From Tragedy to Triumph: The Expansion of Kansas City Jazz in the 1920’s

How Kansas City’s Jazz scene evolved from a tragedy of racist oppression, to a story of triumph, beauty and renaissance. Beneath the City continues to be a 3-part series uncovering the truths of how historical Kansas City affected black artists.

The twenties and thirties were a challenging time for Black upcoming artists in Kansas City. Prohibition resulted in harsh impacts on Black musicians who otherwise could have been uplifted and showcased. While Prohibition negatively affected all demographics, it was especially damaging for Black individuals in the music industry.

In addition to withholding resources and opportunities from Black artists, racism and white supremacy in the entertainment industry also restricted even those who did by exceptional nature succeed – from becoming household names. 

Charlie Parker, the Kansas City jazz musician, with an international reputation. Photo courtesy courtesy of LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC University Libraries.

Music during Prohibition seemingly approved only musicians with the most likelihood of success, and largely dismissed communities of color even in an industry that positioned itself as progressive and committed to prioritizing the arts.

Compared to other states that experienced tremendous backlash after passing the 18th amendment, which strictly prohibited the consumption and distribution sales of industry alcohol and “medicinal” liquor, Kansas City had some of the most extreme local laws that targeted Black communities. 

“Boss Tom” Pendergast was the notable so-called forward thinker of the times, and a progressive functionalist who exerted his efforts largely on reversing the major impacts of the Great Depression. His efforts specifically focused on musicians and aimed to provide a sense of security for artists to receive compensation for their events and performances.

Tom and Carolyn Pendergast, 1935. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

As a result of his efforts, artists gained the ability to book paid gigs and become part of a network that would link them to consistent work and long-term career commitments. This was a major progression at the time and encouraged a nationwide merge of instrumentalists and performers to create what we now know as Kansas City Jazz. 

For many, it was described as entertainment’s intellectual expansion – a revolution even.

The only problem, it was racist in its implementation and completely excluded support for eager Black musicians.

The mid-twenties were notorious for businessmen looking for an escape from their mundane lifestyles, in hopes of engaging in fruitful and drunken evenings powered by jazz, blues, and booze. The nights were enchanting and classic cocktail drinks were intoxicating – but the “high society” environment gave birth to an aggressive and increasingly racist culture. 

Despite such setbacks, the era of the twenties and early thirties brought a newfound emergence of innovation within arts and culture – particularly in the Black community. 

World renown Jazz singer Billie Holiday enchants the crowd of a 1920’s Nightclub

Kansas City jazz became a major national powerhouse and developed infrastructure and contemporary architecture through gig sales for traveling artists hoping for their “big break.” The burgeoning city also became a haven for new artists, and this reputation began to spread like wildfire across the industry for artists who may not be afforded such opportunities elsewhere. 

Legendary pianist-bandleader, Count Basie smiles while playing a melody in a 1920’s nightclub. Image courtesy of Jazz History Tree.

The story of Kansas City’s Jazz scene is one that began as a tragedy of racist oppression, but evolved into one of triumph, beauty and innovation – ultimately becoming a creative hub for new possibilities enabling communities to thrive and flourish. 

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