Along with Jay McShann, Harlan Leonard was one of the last major bands to come out of the Kansas City Jazz era. He had been part of the Kansas City scene right from the very beginning. He was born in Kansas City Missouri and was a member of Bennie Moten’s original recording band from 1923 to 1931. Leonard was a casualty of one of Moten’s decisions to change his band which led to Leonard leaving in 1931 and becoming a member of the newly formed Thamon Hayes Kansas City Skyrockets.
In 1937 he took over Tommy Douglass’ band and started Harlan Leonard and His Kansas City Rockets. After an engagement at the Harlem Club on Troost Ave. they departed on a long tour of southern states. The band really came together on the road and Leonard was able to mold the young musicians into a polished ensemble. The one thing missing was an arranger that could give the band its own unique sound and style. Basie had Eddie Durham, Andy Kirk had Mary Lou Williams but Leonard was forced to use stock arrangements purchased from Jenkins Music Store.
Realizing the need to correct the problem if he wanted to compete against the better bands, he hired Rozelle Claxton who created a new book of arrangements and originals.
The band became popular and packed local ballrooms wherever they played. One night, while the Benny Goodman Orchestra was in town playing an engagement at the Tower Theater, Goodman heard the Rockets and were impressed. He recommended them to his booking agency Willard Alexander who promptly came to Kansas City to audition them. Even with Goodman’s seal of approval Alexander passed on signing them.
This forced Leonard to re-think things and he decided to bring in stronger musicians. Over the next few months he bolstered the sections with a different level of jazz soloist. He convinced Charlie Parker to leave McShann. Parker only lasted a few weeks before heading out of town. By the end of 1939 the band included saxophonists Jimmy Keith and Henry Bridges, as well as, drummer Jesse Price, trombonist Fred Beckett, guitarist Efferagee Ware and trumpet player/arranger James Ross.
Journalist Dave Dexter championed the band and predicted they would follow in Basie’s footsteps and soon be a national sensation. Dexter helped get them signed to a record deal with Bluebird Records. He also convinced John Hammond to help get them signed by MCA.
The first Bluebird session took place in Chicago in January of 1940. While in Chicago they picked up the outstanding vocalist Myra Taylor.
The next session happened in March while the band was playing an extended engagement at the Golden Gate Ballroom in New York. Leonard continued to find himself short of material and got arrangements from Buster Smith and Eddie Durham to fill out the session. He decided he needed to fix the issue of not having enough music and hired a young unknown arranger, Tadd Dameron to write for the band.
Dameron wrote a number of outstanding arrangements over the next few months although the Dameron charts moved the band away from the Kansas City style.
They did another session for Bluebird in July, then a final session in November. Both of those sessions feature a number of Dameron arrangements and showcase the band at it’s peak. What had started out so promising soon started to come apart. The first blow happened when MCA dissolved their race department. There was also an ASCAP strike at the beginning of 1941 which affected the band as well.
By spring the band had really began to struggle and some of the members started to jump ship. Leonard replaced them and tried to keep going but World War II took its toll, just like it did with so many others.
Losing Jesse Price was the last straw and Leonard decided to dissolve the Kansas City band and try his luck in Los Angeles. He figured there was more opportunity on the west coast so he moved and formed a new band there. He had some luck right at first including a year engagement at the Club Alabam on Central Ave but it wasn’t enough to keep him going. After the Club Alabam Leonard decided he’d had enough. He retired and took a job with the IRS in Los Angeles where he remained the rest of his life.