Modernization of Jazz and the Kansas City Sound in the 1930’s

In the 1930’s, Kansas City, MO played a significant role in the modernization of jazz. This included the development of riff-style compositions, leading to an increased role for the individual improvisor, the augmentation of small combos to form big bands, and the development of driving swing feel as the predominant idiom. As will be shown, Kansas City was a fertile ground for musical development with conditions that practically demanded the music develop the way it did. Territory bands played a big role in this stylistic transformation as well, both in terms of providing talent to the city to develop these new styles and then for disseminating it out into the country. (1)

Kansas City, MO might seem an unusual place to have such an outsized influence on the development of jazz. Certainly New Orleans, Chicago, or New York would seem to be more likely centers for stylistic development. To understand why Kansas City, MO was such an important center for these bands and the development of jazz, swing, and dance styles, we need to first understand a few realities of the time. In the 1930’s, the Great Plains region was hit hard by the Depression. As fewer Americans felt comfortable paying for entertainment, tours for the territory bands that worked all throughout the Great Plains region became unprofitable. This drove a majority of the musical talent in the region to the urban area of Kansas City, where they could find work. (2) Musical work was plenty in Kansas City, due largely to the Pendergast machine.

Tom “T.J.” Pendergast was a political figure who controlled Kansas City and Jackson County, MO from 1925-1939. He was an elected alderman in Kansas City briefly, but found his influence primarily through his role as chairman of the Jackson County Democratic Party. In this role he used his large network of family and friends to elect politicians friendly to his agenda into many different positions. Many allegations of voter fraud and connections with underworld figures were levied against Pendergast, but his larger-than-life persona allowed him to subvert democracy and build an enormous empire of personal wealth despite his shady practices. Pendergast made Kansas City known as a town that was wide open for any type of vice, specifically alcohol and gambling. The Pendergast machine bribed the police to allow sales of alcohol, despite prohibition. This lead to a flourishing nightlife and entertainment industry, which employed many musicians. (3)

As prohibition pushed nightclubs underground, their hours became unregulated, with many locations staying open until morning or later. The sheer number of hours that entertainment was required for may have had a major impact on the development of riff-based compositions and the focus on improvisation, which is central to the Kansas City Style. As Scott Deveaux and Garry Giddins describe in their book, Jazz, all of the available composers of the time could not have written enough music to satisfy the needs of after-hours speakeasies and other late night illicit drinking spots. Improvisors could however crank out a seemingly endless supply of variations on simple melodies. (4)

Improvisation and riff-style composition were essential to the Kansas City sound of the 1930’s. Primarily based in the swing feel, bands would develop tunes, often in real time through the invention of riffs over repetitive harmonic structures such as the blues. To challenge themselves and ward off creative stagnation during the long hours of playing dance music, musicians would improvise around, between, and on top of these riff-tunes. Major soloists such as Lester Young, Charlie Christian, Ben Webster, and Charlie Parker found a way to make a living through this in-demand dancing music that also allowed them to flourish creatively. Just as the heavy, swinging riffs of the Kansas City bands provided a steady rhythm for dancers to dance to, they provided the perfect vessels for extended improvisation. (5) This style of riff-based composition that places responsibility for a successful performance on the individual improvisors was a new development, and one that was unique to Kansas City. Improvisation had naturally been a part of early jazz playing, but it was typically more limited, in the case of many bands from New York, or more collective, as in the small group playing found in New Orleans.

As riff-style compositions gained popularity with dancers, the need for a more propulsive rhythm section lead to changes in the typical instrumentation of many bands. The tuba, low instrument of choice for many years, was the first to go. Many bands found that the percussive sound of the  plucked upright bass was far superior in terms of projection and clarity for driving a rhythm section forward. The banjo, a longtime staple in New Orleans jazz was also replaced by the guitar, preferred for the more subtle sound it provided. (6) Guitarists such as Freddie Green pioneered this new light and subtle style of guitar playing, contributing to the groove without dominating the timbre.

The rhythm sections were not the only instruments to be updated in Kansas City. With the rise of riff-tunes, more winds were added to reinforce the riffs and add power. Reed sections increased in size, as did their counterparts in the brass sections. In earlier styles of jazz such as those found in New Orleans, collective improvisation was the typical mode of expression. Larger bands would have been impractical as having so many individuals improvising together would have run the risk of crossing from contrapuntal to chaotic. In Kansas City, where groups were basing tunes on a string of repetitive riffs, adding more people to reinforce the sound seemed only natural.

Perhaps more than the riffs, improvisations, or the new instrumentation, the true legacy of the Kansas City style is the swing feel of the music itself. Though this may be the hardest aspect of this development to describe, it is ironically the one that is most apparent when one hears the music in its authentic form. This style of swing is exemplified in the music of Count Basie, where everything is done in service of the groove. As Stanley Dance describes in his book, The World of Count Basie, “[Basie’s] band’s performances were rhythmically intoxicating— and lean. Fat, in the form of commercial concessions or exotic coloring, was conspicuously absent.” (7) This describes the Kansas City style exceptionally well — stripped down, bluesy, and driving. What really distinguished Count Basie’s band was the quality of the rhythm section, and the driving swing feel they could generate. (8)

Though the Basie band may have become the most famous band to come out of 1930’s Kansas City, they were far from the only group active in the area. Bennie Moten, Jay McShann, Mary Lou Williams, and Hot Lips Page, are among the many notable band leaders regularly working  clubs and speakeasies around 18th street and Vine, where the center of the African American community could be found. This area was home to clubs such as the Reno Club, the Paseo Ballroom, the Pla-Mor Ballrom. the Chocolate Bar, and the Hi-Hat. This area was known as the place for jazz and many venues hosted after-hours jam sessions where musicians were free to experiment and develop their own sound. (9) While these groups of musicians were at the core of the development of the Kansas City sound, musicians from further afield played a major role as well.

Walter Page’s Blue Devils, Jesse Stone’s Blue Serenaders, Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, and many others roamed the American West, playing strings of “one-nighters” at rural dance halls, hotel ballrooms, VFW clubs, Elks lodges, and other similar venues throughout the various small towns of the surrounding territories. During the 20’s and 30’s, there were more than one hundred of these bands active in the territories. These bands worked hard, usually traveling as a caravan. They recorded infrequently and accounts of their activities are often dubious at best. It is known that stops in Kansas city exposed the musicians of these band to the promise of steady work in one location, without the grueling travel and difficulties of life on the road. Future cornerstones of the Kansas City scene Bennie Moten and George E. Lee switched territories with bandleaders Andy Kirk, Walter Page and others to be closer to Kansas City. The Kansas City local 627 chapter of the musicians’ union grew from eighty-seven members in 1927, to three hundred and forty-seven by 1930. (10) The effect of this steady flow of musicians coming in and out of Kansas City from the territory bands was two-fold. The musicians coming in provided a steady stream of seasoned, professional players looking to experiment and improvise more in performance. The musicians leaving Kansas City for work in the territories exported the Kansas City sound with them. Territory bands were very important in the 1930’s in terms of the dissemination of popular culture across the American West and this flow of musicians in and out of Kansas City allowed for the development of big band jazz to spread far and wide.

As we have seen, social and economic conditions in Kansas City created the perfect atmosphere for developing a new style of heavily swinging dance music. The extensive nightlife culture created by the Pendergast machine created a large demand for musicians and inventive arranging. Economic hardships throughout the Plains region saw a large influx of skilled musicians relocating to Kansas City. These socio-economic factors created the perfect scene for the development of a new style of jazz, leading to rhythm section-lead driving swing beats, an updated instrumentation, and a newfound emphasis on the individual soloist. This sound was exported regionally by territory bands, and later nationally as figures such as Count Basie and Mary Lou Williams came to national prominence.


(1) Blue Highways and Sweet Music: The Territory Bands Part II, accessed February 16, 2020, https://www.allaboutjazz.com/blue-highways-and-sweet-music-the-territory-bands-part-ii-by-karl-ackermann.php.
(2) Nathan W. Pearson Jr., Goin’ to Kansas City, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 77-81.
(3) Pearson, 83-91.
(4) Gary Giddins, and Scott Deveaux, Jazz, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000), 113.
(5) Pearson, 114-119.
(6) Giddins and Deveaux, 175.
(7) Stanley Dance, The World of Count Basie, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1980), 4-5.
(8) Dance, 53-54.
(9) Kansas City Jazz, Accessed February 16, 2020, https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-city-jazz/17277.
(10) Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, Kansas City Jazz, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 62-64.

These thoughts were put together in preparation for my Masters Oral Exams at Ohio University, spring 2020.