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KC's contribution: Melding swing and the blues
By ROBERT TRUSSELL and CALVIN WILSON Arts & Entertainment Writers
Date: 08/28/97 15:32

Listen: Kansas City jazz.

 If you've lived in Kansas City any length of time, you've undoubtedly heard that phrase tossed around by politicians, musicians, promoters, fans and journalists. Sometimes the words are chanted by civic boosters who offer up the city's musical heritage as tourist attraction -- along with barbecue, steaks, the Royals, the Chiefs and the Country Club Plaza.

 But have you ever stopped to consider exactly what this buzz-phrase means?

 It seems that for some people, the idea of Kansas City jazz is more intoxicating than the reality. The city's mythical, swing heyday has been succeeded by a jazz scene that is, in some ways, barely hanging on.

 Sure, hardcore fans can be counted upon to patronize the clubs and hotels where the music can be heard, mostly free of charge. But it can be argued that the energy and spirit of innovation that made Count Basie and Charlie Parker essential contributors to American culture have been on the wane for some time.

 The fact is, Kansas City's role in the development of America's sole indigenous music was a crucial one. It's a role which needs to be more fully recognized, not only by this nation but by the world.

 In that light, the developments in the 18th and Vine historic district are more than encouraging. At the very least, the jazz museum will focus attention on a cultural heritage that has too long been smothered in politics and social insecurity.

 Often, Kansas Citians defer to the East and West coasts in matters of culture, allowing our collective inferiority complex to obscure our achievements. This is one of the reasons why tourists from Japan and Europe -- jazz fans with big bucks to spend -- have largely ignored the home of Parker and Basie. We simply haven't allowed our light to shine as it should. The new Jazz Museum could change that.

 Without the blues-based swing perfected in Kansas City and the adjacent Southwest region from the 1920s through the '40s, jazz simply wouldn't be what it is today. Even though New York City remains a mecca for the music, it owes a lot to Kansas City for contributing many of the musicians who made that possible -- among them Parker, Basie and Lester Young.

 Aside from matters of geographical rivalry, it's also indisputable that Kansas City has had rich, diverse resources upon which to draw. The meaning of "Kansas City jazz," it turns out, is -- well, situational. Kansas City jazz is all over the musical map.

 You could be talking about swing. That's the style Basie was refining when his big band was discovered in 1936 playing in a dive on Cherry Street called the Reno Club. Swing, largely derived from the blues, relied on formal, syncopated arrangements to support soaring, improvised solos. It was propulsive music, infectious and irresistible.

 But you might just as easily mean boogie-woogie piano -- the rolling, infinitely improvisational style that was Pete Johnson's specialty. It, too, evolved from the blues -- the 12-bar, three-chord structure that has proven among the most durable in American music. Boogie-woogie was thundering, visceral and immediate.

 Then again you could be thinking of the stream-of-consciousness nonsense lyrics of Big Joe Turner's recordings ("flip, flop and fly," he sang), which he shaped and refined in clubs on 12th and 18th streets. Turner, who often worked with Johnson, was a master blues singer, sometimes called a blues shouter by virtue of his booming, window-rattling voice. It was a style that directly influenced '50s rock 'n' roll.

 Or you might be contemplating the cerebral, harmonically complex music of alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, a veritable jazz deity who filtered all the previously mentioned styles through his own white-hot sensibility.

 After cutting his teeth with bands led by George E. Lee, Jay McShann and Billy Eckstine, Parker helped create a new kind of jazz called bebop. Bop was listening music -- manic and largely unmelodic to the uninitiated, but sophisticated and compellingly intricate to the enthusiast.

 Kansas City jazz is all of the above and more, stretching from ragtime -- syncopated chamber music from the turn of the century -- to the up-to-the minute, soulful vocalizing of Kevin Mahogany.

 Attempts to chronicle the development of jazz in Kansas City so far have been inconsistent and incomplete. Author Ross Russell, who produced some of Parker's recordings, was less a scholar than a breathless fan when he wrote Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest (1971). The book deserves an A for effort but it's riddled with inaccuracies.

 Nathan W. Pearson Jr.'s Goin' to Kansas City, published in 1987, was a collection of potentially intriguing oral histories, but the book is purely anecdotal, with no effort to verify, dispute or qualify the accounts of jazz people recalling the 1920s and '30s in their sometimes ambiguous and contradictory ways.

 But such books make one thing clear: The story of jazz in Kansas City takes in a huge chunk of history, from the raw frontier town of the late 19th century through the gloriously corrupt Pendergast era of the '30s and '40s -- glorious especially for the night life it fostered.

 If one were to synthesize the evolution of jazz in Kansas City from the 1900 through the '40s, it might go something like this: Gospel begat blues, blues begat swing, swing begat bebop and beyond.

 You could also trace it this way: Brass bands begat ragtime, ragtime begat dance bands, dance bands begat swing, swing begat bebop. From bebop came cool jazz, and from cool jazz came free jazz. After that, some would argue, came the end of jazz.

 Indeed, some scholars assert that the intense forward momentum of jazz from 1900 on lost its narrative drive in the 1960s. Jazz, once the popular music of the country, lost its radio forum and never really played well on television.

 The evolutionary chain broke down, and musicians were left to recycle their own history or compromise their way to commercial success. Jazz, once learned and taught on the road and on the job, retreated to academia and the world of grants, workshops and UNESCO tours.

 Is it fair to suggest that once museums are erected to honor artists of the past, this means that the art itself has lost its vitality? That it might be stone-cold dead?

 Maybe, maybe not. It's easy enough to argue that jazz continues as a living music, subject to the popular influences of the day. The incorporation of electric instruments, the embrace of rock and funk, and the melding of swing and blues with other musical forms, from rap to classical, suggests that the music is only changing with the times.

 Still, bebop, a style developed 50 years ago, has been more or less accepted as the dominant jazz style. And aside from its more commercial forms, jazz survives only through the support of a limited but dedicated audience.

 So it only makes sense that all of us do what we can to honor and preserve it.

 It may be that some -- perhaps most -- of the taxpayers who helped finance the city's long overdue jazz museum at 18th and Vine have only the foggiest notion of the music that made Kansas City a legend. Or of the reasons why the music and its players deserve their attention.

 It may be that for some citizens, Big Joe Turner, Count Basie and even Charlie Parker are merely entertainers who had their day. The idea that they also made lasting contributions to our culture may be beyond their comprehension.

 But as the city prepares to open its long overdue jazz museum at 18th and Vine -- a museum that celebrates the city's and the country's musical heritage -- it's good to remember that some things are too good, and too important, to ignore.