Kansas City Jazz
Reviewed by Harvey Pekar, Fri., June 10, 2005
Kansas City Jazz
By Frank Driggs & Chuck Haddix
Oxford Press, 274 pp., $32
Kansas City has been cited, along with New Orleans, Chicago, and New York, among the most important early jazz centers, but one which, according to authors Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, has received less attention than it deserves. Lester Young, Count Basie, and Charlie Parker, among the greatest influences in jazz history, helped distinguish the Kansas City scene. During their ascendancy beginning in the Thirties, KC bands were looser, more laid back than East Coast bands like Fletcher Henderson's. Listen to Basie's recordings from that time. His band played with unusual grace, his charts airy, informal, and often made up on the spot. The authors concentrate on the Kansas City scene from the ragtime era to the early Forties, building their narrative mainly on the histories of the area's prominent big bands, those of Basie, Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk, Harlan Leonard, and Jay McShann. These were black outfits, but, happily, the authors include a section on KC's white Coon-Sanders band, which did some early third stream experimentation in the Twenties and early Thirties. The structure of the book makes sense, as Kansas City jazz was at its height during the big-band era, and most of the top KC soloists and arrangers had connections to these bands. Not enough attention is paid to acknowledged greats like tenormen Don Byas and Ben Webster, let alone admirable but underappreciated stylists, including trumpeter Shorty Baker and tenor saxophonist Dick Wilson. The politically corrupt context in which these bands flourished, the time of the Pendergast machine, is given a good deal of consideration by the authors, some of which might've been devoted to musicians' accomplishments.