After the stock market crash of 1929 most of the Territory Bands broke up and many of those musicians descended on Kansas City to take advantage of Pendergast’s wide open nightlife policy. After hours jam sessions started to spring up all over the district and those nightly gatherings became a way of life for the young musicians.
The jam sessions were serious business and reputations were won and lost every single night.
None of these after hours affairs were recorded or documented but there are many legendary tales of victory and defeat that have passed down through the generations.
The most famous Kansas City jam session legend took place at The Cherry Blossom club which was a few steps north of 18th and Vine.
Coleman Hawkins was in town with Fletcher Henderson and was the undisputed king of the tenor saxophone in jazz.
Kansas City was loaded with great tenor players who had been honing their craft at these nightly cutting contests for years. The outside world hadn’t heard of them yet but they had developed into brilliant players while under the cloak of the Pendergast-controlled Kansas City nightlife.
"Hawk" usually didn’t take part in jam sessions because there was nothing for him to gain. That night was different though. He was challenged by the local musicians and he decided to go to show them who was boss.
The session got underway around 2 in the morning with Hawk taking on all comers. The locals would try to call tunes Hawk didn’t know but he knew everything. Hawk would call hard keys and that eliminated quite a few challengers right off the bat. After a couple of hours all that was left was Hawk, Lester Young, Herman Walder, Herschal Evans and Ben Webster. The rhythm section was tired by this point so Ben Webster went and woke up Mary Lou Williams and got her to come take the piano chair. By five a.m. Herman Walder and Herschal Evans dropped out leaving just Hawk, Ben and Lester. Another hour or so went by and finally Ben dropped out leaving just Hawk and Lester. No matter what Hawk played he couldn’t top Lester. He could call whatever key he wanted and Lester was right there and his creativity was so genius there was nothing Hawk could do. By morning Hawk finally gave up and Lester was victorious.
The Fletcher Henderson band had an engagement that night in St Louis and legend has it that Hawkins blew up the engine to his brand new Cadillac racing across Missouri to catch up with the band.
Mary Lou Williams summed it up nicely: “Hawkins was king until he met those crazy Kansas City tenor men."