Swing Territory, Part II

DriggsHaddix Douglas Henry Daniels, One O’clock Jump: The Unforgettable History of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils (Boston: Beacon Press, 2006, 274 pp.)

Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix, Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop—A History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, xi + 274 pp.)

by Todd Bryant Weeks

[Part one can be found here.]

Frank Driggs, the widely known collector and historian, and Chuck Haddix, a disc jockey, archivist, and director of the Marr Sound Archives at the University of Missouri–Kansas City, have combined their respective talents to give us a new, thorough history of Kansas City jazz in its heyday, the 1920s and 1930s. As one would expect, the authors give particular attention to the bands of Walter Page, Bennie Moten, George Lee, Andy Kirk, Jay McShann, and Count Basie. Also discussed in detail are the early careers of Mary Lou Williams, Eddie Durham, Pete Johnson, Big Joe Turner, and Charlie Parker.

Driggs, whose immense collection of photographs has allowed him to make a good living while keeping the history of the music alive, has had a 60-year love affair with Kansas City jazz. An early colleague of Marshall Stearns, Driggs began interviewing musicians from the Southwest when few historians were interested and little was known about the development and dissemination of the Kansas City sound. His research is the backbone of this work, while Chuck Haddix, a Kansas City native, brings extensive knowledge at the local level. Haddix has spent several years collecting his own stories and rubbing elbows with local experts, most notably Milton Morris, original owner of the Hey Hay Club. One gripe that has dogged Driggs in the past is the lack of solid documentation for his writing; this proves of little consequence here, as Haddix, through exhaustive newspaper research, has corroborated many of the stories Driggs dredged from myriad anecdotal sources. This text sets a new standard for histories on the subject.

The book’s scope is admirable, and the authors faced a major challenge maintaining a clear through line with such a varied cast of musicians, bands, club owners, and secondary characters: everyone from the pianist Blind Boone to the 1920s proto–big band leaders Carleton Coon and Joe Sanders to the journalist Dave E. Dexter, Jr., to the machine boss Tom Pendergast. How best to tell this story, when a simple linear account seems out of the question? The answer: a skillful interweaving of individual anecdotes within longer, more complex narratives, achieving a layering effect not unlike that of a screenplay, where nested flashbacks help move the story forward while simultaneously providing vital backstory.

As nationally known figures such as Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, and Noble Sissle arrive on the Kansas City scene, we get a decidedly different view of their orchestras from a K.C.-centric perspective. Sissle’s band, it seems, was deemed too precious for the “stomp down” dancers at Paseo Hall. This was a “rockin’ town,” as becomes clear in numerous depictions of public gatherings, rampant vice, and organized crime, which inevitably clustered around the hundreds of clubs of the 18th-and-Vine district. The flat-out exuberance of Kansas City life in the 1920s and 1930s must have titilated even the most retiring bystanders. Who can resist this description of the Reno Club, which featured an early Count Basie unit as its house band on the eve of their “discovery” by John Hammond?

Picture Kansas City’s 12th and Cherry in 1935 with the Club Reno almost at its Northeast corner, and parked there, almost seeming to lean against it, a John Agnos lunch wagon, horse-drawn and stacked high with liver, pig snoots and ears, hog maws, fish, chicken and pork tenderloins. Pick up a sandwich on your way into this musty, smoke hazed room, squeezing past the hustlers, grifters, solicitors, and off-duty musicians, to find a seat as close as you can to the bandstand. . . . The Reno Club’s early morning Spook breakfasts would often be sparked by the heralded appearance of Big Joe Turner, who, always surrounded by a cheering section from his Sunset Crystal Palace gig, would come in to “work out” with Sol’s “Girl Friday,” vivacious Chrystianna Buckner. Chrystianna had a song and dance for everyone, and people especially liked “Two Old Maids” and “I Ain’t Giving Nothing Away.” Out on the floor, with patent leather hair gleaming, would be Reno Club’s highly polished “Hot Lips” Paige [Page] with white handkerchief in hand doing his “Louis Armstrong” on “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South.” Backing him up was . . . the Reno Club band. Nine brilliant instrumental satellites of sound responding to the sonic radiance of their personable mentor, Bill Basie. . . . At the club on such early Monday mornings would be found Jo Jones, “Big Un” Page, and trumpeter Joe Keyes, jammed up against the north wall, almost popping out of that back door next to the unfenced dirt yard. (137–38)

These words were written not by Driggs and Haddix, but by the always-colorful Richard Smith, head of the Kansas City musician’s local 627 during the 1960s. Smith’s piece was originally published in the Kansas City Star in 1973, and the authors do an excellent job of contextualizing his account. The authors’ sometimes-solemn tone of reportage doesn’t exactly dance off the page, but they often inject the narrative with engaging immediacy. Here, for example, is a description of the famous Union Station Massacre:

On June 17, 1933, triggerman Verne Miller, bank robber Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and Adam Richetti, a psychopathic alcoholic, converged on Union Station determined to free convicted bank robber Frank Nash, who was being escorted from Hot Springs, Arkansas, to the Federal Prison in Leavenworth, Kansas, by two FBI agents and an Oklahoma sheriff. Two Kansas City FBI agents and a pair of trusted local policemen met the law enforcement officers and Nash, as their Missouri-Pacific train pulled into the cavernous, limestone Union Station. Miller, Floyd and Richetti got the drop on the lawmen, hastily loading Nash into a Chevrolet sedan parked right outside the arched entrance of the Station for the quick trip to Leavenworth. The ambush went awry, and when the smoke cleared, Nash, a federal agent, the Oklahoma sheriff and two local policemen lay dead on the plaza in front of the bustling station. (9)

The last bit may smack of Dashiell Hammett but may also be indebted to William Reddig’s lively 1947 journalistic paean to Boss Tom Pendergast, Tom’s Town: Kansas City and the Pendergast Legend. Driggs and Haddix quote freely from Reddig, especially regarding the pervasive vice and gambling. We get vivid portraits of several K.C. underworld characters, including Piney Brown, Johnny Lazia, Ellis Burton, Milton Morris, and the celebrated nineteenth-century madam Miss Annie Chambers, whose 24-room mansion rivaled Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall. But the music remains front and center, and the Kansas City underworld itself never becomes the leading player.

Bennie Moten is prominently featured, and his “war of attrition” with Walter Page put me in mind of George Steinbrenner, longtime owner of the New York Yankees, and his adversarial stance toward other ball clubs. The comparison even extends to promotional gimmicks; Moten gave away door prizes such as souvenir caps, canes, and horns as early as 1924. But Moten was truly a local favorite, and the authors, relying heavily on the reminiscences of trumpeter Ed Lewis, construct a compelling portrait of the band’s first years in K.C. Of particular interest are Moten’s early relationship with the K.C. recording pioneer Winston Holmes and acknowledgement of the band’s debts to McKinney’s Cotton Pickers and the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra.

Moten expanded his personnel several times, but a watershed moment came in the spring of 1924, when he formed an eight-piece band by adding Harlan Leonard to the newly formed reed section. This minor maneuver had important implications for the future of Kansas City jazz: “According to Harlan Leonard, band members collectively improvised in the studio around head arrangements memorized from sketched introductions. The loose head arrangements allowed ample room for solo flights and interaction between sections, which gave the recordings a spontaneity lacking in the first [recording] session [of October 1923]” (49).

In such passages Driggs and Haddix try to isolate just what is meant by “the Kansas City sound.” In Kansas City, according to the authors, the typical southwestern “stomp down” style, which owed much to King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton and New Orleans music in general, eventually gave way to the influence of the Henderson Orchestra and the early Ellington band’s “orchestral expression of jazz” (4). The Moten and George Lee bands absorbed this “highly orchestrated melodic style” (55) helping form a hybrid Kansas City sound, which was then “improved on”—or abandoned, depending how you look at it—resulting in a rawer, harder-swinging permutation of the more “sophisticated” sounds of the urban north.

To the extent Driggs and Haddix can pause for breath in this ambitious project, they do a good job articulating the Moten band’s rhythmic revolution, particularly during its 1927–32 mature phase. With the addition of Walter Page and other Blue Devils—Basie, Hot Lips Page, Eddie Durham, and Buster Smith—the transformation was dramatic. (Simply compare 1925’s “She’s Sweeter than Sugar,” with the June 1927 performance of “Dear Heart.”) In 1927 the band still largely emphasized the “two-beat” style favored by dancers of the period, but the swing feeling that would come to full bloom in the brilliant 1932 Camden Victor sessions was already in evidence. The rhythm section had achieved parity with the other musicians in technical proficiency and fluidity, and the band’s sound was described as “almost like a train coming into the station” (96).

Also of special interest are the compelling stories of largely forgotten second-string performers. Given their proper due are Countess Margaret Johnson, the gifted Earl Hines–inspired pianist who once successfully impersonated the ailing Mary Lou Williams in the Kirk band; Loren Dallas McMurray, the long-forgotten early saxophone virtuoso and leading light with the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks; the arrangers Rozelle Claxton and Tad Dameron; and other K.C. figures like Major N. Clarke Smith, Jesse Stone, Harlan Leonard, Julia Lee, and Thamon Hayes. Fittingly, the concluding chapters are largely consumed by the story of the late Jay McShann, the last of the major K.C. bandleaders.

It is sometimes striking to compare Daniels and Driggs/Haddix in their treatment of the same subject matter. Take the underrated alto saxophonist Buster Smith for an example. Daniels supplies a comprehensive early biography and many significant details about his later life. However, he includes only a brief account of Smith’s influence on the young Charlie Parker:

Around this time he took Charlie Parker under his wing, and his young protégé later confessed, “Sure I like ‘Pres,’ . . . but Buster was the cat I really dug.” . . . Smith recalled that Parker was always talking about going home and having his mother cook some “yardbirds” [chickens] for him—thus the source of the nickname “Bird.” . . . At least one Dallas saxophonist maintained that Smith was the man behind Parker. “A lot of people attribute what Charlie Parker took and developed to the stuff Buster taught him in his early years of playing.” (183–84)

Driggs and Haddix provide a more thorough account, once referring to Smith as Parker’s “musical father” (179). They characterize Smith as possessing a “robustness of ideas and execution, foreshadowing his direct influence on the advanced technique of Charlie Parker” (91) and hypothesize that Smith influenced Parker’s double-time approach to soloing, his use of harmonic extensions, even his experiments with bitonality (190). There are no written musical examples in either text.

Ultimately both of these books have a place on the shelf, although a truly comprehensive work on southwestern jazz—with well-chosen musical examples illuminating the development of the idiom in hard epistemological terms—has yet to be written. Certainly there is enough spark and fire in the music to fill a dozen volumes.