Kansas City Feature
Great Cities For Jazz
As we begin the second century of jazz, the notion of a regional style seems rather quaint. The global reach of jazz recordings enables players everywhere to influence and sample each other. It's impossible to tell these days if a musician hails from Ma Rainey's Georgia or Mother Russia's Georgia.
Just a few short decades ago, The New Yorker ran a cartoon portraying a couple of characters watching a riverboat going by. One says to the other, "Listen! That's jazz coming up the river from New Orleans." The early jazz histories promoted a similarly simplistic view of the music's geographic spread—that it started in New Orleans, traveled up the Mississippi until reaching Chicago, and from there made its way to New York City.
In more recent decades, some historians have qualified this explanation, suggesting that Chicago was merely the most prominent of many cities where jazz traveled in the teens and 1920s and that it hardly stopped moving or even lost its momentum when it reached New York.
Still, no one's been able to usurp New Orleans as the flash point for the beginnings of jazz. Its musical foundations, such as ragtime and the blues, sprang up all over the South, but no other city had the racial and cultural diversity necessary to produce the blend of American and European, high art and folk art traditions found in New Orleans at the turn of the last century.
What we typically think of as New Orleans jazz can be described simplistically as polyphonic music in which different instruments simultaneously play different variations on a given song. In classic New Orleans jazz, the three main instruments—trumpet, clarinet, and trombone—are rarely all playing exactly the same melody at the same time.
Jazz caught on very early in southern towns like Memphis and Kansas City. Recent studies of jazz history, in fact, place a new importance on regional rather than racial influences on jazz. While few would dispute that jazz is essentially black music to which white people have made a major contribution, music historian Richard Sudhalter argues that in the early 1920s, white musicians in the South and Midwest were playing a hotter, more rhythmically advanced brand of jazz than black musicians in New York.
Kansas City jazz flourished in the 1930s, when the town was a vice and entertainment capital during the Depression. The city's unique sound was largely defined by the reliance of its bands on blues, fast tempos, and simple riff structures. Among the pioneering Kaycee bands were those of Count Basie (featuring Lester Young) and Jay McShann (featuring Charlie Parker).
Chicago is where a lot of jazz coalesced. The music there took on a tough, urban, aggressive edge, and jazz came in second only to bootleg hooch as the Windy City's biggest export. Though Louis Armstrong was born and raised in New Orleans, it was in Chicago that he perfected the art of the jazz improvisation.
From the 1930s onward, New York eclipsed Chicago as a jazz powerhouse. The big-band era was largely born in New York and consequently nurtured by Fletcher Henderson, Duke Ellington, and Benny Goodman. During this era, if you led the single greatest group in Chicago, you were still only a local hero. But if you made it in New York, you were a national or even international celebrity. New York's formidable booking machinery sent bands all over the United States and, after World War II, the world.
West Coast jazz, particularly from California, is sometimes stereotyped as "cool," detached, and even academic, but there were as many cool-style players in New York—such as Lennie Tristano and his followers—as there were in the Hollywood studio scene. Among others, the band led by hard-driving drummer Shelly Manne could have belonged, sonically speaking, to either coast.
Still, L.A. was famous in the 1950s for the relaxed, understated sounds perfected by saxophonist Gerry Mulligan, trumpeter Shorty Rogers, trumpeter/vocalist Chet Baker and other laid back "immigrants" who passed through the City of Angels. Not remembered as often, however, is that San Francisco played host in the 1940s to one of the great revivals of Dixieland-style traditional jazz.
Perhaps regional jazz styles no longer mean what they once did. But if your travels permit, sample a few of the clubs listed here and judge for yourself.
Will Friedwald is the author of Jazz Singing and Sinatra!, The Song Is You, and, with coauthor Tony Bennett, The Good Life
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