Born James Columbus McShann on January 12, 1916, in Muskogee, OK.

The venerable Jay McShann was a prominent figure on the Kansas City scene and remains best known as the leader of a band featuring the young Charlie Parker. Oklahoma-born and largely self taught, McShann played with Don Byas in the early thirties before settling in Kansas City in 1936. He helmed one of the most progressive bands of the swing era, providing a home for future bebop pioneer and saxophone virtuoso Parker, but the departure of his star performer and World War II interrupted the band's momentum. In the postwar period McShann became known primarily as a jazz interpreter of the blues, leading a combo featuring Jimmy Witherspoon.

James Columbus McShann was born on January 12, 1916, in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and was brought up in a devoutly religious household. His father worked for a furniture store that also sold records, giving McShann his first opportunity to hear the blues of Bessie Smith and James P. Johnson. He taught himself to play the blues on the family piano despite his family's disapproval. In 1931, while still in high school, McShann began playing in a band led by saxophonist Don Byas. He was soon playing in other area bands before moving to Kansas City, Missouri, in 1936.

He quickly established himself within the local musical community--centered around 12th and 18th Streets--and found himself a regular gig playing at the Monroe Inn on Independence Avenue. One night McShann stopped into the Bar Lu-Duc at 12th and Charlotte Street and heard Charlie "Bird" Parker for the first time. Parker's playing was a revelation, giving McShann the idea of forming a group with him. In 1937 McShann put together a four-piece combo for a gig at Martin's on the Plaza. Soon he added two new players, including Parker on saxophone. Martin's was located in Kansas City's posh Country Club Plaza, catering to an upscale crowd, and McShann's group was one of the first to break the race barrier. As McShann explained to Down Beat's Chuck Haddix, "At the time the Plaza didn't use black bands. We were the first black band to play the plaza."

McShann soon expanded his band to a 12-piece, playing some of the bigger venues in Kansas City, including the Pla-Mor ballroom. In 1940 McShann and seven members of his orchestra recorded some sides at a Wichita, Kansas, radio station. These recordings were not released until the 1970s and feature some of Parker's earliest recorded output, including "Lady Be Good" and "Honeysuckle Rose." In addition to Parker, these recordings featured mainstays Gene Ramey on bass and Gus Johnson on drums.

Toward the end of 1941 McShann and the band went to Dallas, Texas, for a recording session for the Decca label. McShann intended to record some of the group's contemporary compositions, including a Parker-penned number called "What Price Love," later named the "Yardbird Suite." The producer Dave Kapp, however, was interested primarily in blues-based numbers intended for what Haddix described as "the burgeoning race market." McShann complied, laying down a number of blues and boogie woogie tracks. The result was McShann's most enduring hit, "Confessin' the Blues," which has remained his signature song. The song sold more than 150,000 copies and the band immediately followed up with more recordings for Decca. Although McShann's band recorded a variety of tunes that closed the gap between swing and bop, including the first recorded display of Parker's genius, "Hootie's Blues," the success of the band's early titles led to McShann being known primarily as the leader of a blues ensemble.

McShann toured extensively, debuting in New York at the legendary Savoy Ballroom in early 1942. Despite the rave reviews, the United States' entry into the war made it difficult for new bands to rise to national prominence. Parker's entanglement in his multiple addictions led to increasingly erratic behavior. To make matters worse, in the fall of 1942 Earl Hines lured five members of McShann's band, including Parker, to join his own ensemble.

The band recorded one final session in December of 1943, without the saxophone virtuoso. Band members had steadily been peeled off to join the war effort, and in May of 1944 McShann himself was called to serve, effectively ending the band. Upon his discharge, McShann re-formed the group, which played around New York, but the environment had changed during his absence. McShann related to Haddix, "During that little while I was in the army, everything changed. It was a different thing because a lot of the dance halls were turned into bowling alleys." The era of the big band was over and McShann decided to leave New York and head to Los Angeles. "By the time I got to California," he told Haddix, "I decided that I was through with trying to have a big band because it was too expensive, so I formed a small blues combo." In Los Angeles McShann became best known for his association with the jazz-blues vocalist Jimmy Witherspoon, and together they cut a number of sides for the Aladdin and Mercury labels.

McShann returned to Kansas City in 1950 and studied at the Conservatory of Music. He settled into raising a family but also toured regularly with his trio and with small groups. For much of the next two decades McShann worked mainly in the Midwest, but in the late sixties he took the advice of Duke Ellington and began playing in Europe. There he found an eager audience, and for the next 30 years McShann traveled regularly between the United States and Europe, in addition to performing at music festivals worldwide.

McShann was elected to the Kansas City Hall of Fame in 1971. In 1978 he was the subject of a documentary, Hootie's Blues, and he is also featured in the film Last of the Blues Devils. March 3, 1979, was declared "Jay McShann Day" by a proclamation from Missouri's governor. In addition to these honors, he received the 1982 Jazz Master Award from the Afro-American Museum in Philadelphia, the Kansas City Jazz Heritage Award, and the Jazz Era Pioneer Award from the National Association of Jazz Educators.

After more than 60 years as a professional musician and bandleader, McShann retired from active performing in the late 1990s, leaving behind a formidable legacy.

by Kevin O'Sullivan

Jay McShann's Career

Began playing in band led by Don Byas, 1931; moved to Kansas City, 1936; formed own sextet, which Charlie "Bird" Parker was a part of, 1937; recorded signature song "Confessin' the Blues" on Decca Records, 1941; moved to New York, 1942; began touring extensively; group recorded final session, without Parker, 1943; called to served in the armed forces during World War II, 1944; briefly re-formed group following discharge, then moved to Los Angeles; toured with his trio and small groups around the Midwest, 1950s-60s; began playing in Europe, late 1960s; traveled between the U.S. and Europe, 1970s-mid-1990s; retired as professional musician and bandleader, late 1990s.

Jay McShann's Awards

Elected to the Kansas City Hall of Fame, 1971; Afro-American Museum (Philadelphia), Jazz Master Award, 1982; Kansas City Jazz Heritage Award; National Association of Jazz Educators, Jazz Era Pioneer Award.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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