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Biographies of jazz: The Kansas City Star

Date: 08/28/97 15:45

JAMES SCOTT (1886-1938)

 Hometown: Neosho, Mo.

 Missouri produced three great ragtime composers and pianists: Scott Joplin (of Sedalia), the now virtually forgotten John William "Blind" Boone (of Miami) and James Scott, who is buried in Kansas City, Kan. Many consider Scott to be second only to Joplin as a ragtime composer. Scott published his first composition when he was 17 and working at a music store in Carthage, Mo. He moved to Kansas City as early as 1914 and in the '20s became an orchestra leader for silent movie houses on 12th and 18th streets. Among his rags are "Grace and Beauty," "The Fascinator" and "Kansas City Rag." Although associated with the ragtime era, he performed well into the jazz age.

BENNIE MOTEN (1894-1935)

 Hometown: Kansas City

 Moten might be considered the godfather of Kansas City Jazz. The bandleader is remembered less for the recordings under his own name than for the roster of future stars he employed and influenced -- Count Basie, Harlan Leonard, Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham and Ben Webster among them. His name lives on in "Moten's Swing," a jazz standard you may have detected in the soundtrack to Robert Altman's "Kansas City." Moten wrote the tune with his brother, Ira Moten. Bennie Moten's bizarre and tragic early death from complications following a tonsillectomy became one of the city's enduring jazz stories.

ANDY KIRK (1898-1992)

 Hometown: Newport, Ky.

 As band leader of the Clouds of Joy, Kirk was a contemporary of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. Kirk's band became popular through successful engagements at the Pla-Mor Ballroom. It toured the Midwest and made records, all with a light sound that was a hit with jazz and pop fans. In 1930 the Clouds of Joy replaced Fletcher Henderson's band at the Roseland Ballroom in New York. Kirk's skills as a band leader attracted the best talent: Mary Lou Williams, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Lester Young are but a few of the musicians who worked with him before his band broke up in 1948.

WALTER PAGE (1900-1957)

 Hometown: Gallatin, Mo.

 The bassist got his musical training from Major N. Clark Smith at Lincoln High School and from the University of Kansas. Page led the Blue Devils during a time when the personnel included Count (then just Bill) Basie, Eddie Durham and Lester Young. Bandleader Bennie Moten began hiring away members of the Blue Devils and eventually Page himself went over to the Moten band; after Moten's untimely death Page stayed with a core of musicians who metamorphosed into the band led by Basie at the Reno Club. He was a key ingredient of Basie's all-important rhythm section and drummer Jo Jones often credited him as a major influence and pragmatic music instructor.


 Hometown: St. Joseph

 Hawkins, who achieved fame as a soloist and arranger for the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra, was never based in Kansas City -- but the big tenor saxman looms large in the city's jazz lore. One evening in 1934, when the Henderson band played a one-night stand, Coleman decided to check out the Kansas City saxophonists he'd heard so much about. At the Cherry Blossom, Hawkins entered the most famous "cutting contest" -- a "try-keeping-up-with-this" battle among improvisers -- in Kansas City history. After hours of blowing, with Mary Lou Williams on piano part of the night, only four saxmen remained -- Hawkins (who had removed his shirt), Lester Young, Ben Webster and Herschel Evans. A few hours later Hawkins, unable to defeat his rivals, finally hopped in his car and raced to St. Louis for the Henderson band's next gig.

JULIA LEE (1902-1958)

 Hometown: Boonville, Mo.

 She was best known for bawdy, double-entendre songs -- "King Size Poppa," "Snatch and Grab It," "My Man Stands Out" -- but Julia Lee was a stylish vocalist and fine pianist who was perfectly at home with a jazz ballad. She began her career singing in bands led by her older brother, George E. Lee, but eventually turned solo. In the 1940s she scored a succession of hit records cut in Los Angeles and Kansas City under the supervision of producer Dave Dexter, a Kansas City native who wrote or co-wrote many of the songs recorded by Lee. For many years Lee performed at the original Milton's Tap Room on Troost.

COUNT BASIE (1904-1984)

 Hometown: Red Bank, N.J.

 Basie, pianist and bandleader, for all practical purposes invented Kansas City Jazz. The distinctive swing music he and his band refined at the Reno Club in 1936 is the style most often associated with this city. It was that sound -- simple, economical, pulsing -- that caught producer John Hammond's ear and catapulted Basie to international fame. That sound influenced many other bands, many other jazz artists, but Basie was modest about his accomplishments. "I never did call it Kansas City jazz," he said. "I just called it swing." Basie used New York as his home base after leaving Kansas City in 1936, but he returned often and carried fond memories of the rowdy city where he spent his formative years as a musician. "It was a cracker town, but a happy town," he once said.

PETE JOHNSON (1904-1967)

 Hometown: Kansas City

 When record producer John Hammond put Pete Johnson together with other barrel-house piano players in the 1938 "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall, it sparked a national boogie-woogie craze. Johnson was among the best practitioners of this visceral, thundering blues style, and he refined his touch in clubs on Kansas City's 12th Street. He often performed with the singer Big Joe Turner, most famously on their collaboration of "Roll 'em Pete." The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers lists more than 60 compositions written or co-written by Johnson. Among them: "Kansas City Farewell," "Kaycee Feeling" and "Kaycee on My Mind."


 Hometown: Muskogee, Okla.

 Williams, who shares a hometown with pianist Jay McShann, arrived in Kansas City in 1928 as a violinist with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy. He's been here off and on ever since -- often appearing at European jazz festivals and touring European cities. In the 1980s he appeared on Broadway in the lavish revue "Black and Blue." Williams performed on the very first recordings made by Kirk's band, and later found himself playing guitar for the Basie band at the Reno Club. He was edged out after the band's "discovery" by John Hammond, who urged Basie to hire guitarist Freddie Green. He is one of only a handful of accomplished jazz violinists. Williams and McShann also share the spotlight as the oldest veterans of Kansas City's jazz heyday still actively performing.

BEN WEBSTER (1909-1973)

 Hometown: Kansas City

 Webster was one of the giants of tenor sax. Long before altoist Charlie Parker helped create bebop, Webster was pushing the limits of big band swing -- and blowing his way into history. His style was breathy on ballads, brusque on hard-driving swing. As an interpreter of ballads, he is ranked by critics with trumpeter Miles Davis and saxman Stan Getz. He worked and recorded with most of the major swing bandleaders, including Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson and Bennie Moten. But the man they called "The Brute" enjoyed his greatest fame in the orchestra of Duke Ellington.

LESTER YOUNG (1909-1959)

 Hometown: Greenwood, Miss.

 A veteran of Basie's Reno Club band, Young introduced a new vocabulary to the tenor saxophone. His playing was light, delicate and nuanced compared to the aggressive style typified by Coleman Hawkins. He stayed with Basie off and on through 1944, when he was drafted into the Army -- an experience for which he was totally unprepared. Emotionally scarred, he forged ahead after World War II, maintaining star status through the bebop revolution and laying the groundwork for cool jazz -- despite increasing health problems caused by heavy drinking and smoking. He had a long friendship and fruitful artistic relationship with singer Billie Holiday.

JAY McSHANN (b. 1909?)

 Hometown: Muskogee, Okla.

 Jay "Hootie" McShann, an accomplished and versatile pianist of international renown, is the only bandleader from Kansas City's glory days still performing (he has given his birth date as 1916 and declined to confirm evidence to the contrary). He remembers many of the legendary characters, including the two Piney Browns -- Big Piney and Little Piney -- and has performed with many of the extraordinary musicians linked to Kansas City. He hired a young Charlie Parker for the big band he formed in 1940 and has enjoyed a long musical association with another Muskogee native, Claude "Fiddler" Williams. McShann can play all styles of music, but at heart he's a bluesman. He's also an evocative singer.


 Hometown: Atlanta

 She was only 19 years old when she played on the first recordings made by Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy. That marked the beginning of her Kansas City years, which she often recalled as a phenomenal time when young musicians from around the country happened to be in the same place at the same time -- resulting in a creative cross-pollination that has never been duplicated. She was both pianist and arranger for Kirk and later composed and arranged for the Duke Ellington Orchestra. In the early '50s she abruptly retired and became a devout Roman Catholic. When she returned to performing a few years later, it was with a renewed sense of music's spiritual importance. "Jazz is like religion," she said. "It's healing to the soul... Spirituals and jazz, they were born out of suffering. And only out of suffering is a true thing born."

JOE TURNER (1911-1985)

 Hometown: Kansas City

 The story goes like this: Boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson would pound out measure after measure of thundering blues as Joe Turner, the singing bartender, shouted out improvised and cobbled-together lyrics for maybe 45 minutes at the old Sunset Club. Then they took a break. One song, one set. Turner and Johnson got their shot at national fame as part of the famous "Spirituals to Swing" concert at Carnegie Hall in 1938 and Turner went on to record with a dizzying array of jazz and rhythm-and-blues artists, helping shape the music called rock 'n' roll. Most famous of his hits in the '50s was "Shake, Rattle & Roll," written by another veteran of the Kansas City jazz scene, Jesse Stone. Turner's 1940 recording, "Piney Brown Blues," recalled a legendary 18th-and-Vine character.


 Hometown: Newport News, Va.

 Ella Fitzgerald, who'll be the subject of a major exhibit at the Kansas City Jazz Museum, had no significant connection to the city, but she returned often after appearing at the Pla-Mor Ballroom in 1939 as the leader of the Chick Webb Orchestra. Her career began in 1934, when she won $25 singing on an amateur night at the legendary Apollo Theatre in Harlem. An association with producer Norman Granz that began in the '40s yielded the series of classic "songbook" albums, in which Fitzgerald interpreted the great songwriters -- including Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer and George Gershwin. In the '50s she appeared here often with the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours. One of the earliest, in 1950, teamed her with a stellar lineup that included Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Oscar Peterson, Ray Brown and Buddy Rich.

CHARLIE PARKER (1920-1955)

 Hometown: Kansas City, Kan.

 Along with Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk, Parker is responsible for creating bebop, the cerebral jazz style that supplanted the more dance-inducing swing. Parker may have been the most influential musician in jazz. Parker hung out in Kansas City jazz clubs from an early age. By the time he left for New York in the 1940s, he had developed a musical aesthetic of his own based largely on fast tempos and melodic invention. His sheer creativity on his alto sax made Parker an iconic figure. But his interest in music extended beyond jazz, to classical music and other forms. He caused controversy when he released a "with-strings" album, which has since been acknowledged as one of his most successful works. Parker's life was cut short by drug abuse. But the standard he set for excellence and innovation in jazz inspires musicians to this day.

BOBBY WATSON (b. 1953)

 Hometown: Lawrence

 Watson, an alto saxophonist, parlayed his talents into a high-profile stint with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (playing alongside Wynton Marsalis). On his own, the saxophonist has released albums on Columbia and Blue Note as well as on smaller labels. Straight-ahead jazz is his specialty, but with a modern edge and a sense of fun that pulls audiences into the music. Watson has also distinguished himself as a composer and record producer. Arguably, his most artistically successful albums are the Columbia releases "Present Tense" (1992) and "Midwest Shuffle" (1994).

PAT METHENY (b. 1954)

 Hometown: Lee's Summit

 One of the few jazz artists to secure mainstream popularity without abandoning the music, guitarist Metheny played his first gigs in Kansas City. His career got a boost in 1974 when he was discovered by vibist Gary Burton, who invited him into his band. The guitarist founded his own, rock-influenced Pat Metheny Group in 1978. Over the years Metheny has maintained a balance between his popular work with that band and projects with such cutting-edge artists as saxophonist Ornette Coleman (with whom he recorded the ground-breaking album, "Song X") and guitarist Derek Bailey.


 Hometown: Kansas City

 Mahogany is one of the few male jazz vocalists to have a major impact in recent decades. His albums for the Enja and Warner Bros. labels have earned him mainstream attention. The singer learned his art through long years on the Kansas City scene, including some work as an r&b singer. His sound nods to tradition while incorporating contemporary influences. In a given set, Mahogany may sing "Body and Soul" and a Stevie Wonder tune. His success is due not only to musical talent, but to an enthusiasm for jazz that makes the music that much more accessible. He appears as a Joe Turner-like figure in Robert Altman's "Kansas City."


 Hometown: Great Bend, Kan.

 Allyson is one of the more impressive jazz singers to emerge in the 1990s. She grew up in Omaha, Neb., and the San Francisco Bay area. Her singing career started in Minneapolis, but she is best known for her work on the Kansas City scene and her recordings on the Concord label. Allyson has a clear, sunny voice, a varied repertoire, a knack for scat singing and a talent for pulling even the most stalwart jazz skeptic into the music. Her live shows are engaging and effervescent. She respects the jazz tradition, but there's nothing musty or outdated about her performances.

--Robert Trussell and Calvin Wilson