History of Jazz Music in Kansas City

When you visit Kansas City, you’re visiting a town with a long and rich history. For decades this great city has been known for its great times and its artistic achievements, and few things illustrate this as well as KC’s contributions to the history of jazz. Jazz is one of the truly great and unique American art forms, and Kansas City helped put it on the map.

Just as you’re looking for entertainment in Kansas City today, people were doing the same decades ago during prohibition. The difference was, back then, KC was one of jazz_in_kansas_citythe few towns where the liquor flowed freely. Thanks to the famous (and totally corrupt) local political boss Tom Pendergast, the cops overlooked liquor and gambling violations. This kept the money flowing into Kansas City and guaranteed a steady stream of young musicians to fill the town’s many hopping dance clubs.

It’s said that while New Orleans was the birthplace of jazz, Kansas City is where it grew up. Jazz made its transition from big band to bebop here, bringing in the virtuoso playing and improvisation that marked the beginning of jazz as we know it today. Some of the true greats of the era got their start here, men like the inimitable Count Basie and the legendary Charlie Parker. Thanks to them, jazz gained its voice in KC. More than that, it gained its soul.

Kansas City jazz wasn’t simply about showing off how well you could blow your horn – you were expected to say something with your solos. And, as one of the leading forms of entertainment in Kansas City at that time, the jam sessions would go on all night. You could sit in a room with the smoke so thick it nearly hid the stage, tossing back drink after drink, listening to battles of the bands that would go on all night. A single song could go on for hours, as the performers onstage dueled solo after solo to the crowd’s delight.

Even today, when you wander the streets of downtown KC, around 18th and Vine, you can practically hear the solos whispering on the wind on a still day. There’s a museum there today which is dedicated to the legacy of jazz in this city by day, and becomes a swinging jazz club by night. It’s worth a visit if you have even the slightest interest in jazz. And if you’re a fellow aficionado, it’s more like a pilgrimage.

While Kansas City was eventually replaced by Chicago and New York as the new hubs of jazz innovation, that legacy lives on to this very day. This is still one of the great towns to sit down and hear great jazz. No tour of the entertainment in Kansas City is complete without at least one evening of great music. Across from the museum on that historic block is Danny’s Big Easy, serving up equal portions of great food, great music, and Cajun Hospitality. Or, for a taste of history, have yourself a porterhouse at the excellent Majestic Steakhouse and jazz club, located in what used to be a 30s speakeasy.

There’s all sorts of great entertainment in Kansas City, but perhaps none so rich and evocative as our jazz legacy. Whether you’ve just discovered the magic of this great art form, or you’ve been a fan all your life, KC is still the place to be for jazz. We’ve still got great bands today, and proudly keep the tradition alive even as this great city marches ever onwards into the 21st century and beyond.