Charlie Parker was born August 29, 1920, in Kansas City, Kansas. When Parker was still a child, his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where jazz, blues and gospel music were flourishing. His first contact with music came in ninth grade at Lincoln High School where he played baritone horn with the school’s band. Soon, Parker was playing with local bands until 1935, when he left school to pursue a music career.
From 1935 to 1939, Parker worked in Kansas City with several local jazz and blues bands. In 1938, Parker joined the band of pianist Jay McShann, with whom he toured around Southwest Chicago and New York. A year later, Parker traveled to Chicago and was a regular performer at a club on 55th street. He washed dishes at a local food place where he met guitarist Biddy Fleet, the man who taught him about instrumental harmony. Shortly afterwards, Parker returned to Kansas City to attend his father’s funeral. Once there, he joined Harlan Leonard’s Rockets and stayed for five months. In 1939, Yardbird rejoined McShann and was placed in charge of the reed section. Then, in 1940, Parker made his first recording with the McShann orchestra. From 1947 to 1951, Parker worked in a number of nightclubs, radio studios, and other venues performing solo or with the accompaniment of other musicians. During this time, he visited Europe where he was cheered by devoted fans and did numerous recordings. March 5, 1955, was Parker’s last public engagement at Birdland, a nightclub in New York that was named in his honor. Parker died a week later in a friend’s apartment. On March 12, 1955, Upon his death (which saw a coroner estimate his age at 60 instead of his actual age of 34), his body was interred in Kansas City’s segregated Lincoln Cemetery.
Bennie Moten, bandleader and namesake of the orchestra, was born on December 13, 1893 in Kansas City, MO. During his childhood, Moten’s family moved into five different residences, all of which were on either Michigan or Woodland streets near the bulk of Kansas City’s dance halls. In 1918, Moten joined with drummer Dude Langford and singer Bailey Handcock to form Moten’s first band, the B. B. and D. trio, or simply “B. B. and D.” B. B. and D. got started with a gig at the Labor Temple, an important gathering place for Kansas City’s African American community as well as for local labor leaders, both black and white. Between 1918 and 1922, B. B. and D.’s performances became a staple of a thriving jazz scene that was a great source of pride within the black community. By 1922, the group seems to have changed its name to “B. B. and B.,” and Moten was serving as its manager. Moten hired some of the most promising musicians in Kansas City to bring them within one band. In 1923 the group officially became the “Bennie Moten Orchestra,” Kansas City’s first great jazz band. One well-known jazz artist who later joined Moten’s band was “Count” Basie! September 23, 1923, the Bennie Moten Orchestra became the first Kansas City band to make a phonograph recording of its music. Moten died at Kansas City’s Wheatley-Provident Hospital on April 2, 1935 following a failed tonsillectomy operation.
Daniel “Lacy” Blackburn
Lacy Blackburn directed one of the leading brass bands in Kansas City from 1919 through World War II. Blackburn’s band specialized in standard band repertoire, but also featured classics, ragtime and waltzes. A popular band, they frequently played in Parade Park to crowds numbering 3,000 to 6,000. Many Kansas City jazz musicians got their start in Blackburn’s band, including Bennie Moten.
Brown was born and raised in Kansas City, Kansas. Her cousin James Scott was a ragtime composer and pianist. Her early career was spent primarily on stage in musical theater and vaudeville. She recorded with Bennie Moten in 1926; the song “Evil Mama Blues” is possibly the earliest recording of Kansas City jazz. Aside from her time with Moten, she did several tours alongside bandleaders such as George E. Lee.
Piney Brown became a legend in the 18th and Vine district during Jazz’s golden years (1920s and ‘30s
). He came from the south during World War I and soon made a name for himself in Kansas City.Eddie Barefield described “Piney” as “a patron saint to all musicians.”
Thomas “Tommy” Douglas
Tommy Douglas was an American jazz clarinetist, bandleader and reed instrumentalist was born November 9, 1911 in Eskridge, Kansas. Douglas was known in some circles as the greatest reed player who never wanted to leave Kansas City! Douglas was best known for his work as a sideman for Jelly Roll Morton and Bennie Moten. He was also an accomplished bandleader, showcasing such talent in his bands as Charlie Parker and Jo Jones. In 1932, he joined up with Clarence Love’s Orchestra and was, for a short period, part of the Bennie Moten group. In the mid-’30s, his own group was one of the more active territory bands, but this meant extended sojourns at Kansas City clubs, as well as rovings and meanderings back and forth across state line!
Born in Kansas City on March 24, 1904 and raised by his mother, Pete’s early life was marked by poverty and hardship. Johnson left school at the age of 12 and worked odd jobs as a laborer. Johnson’s first instrument was the drums. Between 1922 and 1926, he worked with Louis “Good Bootie” Johnson. He learned to play the piano from his uncle Charles “Smash” Johnson. While in Kansas City, Pete was featured with Clarence Love’s band and with Herman Walder’s Rocket Swing Unit at the Spinning Wheel at 12th and Troost.
Julia Lee was known for her husky voice, her straightforward piano style, and the easy, but heartfelt way she sang. In a professional singing career that spanned four decades, Lee built a national reputation as one of the great female blues singers of all time.
Julia Lee was born in Booneville, Missouri, and raised in Kansas City, where she attended Lincoln High School. As a child, she performed with her father’s string trio, as well as at neighborhood house parties and church socials. She began her professional musical career singing and playing the piano in her brother’s band, George E. Lee and His Novelty Singing Orchestra. She made several hit records in the 1940s. The success of “Come on Over to My House Baby” lead to a recording contract with Capitol Records in 1946. “Snatch and Grab It,” recorded in 1947, sold a half million copies. She worked primarily in Kansas City and frequently teamed up with the great drummer Samuel “Baby”Lovett.
In 1949, Lee and Lovett played at the White House at the invitation of President Harry TrumanLee was married for a time to baseball player and manager Frank Duncan, of the Kansas City Monarchs. At the time of her death, she was one of the most popular performers in Kansas City.
Mary Lou Williams (Mary Elfrieda Scruggs)
Pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams was born on May 8, 1910, in Atlanta, Georgia. A musical prodigy, she began performing as a child. Throughout her career, she adapted to changing musical styles, working in swing, blues and bebop. Trained by her mother, and aided by her gift of perfect pitch, she was playing professionally by the age of seven. As a teenager, she started performing with saxophonist John Williams. The two married in 1927, thus making her Mary Lou Williams. A few years later, Williams followed her husband to Kansas City, where she would become an integral part of the swing scene.
Harlan “Mike” Leonard
Born July 2, 1905, Harlan Leonard attended Lincoln High School where he studied with Major N. Clark Smith, playing clarinet in the marching band. After graduation in 1923, he joined the Bennie Moten band leading the reed section and doubling on alto saxophone and clarinet. In 1931, Leonard and trombonist Thamon Hayes left the Moten band and formed the Thamon Hayes Band.
Hayes, Leonard and Jesse Stone rehearsed the band until the annual spring battle of the bands at Paseo Hall in May of 1932. There, the Thamon Hayes “Wonder” Band defeated the Moten band in a grudge match. As a
result of their defeat, a fist fight broke out among members of the Moten band.
In 1934, Hayes left the band after a dispute with the musicians union and Leonard assumed leadership of the group. Leonard later recruited younger players in Kansas City including Henry Bridges and Jimmy Keith on reeds; Fred Beckett, trombone; and veteran drummer Jesse Price. As the Kansas City Rockets, this group quickly became a favorite with Kansas City audiences, frequently playing Fairyland Park.
Major N. Clark Smith
(Band Leader/Teacher at Lincoln High School)
Major N. Clark Smith, “America’s Greatest Colored Bandmaster,” exerted considerable influence on the development of Kansas City jazz, drilling his students on the basics of music theory and performance. Many first generation Kansas City jazz musicians studied with Smith, including Walter Page, Julia Lee, Harlan Leonard, Leroy Maxey, Lamar Wright, Jasper Allen, and DePriest Wheeler. Harlan Leonard remembered Smith as “the music program at Lincoln.” He had “a vivid and commanding personality. He was short, chubby, gruff, military in bearing, wore glasses, and was never seen without his full uniform and decorations.
While jazz was not part of the Lincoln curriculum, Smith did not discourage his students from playing it. A description of the activities of the music program in the 1919 Lincoln yearbook, The Lincolnian, includes an addendum praising Walter Page’s jazz orchestra: “lastly, I must not forget Page’s jazz orchestra that furnishes music during the lunch period. It is some orchestra. I say it is!