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Book: Kansas City Jazz

Chapter: Roots: Ragtime, Minstrelsy and Tent Shows

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.42617


The roots of the music that came out of the Southwest and flowed into Kansas City are described. First is the tradition of minstrelsy, which originally consisted of white entertainers in blackface imitating African-Americans’ music. After the Civil War, freed Blacks began to replace white performers, and the prior musical styles performed in minstrel shows—“thinly disguised Irish reels, hornpipes and English country dances”—disappeared as African-American musicians introduced their own original music to the entertainment form.
Second, the piano style known as “ragtime”—because of its “ragged” syncopated rhythm—developed into a national craze as Americans responded to its contrasting beats in the treble and bass. The principal practitioners of this style came from the Southwest, particularly Texas, Oklahoma and southwest Missouri, and gravitated towards Kansas City, Sedalia, and St. Louis, Missouri, where the opportunities to profit from their compositions through publication of sheet music were greater than in rural areas.
Third, circuses developed “side show” bands that featured African-American musicians apart from the “Big Top” tent where the main attractions performed. These bands were featured along with minstrel performances and developed a musical tradition of their own that combined the typical brass bands of the 19 th century enhanced by African-American musical touches of their own, such as syncopation.

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