Kansas City’s Era of Change

The 1930s introduced cabarets and speakeasies that revolutionized the way that people listened to jazz music in the greater Kansas City era. Read more to find out why locals are still scavenger-hunting for the same feeling of nostalgia.

Modernization became the new representation for early twentieth-century Kansas City. It was the age of rural blues tunes and small group interplays. Late-night jam sessions were a nightly norm and instrumentalists developed a track record for success within an increasingly populated city. 

During this time, a Jackson County democratic commissioner and political boss, Tom Pendergast introduced new permissive policies that indirectly opened the doors of exposure for jazz artists in the city. Some people may still be reminiscing about memories hosted by legendary after-hours that quickly became lost in today’s modern clubs.

They also might ask themselves, “What happened to the cracked leather booths and camaraderie formed over the love of jazz?” And yet, locals are still scavenger-hunting for the same feel-good experience that was lost amid new infrastructure and policy-making systems. 

“I came across my grandmother’s event book from the 30’s. She was from Hutchinson, KS. She documented every bridge, party, dance, etc at the KC country club.”

– A KC Defender Subscriber 

An influx of new artists was as refreshing as it was revolutionary. The revamp of the 1930s allowed fancy cabarets, dance halls, and theaters to dominate previous bars. Boogie-woogie and orchestral ragtime music was known for housing some of Kansas City’s most famous shows and informal meetings. However, this was only a small favor of what the exhilarating style of jazz has to offer in KC and how it inevitably created new standards of the fruitful sentiments that jazz delivers.

Dante’s Inferno was one of several local hot spots that provided much more than your classic cocktail. It was organized by crime figure Joseph Lusco and for the guests, it was all about dinner and a show. It was the showstopper of the early 1930s and known for its hellish mockery and serpent interior designs, this devilish speakeasy was lavish, posh, and had strong libations. Dante’s Inferno was also, notably, a hotspot for female-impersonation (now known as drag shows).

Mr. Half and Half, a well-known comedian held weekly shows here and at several other jazz clubs in greater Kansas City.

Paris on the Plains was the name given to the Chesterfield Bar. They provided a comfortable and dimly lit atmosphere for the makings of a familiar speakeasy. Big Joe Turner largely contributed to the essential riffs and dynamics of traditional jazz music. 

He was a Black singer and officiant in the development of modern rock and roll. While curating the predominant sound of big-band swing, American pianist Count Basie made a name for himself through his years of playing at the Chesterfield. Later establishing the Count Basie Orchestra, he became widely known and earned his title as the “King of Swing.”

Music in its holistic sense of uniting people with the world was especially recognized by jazz lovers. People don’t have to be connoisseurs or artists alike to resonate with Kansas City’s style of jazz. It was well respected and continues to be long after the imperial age of speakeasies. However, its relevance rapidly decreased as newly built clubs were sprouting up throughout the city and prohibitionary jazz bars were being recycled and reintroduced as something entirely different.

Artists spent decades in KC establishing a craft that they became comfortable with, and an impressive instrumental flow that provided security for their unique style of music. While bars were closing their doors for good, the consistent thought of reinvention kept people from believing that they could establish the same community and level of comfort someplace else. For this, musicians chose to stay.

The P.S. speakeasy located within the Hotel Phillips requires a reservation and an employee to let you through the secret door in the Power and Light District. It’s an essential, and KC isn’t sparing a single breadcrumb to deliver the art of mixology and the hospitality industry in Kansas City’s most elusive bars and lounges.

There’s always been a place where people can come together for the mutual appreciation of classical music. Intricate entryways and hideaway doors tend to create a deeper connection between patrons. And the sense of belonging is most understood by people that have a longing for exclusivity. Kansas City is flooded with places and events that connect people through music and other expressive art forms. 

Lounges during Prohibition didn’t vanish in the sense of being taken over by newer and more modern locations. They thrived in recreation and designed certain spots to appear as a tribute to some of the world’s most renowned speakeasies. Now, they tend to look like long-forgotten hidden passageways that lead up to a storage room; However, there is something about dated memories in the birthplace of jazz music that encourages recollections of sheer self-indulgence.

Notable Resources:
Dante’s Inferno nightclub. The Pendergast Years. (n.d.). https://pendergastkc.org/local-subjects/dantes-inferno-nightclub-0 

William J. “Count” Basie biography – count basie theatre. Count Basie Center for the Arts. (2023, February 8). https://thebasie.org/countbasiebio/ 


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