Jay McShann first came to Kansas City in 1936. He was taking a bus from his native Oklahoma to Omaha to visit an uncle in hopes there might be some work for a piano player. During a stopover in K.C. he headed to the Reno Club to hear the Basie band but Basie was already gone and had been replaced by Buster Moten. Making the rounds, he ran into his old friend, the bassist Billy Hadnot. Hadnot said don’t bother going to Omaha, this is the place to be. McShann stayed, established himself and lived there for the next 70 years becoming Kansas City’s favorite son and the ambassador for Kansas City Jazz around the world.
He was born in Muskogee Oklahoma in 1916 and became hooked on the blues at a very early age. He mastered blues, jazz and boogie woogie on his parents upright piano in the parlor. He would hear broadcasts of Earl Hines from the Grand Terrace in Chicago and try to emulate what he heard. While in High School he played in a combo under the leadership of classmate Don Byas who was also from Muskogee. After high school he played with a variety of territory bands including Eddie Hill and His Bostonians. As jobs got scarce he decided to visit his uncle in Omaha and see what he could find there.
Once Billy Hadnot talked him into staying in Kansas City he started freelancing along 12th and 18th streets and developed a strong local reputation. One night, hanging out with some of the local musicians, he had a little too much to drink and everyone started calling him Hootie, a nickname which stuck throughout his career.
He ended up with a regular job at the Monroe Inn. Journalist and jazz enthusiast Dave Dexter became a big fan and used to go hear him every night. Dexter began writing about him in the Journal-Post and in 1937 gave him a small write up in the national Metronome Magazine calling him the top local pianist. The Monroe Inn job ended early enough that he could check out the late night after hours sessions. One night he met Charlie Parker who was just back from an extended engagement in the Ozarks. The two hit it off and hoped to be able to play together in the future.
The rise of Jay McShann on the local scene coincided with the fall of the Pendergast Machine. The clean-up effort began in earnest in early 1938 and Pendergast was soon behind bars. All liquor and nightclub laws were strictly enforced and the scene changed rapidly. There were less and less jobs for musicians at that point. Luckily for Jay, he was backed by a local businessman named Walter Bales. Bales championed McShann and helped him get jobs that catered to the social elite. He ended up at Martin’s on the Plaza which was located in an upscale shopping district. He started out with a 5 piece band that grew to 7. Dave Dexter continued to write about the band on a local and national level. After several months at Martin’s they moved over to the Club Continental and Jay expanded to 10 pieces. One of the added musicians was Charlie Parker who was back from another trip to the Ozarks.
Dave Dexter continued pushing the band which led to a recording contract with Decca. The band returned to Martin’s on the Plaza and Jay expanded once again with Walter Bales financing. He went to Omaha and raided Nat Towles band. It was common practice for a band with more to offer to raid a lessor band and take their best musicians. After the Omaha raid the nucleus for the big band was in place and refined over the next few months. Trumpeters Buddy Anderson and Piggy Minor, saxophonist John Jackson, bassist Gene Ramey, drummer Gus Johnson, vocalist Walter Brown and most notably the return of Charlie Parker who had followed Buster Smith to NY but returned in time to re-join McShann.
It was with McShann that Charlie Parker got his nickname. They were traveling to Nebraska by car and the car Parker was in hit a chicken in the road. Charlie made the driver go back and get it and took it into town and had it cooked for dinner. From that point on he was known as yardbird or bird for short.
They did their first session for Decca in the spring of 1941 and one of the songs recorded that day, "Confessin the Blues," became a big hit. That session also introduced Charlie Parker to the world. The band was instantly catapulted into the national spotlight. An eastern tour took them to the Savoy Ballroom in New York where they did a battle of the bands with Lucky Millinder. The Millinder band joked that they had nothing to fear from these “hicks from the sticks.” McShann and the band tore Millinder up that night further establishing their reputation. The McShann band had a lot of stocks they played for dancers but they also had their special brand of Kansas City Jazz.
When the battle started Millinder was pulling out their showstoppers one by one and Jay kept calling stocks. Bird kept urging him to pull out their heavy material but Jay wisely held back. Finally after midnight when Millinder had already played their best stuff McShann started calling "Hootie Blues," "Dexter Blues," "Confessin the Blues," and "Swingmatism"; one by one winning the audience over and frustrating Millinder. There was nothing Millinder could do but watch.
By that time the scene in Kansas City was all but over. The fall of the Pendergast Machine put an end to the glory years. The Jay McShann band was one of two final great bands to emerge from the Kansas City scene. The other was Harlan Leonard and His Rockets.