Jay McShann

Kansas City blues pianist

Saturday 09 December 2006 01:00

James Columbus McShann, pianist, blues singer and bandleader: born Muskogee, Oklahoma 12 January 1916; married (three daughters); died Kansas City, Missouri 7 December 2006.

The saxophonist Charlie Parker worked as a sideman in the pianist Jay McShann's band from 1940 to 1942. His association with Parker was to dominate the rest of McShann's life; he was never able to escape the glare of Parker's sunspots. This was inevitable but unfair, for McShann was a major player in the development of Kansas City blues style. He was its last survivor.

He had been able to cope better than any other leader with the impossible Parker. "In those days," said McShann, he would take another cat's horn, pawn it, and then take the ticket to him and say, "Man, you want your horn? Here's the ticket."

Living in Muskogee, McShann's deeply religious parents managed to pay for piano lessons for his elder sister, but couldn't afford them for him. But he listened and found out how to pick out the melodies that his sister played at home on the piano and later in church on the organ. The young boy found jazz in the late-night radio broadcasts by Earl Hines's Orchestra. Although, by the time he entered Fisk University, he could make his way on the piano, it was to be some time before he learned to read music. Short of money, McShann left halfway through his course and hiked to Tulsa:

"Soon after I got to Tulsa I was passing a hall where I heard some guys rehearsing. It was Al Denny's band and they had no piano player! I sat and listened to them and memorised the tunes that they played. I went up to see one of them and said, "Look man, I think I can play those tunes." They put the music in front of me and they thought I was reading it. I had a good ear, but they soon found out I couldn't read. Then they helped me and I learned fast."

After Denny's band, McShann worked with a variety of territory bands until he finally found himself out of work in Arkansas City. He set out for Omaha where he had an uncle. When the bus made a two-hour-long stop in Kansas City he went to the Reno Club, and played. He was immediately offered a job in a trio: "I mentioned to one of the musicians that my money was a little low. "Take my apartment key," he said. "Stay as long as you want. I'll stay over at my girlfriend's."

It was in Kansas City, a city with a corrupt administration lorded over by Tom Prendergast, that McShann found his second home, playing amongst musicians like Pete Johnson and Joe Turner. Here he developed the raw blues style that was to be his trademark and where he was given the nickname "Hootie":

"After I got through where I was playing the joints were still going till five or six in the morning and I'd go around and hear everybody. It was so exciting I didn't want to go to sleep."

He met Parker in the city in 1937 and they worked off and on together in small groups. McShann formed his own seven-piece band and it became the nucleus of his big band, which Parker joined later. It was in the band that Parker earned his soubriquet "Yardbird", shortened to "Bird". Parker's first recordings, in 1941, were made under McShann's leadership.

The big band was a huge success on tour, and eventually arrived in 1942 at New York's Savoy Ballroom where, on its first night, it carved the resident band led by Lucky Millinder. Millinder's was a powerful band used to besting all comers:

He wanted to know where he could get music to some of the tunes we'd played. "We don't have music to lots of them," I said. "We just put them together in our heads."

The band produced two great blues singers, Walter Brown (who co-wrote with McShann their biggest hit, "Confessin' the Blues") and Jimmy Witherspoon. It was doing so well in 1944 that McShann showed a palpable reluctance to join the army when he was drafted:

We had a marvellous crowd that night, about six or seven thousand people. An FBI guy came in about 11.30 and served papers on me. There were two red letters on them, two "I"s, and when I asked what they stood for he said, "Immediate induction, and that means we go right now to Leavenworth." I asked my manager to take care of the band's book, but we lost the whole of it that night.

When McShann came out of the army a year later the age of big bands was ending, and he had to cut down to a small group again. After that he worked in small groups, trios or as a solo player specialising in blues and boogie-woogie piano for the rest of his life. He also developed an appealing blues-singing style of his own.

He studied music at the Kansas City Conservatory in 1952 and afterwards moved to Los Angeles, where he became friendly with the virtuoso jazz pianist Art Tatum. But McShann faded into obscurity through the Fifties and Sixties, living and working mostly in the Midwest and Kansas City and raising his family. However in 1968 a general interest in the history of Kansas City jazz brought him to the forefront again and he made the first of many visits to Europe.

From then on he was always in demand at jazz festivals and in recording studios across the world. Toronto became one of his favourite cities and McShann visited it often, recording a dozen albums there for the Sackville label. He recorded almost a hundred albums in various parts of the world and one of them, Goin' to Kansas City (2003), was nominated for a Grammy Award.

A biographical film, Hootie's Blues, was made in 1978 and he also took a substantial role in The Last of the Blue Devils, a record of Kansas City jazz filmed between 1974 and 1979. He was one of the featured players in Clint Eastwood's Piano Blues documentary (2003) and appeared often on television. In 1969-70 he was in the BBC series Jazz at Ronnie Scott's.

Steve Voce

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