Jay McShann; Helped Shape Kansas City Jazz, Blues Sound

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 10, 2006

Jay McShann, whose robust, blues-flavored style of jazz piano helped shape the Kansas City sound of the 1930s, and who launched the career of jazz great Charlie Parker, died Dec. 7 at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo. He was admitted to the hospital Nov. 27 for a respiratory ailment. His age is a matter of some dispute, but most reliable sources say he was 90.

After learning piano in his native Oklahoma and performing across the Southwest early in his career, Mr. McShann came upon Kansas City's vibrant music scene in the mid-1930s. He found a rowdy town whose lax moral code created an ideal environment for nightclubs and musicians.

"See, the town was wide open," Mr. McShann told the Chicago Tribune in 1991. "Now when a town is wide open, all the chicks are gonna be there, the pimps are gonna be there, you know what I mean? And then that makes everything happen, because you could get action any time of day or night, and the music joints were open practically all the time, till 5, 6 in the morning."

In a city filled with now-legendary musicians -- Count Basie, Lester Young, Mary Lou Williams and Big Joe Turner -- Mr. McShann established himself as a leading pianist and bandleader.

Mr. McShann, nicknamed "Hootie," began his career as a fleet-fingered pianist in the mode of Thomas "Fats" Waller and Earl "Fatha" Hines. In Kansas City, he absorbed the energetic, blues-drenched style of Pete Johnson and other boogie-woogie masters. Mr. McShann worked in the same lively vein for the rest of his 75-year career, which continued until months before his death.

In 1937, he was walking past a Kansas City club when he heard an alto saxophonist who played unlike anyone else. It was the 17-year-old Parker.

Working with Mr. McShann's band, Parker made his first recordings in the early 1940s, already showing signs of the speedy elaborations that became the foundation of bebop, the style that would revolutionize jazz.

With Parker playing in the background, Mr. McShann had a hit in 1941 with "Confessin' the Blues," soon followed by "Hootie's Blues." He also recorded Parker's "What Price Love," which later became one of the saxophonist's signature works under the title "Yardbird Suite."

"Yardbird," often shortened to "Bird," was Parker's celebrated nickname, which he received while working with Mr. McShann. Driving to a job in Lincoln, Neb., Mr. McShann recalled in a 1999 interview, his car struck a chicken.

"Charlie yelled, 'Back up. You hit a yardbird!' He got out of the car and got it and carried the chicken on into Lincoln."

Parker had it cooked and ate it all in one sitting.

James Columbus McShann was born in Muskogee, Okla., probably on Jan. 12, 1916. He tagged along with an older sister to piano lessons and imitated music he heard on the radio. By 15, he was working with saxophonist Don Byas and other groups across the Southwest.

He was planning to move to Omaha in 1936 when his bus stopped for two hours in Kansas City. Mr. McShann walked into a club, heard the music and never left. Within two days, he found work.

His bands rivaled those of Basie and Andy Kirk and, in addition to Parker, included such well-regarded musicians as bassist Gene Ramey, drummer Gus Johnson and saxophonist Jimmy Forrest, who wrote "Night Train."

After serving in the Army in World War II, Mr. McShann settled in Los Angeles, where he helped launch the career of singer Jimmy Witherspoon. By 1950, Mr. McShann had returned to Kansas City, where he owned a trash-hauling business and limousine service for a few years. By the 1970s, his career picked up, and his engaging singing and piano playing remained in demand around the world for decades.

He was featured in a documentary about his life in 1978 and one about Kansas City jazz in 1980. His 2003 recording, "Goin' to Kansas City," was nominated for a Grammy Award.

A broad-shouldered man with a sonorous speaking voice and a gift for anecdote, Mr. McShann appeared in Ken Burns's 10-part jazz series in 2000 and in a 2003 documentary on the blues directed by Clint Eastwood.

In an Associated Press interview three years ago, Mr. McShann described the lasting appeal of the music and the city he came to embody.

"You'd hear some cat play, and somebody would say, 'This cat, he sounds like he's from Kansas City.' It was the Kansas City style.

"They knew it on the East Coast. They knew it on the West Coast. They knew it up north, and they knew it down south."

Survivors include his manager and longtime companion, Thelma Adams, also known as Marianne McShann; three daughters from an early marriage; and several grandchildren.

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