DowntownKCThere were four cradles of jazz: New Orleans, Chicago, New York and Kansas City.  Jazz was born in New Orleans, travelled by rail to Chicago then came of age in New York and Kansas City.   Geographically isolated from the other cradles of jazz, Kansas City developed a unique style of jazz.

In twenty years, Kansas City jazz evolved from ragtime to bebop.  In 1921, James Scott composed the prophetic “Don’t Jazz Me Rag (I’m Music).  Around 1940, as a member of the Jay McShann band, Charlie Parker wrote a song called “What Price Love” which would later be renamed “Yardbird Suite.”  They didn’t call it bebop in those days most of the older musicians in Kansas City referred to it as “crazy music.”

Kansas City is now known as a livable place.  Between 1890 and 1945, Kansas City was a wide open, prosperous, swinging town.  Edward Morrow advised the readers of his column in the Omaha World-Herald that “If you want to see sin, forget Paris, go to Kansas City.”  This Paris of the Plains was the commercial and entertainment center for points North, West and South.

The good-times and apparent prosperity were made possible by political boss Tom Pendergast, who dominated Kansas City politics from 1920 until his indictment for income tax evasion in 1939.


Under the control of the Pendergast Machine, Kansas City was a 24-hour town.  Gambling was wide-open throughout the city, with action for high roller and scratch gamblers alike.  The Red Light district stretched for blocks east on 14th Street, nestled in the shadow of City Hall.  Women lounged in windows and tapped nickels on windows when johns walked by.  During prohibition it was business as usual.  Most of the clubs never closed.  According to Count Basie, new clubs were christened by giving cab driver the key to the club and five bucks with instructions to drive as far as he could and throw away the key.

It was in this permissive atmosphere that Kansas City jazz flowered.  Musicians found plenty of work in old Kaycee.  Mary Lou Williams recalled fifty clubs featuring live music between 12th and 18th Streets.

The Sunset Club at 12th and Woodland featured Pete Johnson at the piano and Joe Turner shouting the blues from behind the bar.  The Sunset Club had an outdoor P A but Big Joe didn’t need any amplification to step outside and call his children home.  Across the street passersby watched gamblers in high waist striped trousers shooting dice in the front window of the Lonestar.  At 18th and Paseo, the Blue Room in the Street Hotel was the “place to meet, to see, and be seen.”  The State Line Tavern on Southwest Boulevard sat astride the State Line.  When the police from one state would raid the club, patrons would simply step across the line to the safety of the other side.  Downtown between Cherry and Locust on 12th Street was the Reno Club, the Queen of KC clubs.


The list of musicians who worked in the clubs dotting 12th and 18th Streets during the hey-day of Kansas City jazz represents a veritable Who’s Who of jazz: Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young, Benny Moten, Walter Page, Jay McShann, Joe Turner, Pete Johnson, Julia Lee, Harlan Leonard, Andy Kirk and Kansas City’s most infamous son–Charlie Parker.

This wild chapter of Kansas City history concluded with a reform movement led by Missouri’s Governor Lloyd Stark.  Like Captain Louis Renault in the film Casablanca, Stark was shocked to find vice flourishing under his watch.

In December of 1938, Stark declared war on vice in Kansas City, citing “the gambling racket is carried on openly in defiance of the law and without protest from any official heads of the city’s government; that houses of prostitution flourish within the very shadows of the courthouse and City Hall, and the inmates solicit openly, unashamed and unafraid of official authority… It is apparent to all that there is an open and notorious violation of the liquor laws of Missouri and an utter disregard and disrespect for the provisions of that act.”

Reformers, sporting small brooms on their lapels swept 12th Street clean.  Bars were forced to comply with state closing laws.  Raids on gambling houses by federal authorities, sent gamblers scurrying out of town, headed for greener felt pastures.  The ladies on 14th Street soon found that “tricks ain’t walking,” and left town for more tolerant climates.  With jobs drying up, many musicians were forced to take day jobs or leave town.  The flame of Kansas City jazz and blues was cooled, but not extinguished.

Today, strains of the intemperate spirit of old Kaycee lives on.  Clubs scattered throughout the city feature jazz nightly.  On Friday and Saturday nights musicians still gather in the heart of the 18th and Vine district at the old African American musicians union hall, now known as the Mutual Musicians Foundation, to jam until the sun comes up or the people go home.  In many ways, Kansas City is still “Tom’s Town.”


A special thanks to KCAI Graphic Design Department, Kelly Ludwig.

We would also like to thank Stuart Hinds, Kelly McEniry and Teresa Gipson in the Kenneth J. LaBudde Special Collections Department in the Miller Nichols Library at the University of Missouri–Kansas City