Bennie Moten was the first important jazz figure in Kansas City. He first appeared on the scene
in 1918 and by 1922 was one of two bands that dominated the local scene. The other was the
band of George E. Lee. In 1922 Moten raided the Lee band and took his best players. He also
formed a relationship with local music publisher Winston Holmes. Holmes also distributed race
records and arranged for OKEH talent scout and A and R man Ralph Peer to hear the group.
This led to a recording contract with OKEH records beginning in 1923. Moten decided to call
the band Bennie Moten and His Kansas City Orchesrta. At the time the band had a distinct
New Orleans flavor but in 1924 he adds saxophonist Harlan Leonard, expands to 8 pieces and
begins moving away from the New Orleans sound and creating a Kansas City style.
In 1925 Peer leaves OKEH for Victor and takes Moten with him. Victor was a major label with
major distribution giving Moten a national reputation.
In 1927 he does a double bill with Fletcher Henderson at Paseo Hall in Kansas City and aspires
to sound like the Henderson band. He enlarges to 11 adding Jack Washington and Ed Lewis.
In December he takes the band on a 9 month east coast tour further establishing their national
In 1929 Moten’s old nemesis George E. Lee beats Moten in a battle of the bands and
challenges his local supremacy.
Moten doesn’t take the loss lightly and decides he needs to modernize the band. He adds his
nephew Bus Moten but more importantly adds trombonist, guitarist and arranger Eddie
During the summer of 1929 a young piano player named Bill Basie desperately wants to join
Moten but Moten already has two piano players and doesn’t need a third. Basie and Eddie
Durham were close friends and began hanging out together at jam sessions. Basie has lots of
ideas for musical arrangements but can’t write music so Durham helps him. Moten is
impressed with Basie’s music and adds him to the band.
By October of 1929, when the band records again for Victor, the Basie-Durham influence is
beginning to show. By fall Basie and Durham take charge of the musical direction of the band
and recruit blues shouter Jimmy Rushing and Hot Lips Page to join them.
After another eastern tour they return to Kansas City, take part in another battle of the bands
and is humiliated in another embarrassing loss. Moten, once again was enamored with the
east coast bands and tried to emulate them but the people wanted the sound they heard on
Moten makes yet another change and fires the old guard including Harlan Leonard and Booker
Washington. Thamon Hayes resigns and forms a new band made up of the ex-Moten
Moten and Hayes meet up in 1932 in a battle of bands and the Hayes band destroys them and
gets their revenge.
This inspires Moten to recruit more top musicians so he gets Ben Webster, Eddie Barefield and
Oklahoma City Blue Devil leader Walter Page.
With those editions the band is at it’s peak.
The depression is on but Moten heads to New Jersey anyway and and they end up getting
stranded. They were able to make a recording session for Victor that showcased the new
soloists and is among one of the most outstanding big band sessions of all time. Two of the
songs recorded on December 13, 1932 are classics: Prince of Wails and Moten Swing.
After they made it back home to the safety of the Kansas City scene they stayed in town
working locally and dominating the scene.
In 1933 there was a bit of an upheaval with Moten being voted out as leader and Basie voted
in. This lasted a few months until Basie and Moten reconciled and came together once again.
In March of 1935 the band headed west for an engagement in Denver but Moten stayed behind
to have a routine tonsillectomy. In a still unexplained tradgedy, the Dr. slipped and Moten died
on the operating table.
Buster Moten tried to keep the band going but by summer the musicians had gone their