LEGEND has it that New Orleans and Chicago were the best jazz cities in which to have a good time during the Twenties and Thirties, but Kansas City was probably more raucous than either and, it seems, the jazz and the boozing were often even better. It was there that the bandleader Andy Kirk spent his greatest years leading his Twelve Clouds of Joy.
The Kansas City tradition - light, swinging music with an emphasis on the blues - was as strong as any other in jazz. From it came a host of jazz characters who developed their styles there, including Count Basie, Andy Kirk, Kirk's long-time pianist Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young, Buck Clayton, Hot Lips Page and Charlie Parker. Kansas City was the home of the jam session and the hard musical jousting which went with it.
Mary Lou Williams remembered, at a time in 1934 when she worked with Andy Kirk's band, a visit to the city by the leading tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins. With the city under the control of Mayor Tom Prendergast and many of the multitude of night-clubs run by politicians and gangsters, prohibition was almost non-existent.
'The word went round that Hawkins was in the Cherry Blossom (night-club) and within about half an hour there were Lester Young, Ben Webster, Herschel Evans, Herman Welder, and one or two unknown tenors piling into the club to blow.
'Bean (Hawkins's nickname) didn't know the Kaycee tenor men were so terrific, and he couldn't get himself together though he played all morning. I happened to be nodding that night and around 4am I awoke to hear someone pecking on my screen. I opened the window on Ben Webster. He was saying, 'Get up, pussy cat, we're jammin' and all the pianists are tired out now. Hawkins has got his shirt off and he's still blowing. You got to come down.' ' Williams did and found herself playing for the battle through night and morning until it was time for lunch. Although Kirk was the leader of the Twelve Clouds of Joy, such was her talent that it was to all purposes Mary Lou's band.
During his childhood in Denver, Kirk studied piano, voice, reed instruments and musical theory with Wilberforce Whiteman, Paul Whiteman's father. In 1918 Kirk began his career playing tuba and bass saxophone in a local band before moving to Dallas in 1925, where he joined Terence Holder's Dark Clouds of Joy. This was a smart, musicianly band, but Holder liked to gamble, and more than once lost the band's payroll to the dice. In 1929 the band decided to let Holder go and put Kirk in charge.
'That was the big thing that happened to me,' he said, 'but it took a few years to get the band shaped up like we wanted it.' Kirk moved the band to Kansas City that same year and made the first of his multitude of recordings. For some reason he had at first a great resistance to Mary Lou Williams (she was then married to John Williams, one of the band's saxophonists) and employed her only as a deputy pianist until she took over the job properly in April 1930.
Bandleaders usually tend to high self-regard, often becoming harsh enforcers of discipline in the manner of Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman. Somehow Kirk avoided these failings and remained a mild man, much liked by all his musicians. Because the band was what was called a 'territory band' - it wasn't based in New York or Chicago - many of his sidemen who should have been better known never gained their deserved eminence. Among these were the jazz violinist Claude Williams and the tenor saxophone player Dick Wilson. Touring the Midwest and eventually the nation out of Kansas City the band gradually built up a large following. Undoubtedly the strongest element in its success was the piano playing and composing of Mary Lou Williams.
'In Kansas City Kirk had liked my ideas, though I couldn't get them down on paper,' she told Max Jones. 'He would sit up as long as 12 hours at a stretch, taking down my ideas for arrangements. I got so sick of this method that I asked Kirk about chords and the voicing register. In about 15 minutes I had memorised what I wanted. That's how I started writing.'
From that time on the outstanding musical arrangements by Mary Lou formed the backbone of the band's repertoire. Kirk gave up playing to front the band, although he gave this job briefly first to the singer Blanche Calloway and later to his own vocalist Pha (pronounced 'Fay') Terrell.
Terrell was a good band singer, although his dated records with Kirk present an unwelcome ordeal to anyone needing to listen to them now. Nevertheless the contrast between his romantic ballads and Mary Lou's ferocious stomp compositions put the band on the map. This odd combination was unique and meant that Kirk's was the only band to be successful both as a hot and as a sweet group. In 1936 Terrell sang the vocal on the Kirk band's recording of 'Until the Real Thing Comes Along' and this became an international hit and finally established the band's fame.
The band came to New York in the same year, 1937, that another Kansas City band, Count Basie's, made the same move. Kirk was fortunate to be given a 16-week season at the Roseland Ballroom, as a temporary replacement for the Fletcher Anderson band, which was out on a nationwide tour. When Anderson returned the Clouds of Joy were booked at the Savoy ballroom to play opposite the Chick Webb band and a record contract for Decca finally confirmed their mass appeal. In 1939 Kirk recorded 'Floyd's Guitar Blues', a plangent feature for the electrified Hawaiian instrument of his guitarist Floyd Smith.
Mary Lou stayed with Kirk on and off until 1942. When the band finished work in the small hours she would sit up for the rest of the night composing new arrangements and most if not all of the band's best records were of her compositions. These included its signature tune 'Cloudy', its first instrumental hit 'Froggy Bottom', 'Steppin' Pretty' and 'Walkin' And Swingin' '.
During this time an outstanding series of tenor sax players who became renowned with Kirk included Buddy Tate, Ben Webster, Al Sears and Don Byas. Kirk had also employed Lester Young for a time and later had the services of Jimmy Forrest and Eddie 'Lockjaw' Davis. Three outstanding trumpet soloists, Harold 'Shorty' Baker, Howard McGhee and Fats Navarro, also graced the sections and Ted 'Muttonleg' Donnelly was the band's main trombone soloist. With the advent of widespread television the big-band business crumbled dramatically in 1948.
'We went into the hole on our 1949 tour,' said Kirk. His long-time agent Joe Glaser asked him to cut down to a small group but Kirk, who loved the big-band sound, refused. He kept a big hand of sorts for sporadic work and dabbled in the real- estate business. Eventually he built up a nucleus of young married musicians who had day jobs in New York and were available to play at night. These included good soloists like the trumpeter Ray Copeland and the trombonist Ted Kelly. Pressured to take small band work he eventually used a library that Copeland had built up for a seven-piece band and went on short tours with the septet. But in March 1956 he re-recorded some of his earlier hits for RCA with an all-star New York band which included Conte Candoli, Joe Newman, Ernie Royal, Al Cohn, Frank Rehak, Freddie Green and Milt Hinton.
In 1975 he and Mary Lou Williams returned together to Kansas City to take part in a documentary film about jazz in the city, The Last of the Blue Devils. Kirk was much saddened by what they saw. Nearly all the multitude of jazz haunts from earlier years had gone. 'Broken bricks just lying there,' he said. In 1989, Kirk published an autobiography, Twenty Years On Wheels.