Book: Kansas City Jazz
Chapter: The Lay of the Land: Kansas City in Geographical and Historical Context
The Kansas City metropolitan area extends over two states at the western border of Missouri, but at the beginning of the 1920s it was only the 19 th largest city in America by population, less than half the size of St. Louis at the state’s eastern border. Nonetheless, it was larger than any other city in the southwest and great plains states, and thus served as a destination for musicians in the region looking for work; the history of Kansas City jazz is, as a result, a history of jazz musicians in a larger watershed that included Texas, Oklahoma and other surrounding states. Kansas City was, in addition, sufficiently distant from other jazz centers of the time—New Orleans, Chicago, and New York—that a distinctive style could develop without being influenced by and absorbed into a larger school of music.
Larger historical events in the early twentieth century contributed to the increased importance of Kansas City as a regional center west of the Mississippi. On January 16, 1920, the 18 th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which made the sale of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States, became law; it would continue in effect until it was repealed in December of 1933. During this period Democratic politician Thomas J. Pendergast exercised effective control over municipal government in Kansas City, Missouri, until his arrest for income tax evasion in 1938. Under Pendergast’s rule, undoubtedly in exchange for payoffs, there wasn’t a single felony conviction for illegal sales of alcohol in Kansas City even though over 300 bars operated more or less openly, largely without resort to subterfuges used elsewhere in the country by “speakeasies.” A thriving nightlife developed, and with it demand for musicians to entertain customers. Finally, the Great Depression began in the fall of 1929, and continued until the late 1930s. Because of the critical mass of its entertainment district, Kansas City was largely unaffected by the hard times that impacted nightlife elsewhere in the country, however; in fact, a “flight to strength” occurred as Kansas City became a haven for musicians who couldn’t find work elsewhere. Bandleader Andy Kirk said the stock market crash was “like a pin dropping,” in Kansas City. The “blast of jazz and blues drowned it out.” Many of the men (and a few women) who became known as representatives of the Kansas City style came to the city from somewhere else. Hard economic times helped spread a taste for blues music, where lyrics of personal troubles are given a cathartic musical release.