At first glance, Kansas City seems an unlikely location for the development of a unique style of jazz. It happened because of a wide open atmosphere that featured all types of entertainment and fostered every kind of vice and corruption imaginable. All of it due to the leader of an all-powerful democratic political machine-Thomas J. Pendergast.
Pendergast rose to power by 1911 when he took over for his brother who had been in charge before him. He immediately formed alliances with powerful figures within the county and set up several legitimate businesses including the T.J. Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company, The Ready-Mix Concrete Company and the purchase of the Jefferson Hotel in downtown Kansas City.
He also gained control over the entire city government including politicians, law enforcement and judges. Under his control numerous nightspots opened throughout the city all run by gangsters on the Pendergast payroll.
When prohibition came into law it was ignored by Pendergast and his associates. The Pendergast Wholesale Liquor Company was unaffected as the bootleg alcohol flowed freely. This helped establish over one hundred entertainment venues of all types. This created lots of jobs for musicians and they flocked to Kansas City to take advantage of the opportunity.
To hide much of this illegal activity Pendergast presented a different face to the average Kansas Citian by creating programs that fed the poor and helped the community. He created a public works program that built many buildings and highways and put many people to work. At a result his Ready Mix Concrete Company prospered.
When the stock market crashed in 1929 it didn’t have much of an effect on the nightlife scene in K.C. either. Pendergast saw to it that things carried on as normal. This drew even more musicians to town which enhanced the local jazz scene immeasurably.
To maintain this type of power, Pendergast’s Kansas City became one of the major crime centers of the United States including the Union Station Massacre in 1933 and the Bloody Election of 1934.
The machine was finally broken up in 1939 when Pendergast was indicted for income tax evasion. It was the end of the last great political machine in the U.S. and the beginning of the end of one of the most important jazz centers of all time.