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Kansas City Jazz

In the 1920s and 1930s, African American musicians in the Kansas City area developed their own style of jazz that pulled heavily from the blues music tradition as well as ragtime.  Count Basie, who joined Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra in 1929, is generally credited to originating the style and Kansas City native Charlie Parker transitioned the musical style to bebop in the 1940s.  In 1930, just under 10 percent (38,574) of the Kansas City, Missouri, population of 399,746 was black.

During the 1930s, Kansas City was a crossroads for transportation with the Union Pacific; Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe; and several other railroads passing through the city.  Budding airlines also had Kansas City on their routes.  In addition, it was viewed as a “wide open” town in terms of the flow of alcohol, in spite of prohibition.  Many believed the political boss Tom Pendergast got anything he wanted during this era, which didn’t interfere with jazz clubs staying open all night, with ready sources of alcohol and even drugs.

The community had more than 100 night clubs, dance halls and vaudeville houses during the 1930s.  In Kansas City, Missouri, the area around 12th Street was known for gambling parlors and brothels as well as nearly 50 jazz clubs.  The center of the African American community, a few blocks away at 18th and Vine, was also known as a place for jazz. After their official gigs, jazz artists would spend all night in jam sessions that helped create the improvisational tradition of Kansas City jazz.  Clubs had names such as the Paseo Ballroom, the Reno Club, the Pla-Mor Ballroom, the Cherry Blossom, the Chocolate Bar, Street’s Blue Room, and the Hi Hat, among many more.

In addition to Count Basie and Charlie Parker, other well-known jazz musicians who eventually came to be associated with Kansas City included Andy Kirk, Joe Turner, Hot Lips Page, Mary Lou Williams, and Jay McShann. 

Visit the American Jazz Museum, 1616 East 18th Street, Kansas City, Missouri. https://americanjazzmuseum.org/

It is co-located with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. http://www.nlbm.com/

Entry: Kansas City Jazz

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: September 2011

Date Modified: June 2021

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.