Anyone who played jazz in Kansas City in the Seventies ran into Jay McShann
from time to time, and was invariably the better for it. A great, genial presence on the bandstand, he played no-nonsense piano and sang the blues in a slyly insinuating manner that never failed to give pleasure.
History mainly remembers McShann as the man who led the big band with which Charlie Parker made his first studio recordings back in 1941, but he and his group were far more than just a footnote to bebop. Their Decca recordings of “Hootie Blues,” “Sepian Bounce,” and “Swingmatism” (reissued a couple of years ago as part of Jumpin’ the Blues, a budget-priced two-CD set from Proper Records)
are as ear-catching now as they were six and a half decades ago–and not just because of Parker’s solos, either.
After dropping out of sight for a long, dry spell, McShann resurfaced in 1969, subsequently recording an all-star comeback album called Last of the Blue Devils whose well-deserved success made him a fixture on the festival circuit. It was around then that I first heard him in person, marveling at the fact that he was still around, and still swinging. Those were the days when I’d just started playing bass professionally, and though I never got the chance to work with McShann, I was sinfully proud to be able to say that I was, like him, a Kansas City jazzman.
McShann died in a Kansas City hospital yesterday. He was ninety years old. The Kansas City Star‘s obituary is here, along with a package of related stories and video clips. It leaves out a few things, including the fact that Alvin Ailey made a dance in 1988, Opus McShann, set to several of McShann’s recordings, but it gets the important stuff right, and it also includes a characteristic quote from the man himself, courtesy of the Associated Press obit:
You’d just have some people sitting around, and 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.
They still do.
UPDATE: The New York Times obituary is here. It’s serviceable, though short. Nothing from the Washington Post, which surprises me–they tend to be quick on the uptake, but this time they dropped the ball. (The Post finally got in the game on Sunday.)