The 11th annual Kansas City Blues Festival was held July 21-22 in northeast Missouri. With the temperature hovering near 37 degrees Celsius each day, even the coolest jazz couldn't keep the crowd of 50,000 from sweltering. VOA's Mike Osborne was in Kansas City for this year's red hot blues.
Hot and steamy is nothing new for Kansas City. Straddling the Missouri River on the eastern edge of the Great Plains, summers are always stifling here. But early in the last century Kansas City was warmer still, serving as a kind of hot house environment for the evolution of the Blues.
University of Missouri jazz historian Chuck Haddox says that in the 1930's this was still very much a lawless, frontier town. "Kansas City was a very wild place," he says. "Dave Dexter Jr. remembers 20 clubs in a block stretch on 12th Street. Twelfth Street stretched miles east from downtown and it was lined by taxi dance joints, clubs, also, you know, houses of prostitution, gambling dens. Passersby watched gamblers shoot dice in the windows of the Lone Star at 12th and Woodland. Right across the street at the Sunset, that's where all the numbers activities occurred. Of course, also during Prohibition it was business as usual here in Kansas City. Liquor flowed freely."
Some estimates suggest there may have been more than 200 clubs citywide dispensing those spirits, and every club wanted a hot band to pull customers in off the streets.
"All these job opportunities became a magnet for musicians from the southwest which was very hard hit by the depression and so they flocked to Kansas City where they could find work in the clubs and the ballrooms and it created a super heated music scene and a new style of jazz evolved," Mr. Haddox says.
The Blues were giving birth to several varieties of jazz around the country, but Mr. Haddox says the Kansas City sound was distinctive. "It was a urban more sophisticated style of Blues," he explains. " In Kansas City it was the piano rather than the guitar that was the principal Blues instrument. It was also an orchestral Blues style, a Jump Blues style that evolved here that was very different from the other cradles of jazz and the other music centers across the country."
Midway through the festival, visitors had an opportunity to hear that evolution. During an educational session titled Soul School, jazz veteran Jerry Ricks demonstrated the migration of the Blues from its birthplace in the Mississippi Delta north through Memphis, Kansas City and Chicago.
Mr. Ricks spent more than 20 years performing in Europe and Asia. He notes that non-American audiences are often better-schooled in the history of this all American music because of the broadcasts of VOA's best-known announcer. "Historically they're going to understand it, because remember when Willis Conover and people like that was pipin' that music…and I know Willis was played a lot behind the Iron Curtain…you know, in Russia, Czechoslovakia, and old Yugoslavia and Hungaria and Willis was always there," says Mr. Ricks. " He'd been pipin' that in since the 40s. Even though people behind the Iron Curtain didn't have much material they had to understand it to some degree because of the radio."
Beyond Soul School, the Kansas City Blues Festival always provides ample opportunity to simply enjoy the music. Staged in a large city park, there's ample room for more than fifty acts to perform over a long weekend on one of three stages. Musical offerings range from Big Band Swing to Cajun Zydeco, but the main focus is the Blues.
A special treat at this year's festival was a performance by Myra Taylor. Known worldwide as the "Spider and Fly Girl" for one of her early tunes, The 84-year-old Blues legend still has a commanding stage presence even though she now performs from a wheel chair. She delighted the crowd with an impersonation of one of her contemporaries.
Myra Taylor, a Kansas City original, still vividly recalls the town's jazz heyday. "Everybody had a job, because every other door was some kind of a club…little club here a little club there," she explains. " But everybody had a band because you didn't have jukeboxes in those days and so they had to have live music. But in those days you had a sound. You had a rhythm that you could tell anyplace. Anyplace that you would go if you heard that sound you knew they were Kansas City musicians."
Artists like Myra Taylor are something of a rarity now. Chuck Haddox notes that many of these jazz originals are no longer with us. "Over the last few year's we've lost Sonny Kenner, Oliver Todd, Step Buddy Anderson, Orville and Peggy Minor who are veterans of the McShann Band," says Mr. Haddox. " But we're fortunate to have Kansas City's greatest natural resource, Jay McShann. Claude 'Fiddler' Williams and Myra Taylor are still around. There are some survivors, but this is not particular to Kansas City. This is what's happening to jazz across the country, is, we're really losing our older players and the legends." Unfortunately, they're pretty much gone now."
While few first generation jazz greats remain, their legacy lives on through a talented group of second generation artists still playing in the Kansas City style.
"You have individuals, piano professors, that continue today. Tim Whitmer at the Phoenix Piano Bar plays the Kansas City style, and around the corner at the Majestic Steak House you have Braum Whinnans, who actually came here from Amsterdam, because he was attracted to the Kansas City style, and he plays in the Kansas City style. He plays boogie-woogie, ragtime, he can swing it, jump the blues," Mr. Haddox says. " And, you know, also at the mutual musicians foundation, musicians still gather there at midnight on Saturday nights to jam and they play till the people go home, just like they did in Kansas City during the 1930's."