Kansas City, Missouri, rhythm and blues musician Jesse Stone once said, “Kansas City … has done more for jazz, black music than any other influence,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1993. “Almost all of their joints that they had there were using black bands. Most of the musicians who mattered flocked to Kansas City because there were a lot of jobs there.”
But the destruction of the legendary blues scene in southern cities like Memphis also happened with Kansas City jazz. Indeed, a pattern of sabotage seems to threaten the cradle of black music wherever it appears.
The vibrant neighborhood is now an over-polished relic of what was.
Jazz first came to the city from the deep south through travel shows and was cultivated in the city’s African American neighborhoods. There are a variety of jazz greats here: Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, Hot Lips Page (criminally underrated to this day!), Jay McShann, and others who go to the noisy clubs in town, Kansas , played The city became a smorgasbord for music lovers. A typical night at the Reno would last until daybreak, and the packed crowd would feverishly do the lindy hop or the jitterbug amid puffs of tobacco and marijuana smoke.
The city was full of black celebrities. In a historical geography of Kansas City’s jazz district, Jason Woods notes that Connie Johnston, a pitcher for the Kansas City monarchs, remembered the sidewalks were so crowded late at night that it was difficult to walk around. The Reno Club set up stands outside for people to listen. When you dive into The Sunset, you can hear singer Big Joe Turner and pianist Pete Johnson play the rough boogie woogie. If you go a little further, you can hear the famous Count Basie Orchestra with Lester Young on saxophone. The last shows sometimes didn’t start until 5am
And yet the city’s relationship to its music is complicated. Many clubs have closed on Jackson Street, where neon signs blared and trumpets roared, and the vibrant district is now an over-polished relic of what was.
Jazz thrived in Kansas City, partly because of corruption: regulation was poor, musicians and clubs were less restricted than elsewhere. For a time the community had a lot of autonomy during the Pendergast Years, which musicians affectionately call. But even then, jazz was a way of making a profit for nightclub owners, a golden goose that made easy money. This was a fragile ecosystem, and it soon collapsed under the neoliberal impetus we would recognize today: a heavy police presence, so-called “good government,” and a unique obsession with wealth creation through real estate values.
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The good years
During KC’s Golden Age, the streets were full of jazz and the government scrambled with nepotism. After a brief stint as a councilor, the city’s “chief” Tom Pendergast became known for using the Jackson County’s Democratic Party to informally exercise power in the city. Companies run by Pendergast or his employees received contracts from the city and then from the federal government, simultaneously filling his pockets and giving him access to money to earn loyalty and favors. When the city switched to a city governance system that was supposed to be neutral, Pendergast maneuvered to have his allies in the city council vote in his preferred candidate Henry McElroy, who worked with Pendergast and the city’s criminal underworld.
This meant that everything was for sale in Kansas City as long as Pendergast got his opinion. Police were ordered to ignore prohibition laws and brothels as long as the operators were paying, and gambling became a cornerstone of the local economy.
Doctors, dentists, and other employees lived here, and the neighborhood was an ecosystem in its own right.
Maurice Milligan, who wrote for the Omaha Herald, advised his readers, “If you want to see sin, forget about Paris and go to Kansas City.” Lucifer is said to have been the angel responsible for the heavenly choir, and the same sin caves needed music. A good economy has emerged for musicians: a local musician, Charles Goodwin, said: “The town was wide open in Pendergast’s day and you could make a living playing music if you could.” Club managers mostly got rich from gambling, but some of them still treated their musicians well.
It is difficult to determine the exact number of clubs as they were often closed quickly and unpredictably. However, the best estimates put 150-200 music venues in the city at their peak. Some of the best known were the Hey Hay Club, Dante’s Inferno, the Reno Club (one of Count Basie’s regular venues), and the Lone Star.
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The best place to listen to music was in the neighborhood known as the 18th and Vine, east of downtown. Kansas City grew rapidly in the 19th century, and the neighborhood grew significantly in the 1880s as working and middle-class African American families moved in. Doctors, dentists and other employees lived here in this independent black ecosystem. Few owned their own homes, but the area had a reputation for having strong schools and thriving businesses, including several theaters and music venues that boomed blues and jazz. Most of the clubs were whites owned, but many were run by black managers. Kansas City became a vibrant center for African American life.
Pendergast was not a racial justice crusader, but he did recognize that the city’s blacks were vital to the community, from the Kansas City Monarchs – the longest-running franchise in negro baseball league history – to segregated ones Schools that were “much better than them” had no right to be, “said future NAACP executive director Roy Wilkins in his autobiography Stand Fast,” because Negro children and parents simply refused to be licked by segregation. “
Even before the New Deal convinced many African Americans to join the Democratic Party, Pendergast made sure that his constituents received some of the patronage and prosperity he paid out to keep the money going.
Ironically, the golden age of Kansas City began to come to an end because of Pendergast, the same man who was partially responsible for its growth. His corruption was just too much to ignore. He ran against Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark, who then assisted the federal investigation into organized crime in Kansas City. Pendergast was ultimately overthrown by the same thing Capone got: failure to pay his income tax, and he was arrested in 1939.
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He was replaced by reformers who advocated “good government,” which meant slashing the city’s budget, ending the transplant, restoring property taxes, and fighting crimes Pendergast failed to enforce. All of this implied a protoneoliberal impulse: concern for “law and order,” trying to encourage economic growth through property values, and disregard for current residents who appeared to be an economic barrier. Pendergast stole a lot of money, but he also allowed people to participate in the wider economy as long as they pay up taxes.
With the fall of Pendergast, some of the Kansas City clubs were targeted and began to decline. In the book Goin ‘to Kansas City, author Nathan W. Pearson quotes Jay McShann as saying, “Kansas City died after Pendergast.” These clubs have long been the target of complaints about alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and integrated audiences (although many clubs were segregated). Well, because they were so closely linked to Pendergast’s transplant, many of them were shut down. The Reno that housed Count Basie was closed in 1939.
In the 1950s, the city used slum clearance in the 18th and Vine area to demolish existing homes and businesses and evict the predominantly African-American residents.
As part of the reform, the clubs were ordered to close at 2 a.m. This killed many of the jam sessions that made Kansas City jazz so important. Crackdown on illegal gambling also killed a major source of income for venues and put them out of business, while the war meant fewer travelers came to Kansas City.
In a way, the clubs had always run low margins, especially with so many of them, and the loss of surcharges, gambling, and narcotics forced many to close. In the face of a downturn, surviving clubs turned to the jukebox as a cheaper alternative to live musicians, and many big names like McShann and Big Joe Turner headed to New York.
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This didn’t kill the 18th and Vine Districts immediately, but it was weaker than before. Coupled with the ancient fear of crime, the district was viewed as another type of threat to the city: “plague”. Even under Pendergast, white citizens wrote to the governor to complain about “what the Pendergast machine did to property values”; The Kansas City Realtor made the same complaints. Pendergast’s successors in the city government were brought in to clean up the city’s finances: their solution to economic growth, to try to develop the city’s real estate.
In the 1950s, the city used slum clearance in the 18th and Vine area to demolish existing homes and businesses and evict the predominantly African-American residents. This was done under the guise of evacuating unsafe housing, although in practice very little was done to create affordable housing.
A number of clubs and businesses have also been demolished as part of a wave of urban renewal. Surviving businesses and clubs lost their patrons, and many of them closed their doors, accelerating the collapse of the city’s music scene. In 1975, the Kansas City star described the 18th and Vine as “a ghost town with its urban tumbleweeds – broken glass, potholes, cracked sidewalks, and boarded-up buildings.” In addition, many of the displaced were placed in severely segregated public housing that soon became deeply impoverished.
The destruction of music venues in the name of law and order or urban renewal is not unique to Kansas City. Louisville had Walnut Street District and Memphis had Beale Street, both bustling African American neighborhoods destroyed by urban renewal. Even places like Portland, Oregon or Milwaukee that you wouldn’t think of as a jazz hub had vibrant music scenes that came to an end when the clubs were physically destroyed for the construction of highways. These clubs had previously been criticized for their “loose elements” and, once their economic value had been deliberately destroyed, they could simply be leveled.
Kansas City, with its gilded district and electrifying clubs, paved the way for one of America’s greatest music movements – and also set the bar for the destructiveness of urban renewal.