Competition between Kansas City musicians ran especially deep. "For some reason," Claude "Fiddler" Williams remembered, "Kansas City was different from all other places because we'd be jamming all night. And it you come up here ... playing the wrong thing, we'd straighten you out." "Regardless of how much anybody played or where they were from," said Mary Lou Williams, "when they came to Kansas City they found out how little they were playing." The trumpet player Buck Clayton compared Kansas City musicians to gunfighters. Lips Page, he recalled, used to slip notes under the hotel-room door of visiting trumpet players reading, "Meet me tonight at such-and-such a club."
The pianist Sammy Price remembered going home at 10 o'clock to change his clothes after playing at a session only to return to the club at 1 a.m. to find they were still playing the same tune. There were informal cutting contests for high school kids, free-for-alls for professionals, and the equivalent of heavyweight championship contests between the top musicians in town, often held at the Sunset or the Subway, the Reno or the Cherry Blossom. Kansas City jazz rewarded both individualism and cooperation. In order to provide a pleasing background for a succession of soloists, those waiting to play were expected to master complex harmonized riffs: "It showed a young guy that came in there," the bassist Gene Ramey recalled, "that he didn't just have to learn how to play a solo, he had to learn how to team ... [how] to breathe at the same time." Kansas City jam sessions were most like camp meetings, Ramey continued, "completely imitated from one of those revival meetings, where the preacher and the people are singing, all that living, and there's happiness all around."
One evening in 1933, the great tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins himself was in town with Fletcher Henderson's band, on the last night of a week long engagement, part of what would be one of the struggling band's final tours. After the show, he carried his horn into the Cherry Blossom at 12th Street and Vine, looking for challengers as he did wherever he went. Three of Kansas City's best tenor players were waiting for him: two whose styles owed much to his, Herschel Evans and Ben Webster — and 24 year-old Lester Young whose unique laid back style couldn't have been more different than Hawkins'.
By four o'clock in the morning they were looking for a fresh piano player. Mary Lou Williams was fast asleep at home:
Around four a.m., I awoke to hear someone pecking on my screen … Ben Webster was saying, "Get up pussycat, we're jamming and all the pianists are tired out now. Hawkins has got his shirt off and is still blowing." Sure enough, when we got there, Hawkins was in his [undershirt], taking turns with the K.C. men. It seems he had run into something he didn't expect. Lester's style was light ... it took him maybe five choruses to warm up. But then he would really blow ... That was how Hawkins got hung up. The Henderson band was playing in St. Louis that evening and Bean knew he ought to be on the way. But he kept trying to blow something to beat Ben and Herschel and Lester. When at last he gave up, he got straight in his car and drove to St. Louis. I heard he'd bought a new Cadillac and that he burnt it out trying to make the job on time. Yes, Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenor men.
It's all a matter of perspective.
Thursday, October 24, 2002
I am writing a piece for my Expository Writing class about the history of Jazz. This morning I have been scouring the Ken Burns web site for stuff to steal. I found this great tidbit about the Kansas City Jazz scene: