Jay McShann’s robust, hard-driving, blues-flavored style of jazz piano helped shape the Kansas City sound of the 1930s. McShann is probably best remembered as the big bandleader who hired and helped launch the career of jazz great Charlie Parker in 1940.
In the late 1930s and early 1940s, when Kansas City was a hotbed of jazz activity, Mr. McShann was in the thick of the action. He landed in Kansas City in the 1930s where he found a rowdy town whose lax moral code created an ideal environment for nightclubs and musicians. Along with his fellow pianist and bandleader Count Basie, the singer Joe Turner and many others, he helped establish what came to be known as the Kansas City sound: a brand of jazz rooted in the blues, driven by riffs and marked by a powerful but relaxed rhythmic pulse.
"See, the town was wide open," Mr. McShann told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "Now when a town is wide open, all the chicks are gonna be there, the pimps are gonna be there, you know what I mean? And then that makes everything happen, because you could get action any time of day or night, and the music joints were open practically all the time, till 5, 6 in the morning."
In a city filled with now-legendary musicians like Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams, Jimmy Rushing, and Julia Lee, Mr. McShann established himself as a leading pianist and bandleader.
Jay McShann, nicknamed "Hootie," began his career as a fleet-fingered pianist in the mode of Thomas "Fats" Waller and Earl "Fatha" Hines. In Kansas City, he absorbed the energetic, blues-drenched style of Pete Johnson and other boogie-woogie masters. Mr. McShann worked in the same lively vein for the rest of his 75-year career, which continued until months before his death.
In 1937, he was walking past a Kansas City club when he heard an alto saxophonist who played unlike anyone else. It was 17-year-old Charlie Parker.
Working with Mr. McShann's band, Parker made his first recordings in the early 1940s, already showing signs of the speedy elaborations that became the foundation of bebop, the style that would revolutionize jazz.
With Parker playing in the background, Mr. McShann had a hit in 1941 with "Confessin' the Blues," soon followed by "Hootie's Blues." For some high spirited up-tempo “Bird” swinging with McShann listen to “Jumpin The Blues,” “Sepian Bounce” and “Swingmatism.” Mr. McShann also recorded Parker's "What Price Love," which later became one of the saxophonist's signature works under the title "Yardbird Suite."
"Yardbird," often shortened to "Bird," was Parker's celebrated nickname, which he received while working with Mr. McShann. Driving to a job in Lincoln, Neb., Mr. McShann recalled in a 1999 interview, his car struck a chicken.
"Charlie yelled, 'Back up. You hit a yardbird!' He got out of the car and got it and carried the chicken on into Lincoln."
Parker had it cooked and ate it all in one sitting.
According to his website at www.jaymcshann.com James Columbus McShann was born in Muskogee, Okla., probably on Jan. 12, 1916. Although McShann himself claimed this date as his birth, it is somewhat debated as Leonard Feather’s Encyclopedia Of Jazz lists the year as 1906 as does the All Music Guide.
Against his parents wishes, McShann learned to play piano as a young boy. He tagged along with an older sister to piano lessons and imitated music he heard on the radio. One of the piano men he heard was Earl “Fatha” Hines whose band broadcast often playing at Chicago’s Grand Terrace Hotel. By 15, he was working with saxophonist Don Byas and other groups across the Southwest.
He was planning to move to Omaha in 1936 when his bus stopped for two hours in Kansas City. Mr. McShann walked into a club, heard the music and never left. Within two days, he found work.
In Kansas City during the Swing era his band rivaled those of Count Basie and Andy Kirk and was a step above a swinging, albeit now obscure, band led by Harlan Leonard. In addition to Parker, the McShann big band included such up and coming jazz musicians as bassist Gene Ramey (1940-1944), drummer Gus Johnson (1940-1942), and saxophonist Paul Quinichette (1943). Blues shouter Walter Brown was hired as the bands vocalist in 1940 and the McShann big band waxed its first records in Dallas, Texas in November of 1941.
With the band’s successful performance and broadcast from New York’s Savoy Ballroom in February of 1942 McShann’s big band seemed poised to take its place among the Swing era’s elite. However WWII and the ill-timed Petrillo Recording Ban helped put an end to the group’s ascension to the top. As all commercial recording was to come to a halt in August of 1942 this incarnation of the Jay McShann big band made its last recordings on July 2nd. McShann himself was drafted in 1943 and served in the Army during part of World War II. After being discharged he settled in Los Angeles, where he helped launch the career of singer Jimmy Witherspoon. Between 1945 and 1950 this pairing found success on Rhythm And Blues tinged recordings like “Money’s Getting’ Cheaper” and “Shipyard Woman Blues.”
By 1950, Mr. McShann had returned to Kansas City, where he owned a trash-hauling business and limousine service for a few years. Although out of the limelight he never strayed far from music. In December of 1957 he teamed once again with Witherspoon on a date for RCA Victor. This session included such stars as J.C. Higginbotham (tb) Hilton Jefferson (as) Seldon Powell (ts) Haywood Henry (bar) Kenny Burrell (g) Gene Ramey (b) Mousie Alexander (d) and others.
His career picked up momentum once again following a successful European tour in 1969, and for the rest of his life Mr. McShann — working solo and leading ensembles of various sizes, this time handling the vocals himself — performed and recorded frequently, both in the United States and overseas. He was also featured in a number of documentaries, most notably “The Last of the Blue Devils,” a 1980 film about Kansas City jazz.
He was featured in a documentary about his life in 1978 and his 2003 recording, "Goin' to Kansas City," was nominated for a Grammy Award.
A broad-shouldered man with a sonorous speaking voice and a gift for anecdote, Mr. McShann appeared in Ken Burns's 10-part jazz series in 2000 and in a 2003 documentary on the blues directed by Clint Eastwood.
In an Associated Press interview three years ago, Mr. McShann described the lasting appeal of the music and the city he came to embody.
"You'd hear some cat play, and somebody would say, 'This cat, he sounds like he's from Kansas City.' It was the Kansas City style.
"They knew it on the East Coast. They knew it on the West Coast. They knew it up north, and they knew it down south."