If you thought there was nothing more to say about Swing-era jazz, think again.
The jazz that developed in the Southwest from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s reached its peak in Kansas City and became swing, the music America danced to before rock and roll. In his new book ‘Kansas City Jazz: A little harm will do you good,’ with Chapman takes an in-depth look at aspects of this music that have previously received little or no attention.
As the book shows, what became known as “Kansas City Jazz” began as “stomp” music in small-town dance halls played by “territory” bands such as Walter Page’s Blue Devils, who woke Count Basie early one morning buzzing through the streets of Tulsa, Oklahoma.
With the advent of Prohibition in the 1920s, the good old days fueled by liquor and music were driven underground where, given human nature, they continued to thrive. The ban on the production of alcohol has made what was previously a pleasant pastime more attractive by transforming liqueur into “forbidden fruit”.
At the same time, the ragtime music that had developed in 19th-century saloons evolved into a looser style played by artists such as Wilbur Sweatman, a clarinetist born ninety miles from Kansas City in 1882.
Sweatman’s importance was underestimated by music gatekeepers because he incorporated showmanship into his act by playing three clarinets simultaneously, not appreciating that such “novelty” improvements were used to sell early jazz to vaudeville audiences.
Kansas City Jazz provides a detailed look at Sweatman, his life, music and career, and why he matters.
Another aspect of Kansas City jazz that has not received enough attention is the role community brass bands, traveling circuses, and carnivals played in its development. Kansas City Jazz demonstrates how many (if not most) of the Midwestern and Southwestern musicians who created the style received their early training not in schools or conservatories but in these informal settings from “professors” who taught them the foundation they needed, then allowed them to innovate on their own.
The book also examines the conditions under which Kansas City jazz grew and thrived – a laissez faire attitude to nightlife and its associated social ills – and what killed it: a puritanical reaction that threw out the jazz baby with the dirty water of political corruption, liquor smuggling and illegal gambling.
As the book’s subtitle suggests, it was necessary to endure “a little evil” to produce the “greater good” of Kansas City jazz.
The book serves as a reminder that while jazz should be taken seriously as an art form, it need not be serious.
Count Basie said he wanted people to stamp their feet when they heard his band’s music, and Kansas City jazz began as music for dancing.
Kansas City was the focal point of the jazz we know by the name of the city, but the men and women who created it came from a geographical area that extends from Pittsburgh in the east to Denver in the west, from the Dakotas in the north to Texas in the South.
The book outlines many of the genre’s unsung heroes, including musician/arranger Eddie Durham and Buster Smith.
Finally, the book suggests that the Kansas City model could be used to enhance secondary jazz education by focusing on regional variations in American classical music.
According to his publicist, the author talks about these issues:
– The positive role played by traveling circuses and carnivals in the creation of jazz and in the education of black jazz musicians.
– Three important figures missing from the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, and why they should be added.
– A major improvement that could be made to jazz education in the United States using Kansas City jazz as a model.
Advance commendation for Kansas City Jazz: A little harm will do you good:
* “Thoroughly researched and skillfully arranged, Con Chapman’s Kansas City Jazz synthesizes and enhances our understanding of jazz in this formative venue. The information on Jelly Roll Morton is especially appreciated, but each chapter provides valuable discussions from both musical and historical context. Chapman has a gift for simultaneously humanizing legendary figures and raising awareness for so-called minor players, and the result is a smooth and energetic jam session. — Sascha Feinstein, editor, Brilliant Corners: A Journal of Jazz & Literature
* “The jazz that emerged in Kansas City in the 1920s and ’30s was as beloved as it was influential. In the neighborhood of 18th and Vine, Bennie Moten, Count Basie, Mary Lou Williams and Charlie Parker pioneered a style that would set the tone for the swing era and far beyond. With great thoroughness, Con Chapman brings to life the music and personalities of these and other figures who once called Kansas City home. — John Check, Professor, University of Central Missouri
* A fresh and illuminating look at the jazz of the American Southwest that reached its peak in Kansas City in the 1920s and 1930s, with new historical research into the origins of the music that developed from ragtime to bebop. –Terry Teachout, author of Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington And Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong
Essential information: KANSAS CITY JAZZ: A LITTLE EVIL WILL DO YOU GOOD by Con Chapman (Equinox Publishing) Release Date: March 13, 2023, 370 pages, ISBN 978-1800502826, Hardcover, $60.00
Note: About the author of the book: With Chapman he is the author of Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges (Oxford University Press), winner of the Hot Club de France Book of the Year 2019 award. He is currently working on a biography of tenor saxophonist Don Byas.
Pat McGuigan of The sentinel of the city prepared this story for publication, working with a press release from Lauren Hathaway of Plymouth-based “BooksSavvyPR” (BSPR), Massachusetts.