Rhythm and blues musician Jesse Stone, a Kansas City, Missouri native, once said “Kansas City… did more for jazz music, Black music, than any other influence at all.” He told the Orlando Sentinel in 1993, “Almost all their joints that they had there, they used Black bands. Most musicians who amounted to anything, they would flock to Kansas City because that’s the place where jobs were plentiful.”
But the destruction of the storied blues scene in Southern cities like Memphis also happened to jazz in Kansas City. In fact, a pattern of sabotage has seemed to threaten cradles of Black music wherever they spring up.
Jazz first came to the city from the Deep South through traveling shows, and was nurtured in the city’s African American neighborhoods. Home to a host of jazz greats: Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Charlie Parker, Big Joe Turner, Mary Lou Williams, Hot Lips Page (criminally underrated to this day!), Jay McShann, and others who played the city’s raucous clubs, Kansas City became a smorgasbord for music lovers. A typical night out at the Reno would last until first light dawn, with the jam-packed audience feverishly doing the lindy hop or the jitterbug amid clouds of tobacco and marijuana smoke.
The city was teeming with Black celebrities. In A Historical Geography of Kansas City’s Jazz District, Jason Woods notes that Connie Johnston, a pitcher for the Kansas City Monarchs, recalled the sidewalks being so crowded late at night that it was hard to walk around; the Reno Club set up bleachers outside for people to listen in. Wander into The Sunset, and you could hear singer Big Joe Turner and pianist Pete Johnson playing raucous Boogie Woogie. Walk a little further, and you could catch the famed Count Basie Orchestra with Lester Young on saxophone. The last shows sometimes didn’t begin until 5 a.m.
And yet, the city’s relationship with its music is a complicated one. On Jackson Street, where neon signs once dazzled and trombones blared, many of the clubs have shuttered, and the vibrant District is now an overpolished relic of what was.
Jazz thrived in Kansas City, in part because of corruption: regulation was low, musicians and clubs faced fewer restrictions than they did elsewhere. For a time, the community had much autonomy during what musicians fondly call the Pendergast years. But even then, jazz was a way to turn a profit for nightclub owners, a golden goose that brought in easy money. This was a fragile ecosystem, and it soon collapsed under neoliberal impulses we would recognize today: a heavy police presence, so-called “good government,” and a singular obsession with creating wealth through property values.
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The Good Years
During K.C.’s Golden Age, the streets were hot with jazz and the government crawled with nepotism. After a brief stint as a city alderman, the city’s “boss,” Tom Pendergast, rose to prominence by using the Jackson County Democratic Party to wield power in the city informally. Businesses run by Pendergast or his associates won contracts from the city and then from the federal government, simultaneously lining his pockets and giving him access to money which could purchase loyalty and favors. When the city switched to a city manager system that was supposed to be neutral, Pendergast maneuvered to have his allies on the city council vote in his preferred candidate, Henry McElroy, who worked with Pendergast and the city’s criminal underworld.
This meant that anything was up for sale in Kansas City, as long as Pendergast got his take. Police were instructed to ignore Prohibition laws and brothels as long as the operators paid up, and gambling became a cornerstone of the local economy.
Maurice Milligan, writing for the Omaha Herald, advised his readers: “If you want to see some sin, forget about Paris and go to Kansas City.” Lucifer is said to have been the angel in charge of the heavenly choir, and those same dens of sin needed music. A good economy grew up for musicians: One local musician, Charles Goodwin, said, “The town was wide-open during Pendergast’s days, and you could make a living pretty well playing music if you was capable.” Club managers mostly got rich off gambling, but a few of them still treated their musicians well.
Charting the exact number of clubs is hard because they often closed quickly and unpredictably, but the best guess estimates between 150 and 200 music venues in the city at its height. Some of the best-known were the Hey Hay Club, Dante’s Inferno, the Reno Club (one of Count Basie’s regular venues) and the Lone Star.
The best place to hear music was the neighborhood known as 18th and Vine, east of downtown. Kansas City grew rapidly in the 19th century, and the neighborhood grew substantially in the 1880s as working and middle-class African American families moved in. Doctors, dentists, and other white-collar professionals came to live here, in this self-contained Black ecosystem. Few owned their own homes, but the area had a reputation for strong schools and burgeoning businesses, including several theaters and music venues where blues crooned and jazz buzzed. The clubs were largely owned by whites, but many were run by Black managers. Kansas City became a vibrant center for African American Life.
Pendergast was no crusader for racial justice, but he recognized that the city’s Black were vital to the community, ranging from the Kansas City Monarchs—longest-running franchise in the history of baseball’s Negro leagues—to segregated schools that “were much better than they had any right to be,” said future NAACP Executive Director Roy Wilkins in his autobiography Stand Fast, “Because Negro children and parents simply refused to be licked by segregation,”
Even before the New Deal won over many African Americans to the Democratic Party, Pendergast made sure that his constituents got some of the patronage and welfare he disbursed in order to keep the money coming in.
Ironically, Kansas City’s golden age began to wind down because of Pendergast, the same man who was in part responsible for its growth; his corruption was simply too much to ignore. He feuded with Missouri Governor Lloyd Stark, who then supported federal investigations into organized crime in Kansas City. Pendergast was ultimately brought down by the same thing that got Capone: failure to pay his income tax, and he was arrested in 1939.
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In his place came reformers committed to “good government,” which meant trimming the city’s budget, ending the graft, restoring property tax values, and cracking down on crimes that Pendergast had not enforced. Implicit in all of this was a proto-neoliberal impulse: a concern with “law-and-order,” the attempt to foster economic growth through property values, and a disregard for current residents who seemed to be an economic impediment. Pendergast stole a lot of money, but he also allowed people to participate in the broader economy as long as they paid taxes upward.
With Pendergast’s fall, a number of the clubs in Kansas City were all targeted and began their decline. In the book Goin’ to Kansas City, author Nathan W. Pearson quotes Jay McShann as saying rather bluntly, “Kansas City died after Pendergast.” For a long time, those clubs had been the target of complaints because of the alcohol, gambling, prostitution, and integrated audiences (even though many clubs were segregated). Now, because they were so strongly linked with Pendergast’s graft, many of them were closed down. The Reno, which had hosted Count Basie, was shut down in 1939.
As part of the reform, clubs were ordered to close at 2 a.m.; this killed many of the jam sessions that had made Kansas City’s jazz so vital. Crackdowns on illegal gambling also killed an important revenue stream for venues and threw them out of business, while the war meant fewer travelers coming to Kansas City.
In a way, the clubs had always run on thin margins, especially with so many of them, and the loss of alcohol markups, gambling, and narcotics forced many to close. Facing a downturn, surviving clubs turned to the jukebox as a cheaper alternative to live musicians, and many big names such as McShann and Big Joe Turner headed for New York.
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This did not immediately kill the 18th and Vine District, but it was weaker than it had been. In conjunction with the old fear of crime, the District was seen as a different kind of threat to the city: “blight.” Even under Pendergast, white citizens wrote to the governor to complain about “just what the Pendergast machine has done to property values”; the Kansas City Realtor made the same complaints. Pendergast’s successors in city government were brought in to clean up the city’s finances: their solution to economic growth to try to develop the city’s real estate.
By the 1950s, the city was using slum clearance in the area around 18th and Vine to tear down existing housing and businesses, displacing the overwhelmingly African American residents. This was wrapped in the guise of clearing out unsafe housing, though in practice, very little was done to create affordable housing.
A number of clubs and businesses were also torn down as part of a wave of urban renewal. Surviving businesses and clubs lost their patrons, and many of them shut their doors, accelerating the collapse of the city’s music scene. By 1975, the Kansas City Star described 18th and Vine as “a ghost town, complete with its urban tumbleweeds—broken glass, potholes, cracked sidewalks and boarded-up buildings.” Moreover, many of those who had been displaced were moved into highly segregated public housing, which soon became deeply impoverished.
The destruction of music venues in the name of law-and-order or urban renewal is not unique to Kansas City. Louisville had the Walnut Street District and Memphis had Beale Street, both of which were vibrant African American neighborhoods devastated by urban renewal. Even places you wouldn’t think of as jazz hubs, like Portland, Oregon or Milwaukee had vibrant music scenes that came to an end when the clubs were physically destroyed for freeway construction. These clubs had previously been criticized for their “loose elements,” and once their economic value was deliberately destroyed, they could simply be bulldozed.
With its gilded district and electrifying clubs, Kansas City led the way for one of America’s greatest music movements—and it also set the bar for the destructiveness of urban renewal.
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