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KCJO Presents Roaring KC

Early clubs in KC; courtesy of LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries

In the 1920s, Kansas City brought about a few developments that would eventually change the landscape of popular music in the world, including jazz, rock and roll, and beyond. KC was a veritable melting pot of culture, and a landing spot for many great musicians who would contribute to the communal, ever-refining texture of jazz.

In 1917, Chicagoan Dave Lewis moved to Kansas City and created the “Jazz Boys,” a 7 piece group that gained popularity playing dances at the McHugh Dancing Academy located at 15th and Troost. The group featured some legendary musicians from Lincoln High School, including Walter Page and Leroy Maxey, among others. In the 1920s, a few figures emerged, looming large on the local (and eventually the national) scene: namely Bennie Moten, George and Julia Lee, and star pianist Mary Lou Williams, the central figure in Andy Kirk’s “Clouds of Joy.”

The music of the 1920s was quite a bit different from what most people think of when they think of Kansas City jazz. While the 1930s recordings of Basie, Williams, and McShann are immediately identifiable today, their styles were the result of the development that occurred in the Roaring Twenties. Between Julia Lee’s rolling barrelhouse piano and Bennie Moten’s great bands (that recorded on the Okeh label), that distinctive Kansas City 4/4 rhythmic groove became the mainstay of the region, versus the 2/4 feels that were dominating New Orleans and New York.

Bennie Moten's Orchestra and George E. Lee's Orchestra

Photographs courtesy of LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries

Moten’s group was known for their “head charts”; loose, heavily improvised melody statements that would give way to strings of extended solo flights, and tight, sometimes intricate background figures supporting and giving excitement to the solos. Moten had a fantastic band, including a young pianist from Red Bank, New Jersey: Bill Basie. Julia Lee, along with her piano stylings was a classically trained vocalist, and sang bluesy, sometimes risque tunes that (coupled with arranger Jesse Stone’s charts) became anthems of the multitude of clubs that dotted Kansas City’s geography. Mary Lou Williams, an icon and one of the elite innovators and practitioners of jazz, wrote arrangements and played piano like no one else, penning riffs that both commercially kept dancers on the floor and creatively predicted the bebop era in their complexity and sophistication.

Eventually, these musical components became the groundwork for all music - the 4 beats per measure groove (in popular music, think “Shake Rattle & Roll”), the head and riff charts (think “In The Mood”), and the infectious swing rhythms and melodies that are synonymous with big band jazz today. That’s what we’re diving into on the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra’s upcoming concert, Roaring KC, a twenty first century revisitation of where it all started, with classic tunes and some newer things as well, featuring our talented big band, vocalist Eboni Fondren, and dancers from the Kansas City Canaries.

Special guests for the evening include vocalist Eboni Fondren and dancers from the Kansas City Canaries

As jazz musicians, we have the privilege of participating in the dialogue of this art form that spans over a century. Please join us as we honor those great artists and the tradition of our city when we take the stage at the Kauffman Center on May 14, 2022 at 8 p.m.!

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