kansas City’s nightlife declined precipitously after the fall of the Pendergast machine, and the golden age of jazz in Kansas City ended in the 1940s.  Jazz historian Nathan W. Pearson, Jr. perhaps best summarizes the centrality of Bennie Moten to this golden age of jazz: “Among Kansas City musicians… the city, the style, and the era of its flowering are virtually synonymous with the Bennie Moten Orchestra.”




David Conrads-author of KC musicians’ biographys

Kansas City jazz is distinguished by the following musical elements:

  • A preference for a 4/4 beat over the 2/4 beat found in other jazz styles of the time. As a result, Kansas city jazz had a more relaxed, fluid sound than other jazz styles.
  • Extended soloing. Fueled by the non-stop nightlife under Political Boss Tom Pendergast, Kansas City jam sessions went on well past sunrise, fostering a highly competitive atmosphere and a unique jazz culture in which the goal was to “say something” with one’s instrument, rather than simply show off one’s technique. It was not uncommon for one “song” to be performed for several hours, with the best musicians often soloing for dozens of choruses at a time.
  • So-called “head arrangements”. The KC big bands often played by memory, composing and arranging the music collectively, rather than sight-reading as other big bands of the time did. This further contributed to the loose, spontaneous Kansas City sound.
  • A heavy blues influence, with KC songs often based around a 12-bar blues structure, rather than the 8-bar jazz standard.
  • One of the most recognizable characteristics of Kansas City jazz is frequent, elaborate riffing by the different sections. Riffs were often created – or even improvised – collectively, and took many forms: a) one section riffing alone, serving as the main focus of the music; b) one section riffing behind a soloist, adding excitement to the song; or c) two or more sections riffing in counterpoint, creating an exciting hard-swinging sound. The Count Basie signature tunes “One O’Clock Jump” and “Jumpin’ at the Woodside“, for example, are simply collections of complex riffs, memorized in a head arrangement, and punctuated with solos. Glenn Miller‘s famous swing anthem “In the Mood” closely follows the Kansas City pattern of riffing sections, and is a good example of the Kansas City style after it had been exported to the rest of the world. Kansas City jazz has been called blues with an education.