American cultural history, a combined century and more of it, will come alive when Jay (Hootie) McShann and Claude (The Fiddler) Williams take over the bandstand at Charlie's Georgetown for a one-nighter next Monday. Pianist McShann, whose 1941 big-band recordings introduced saxophonist Charlie Parker to the jazz world, and violinist Williams, who occupied the guitar chair in Count Basie's first band, were both born in Muskogee, Okla., and met in Kansas City in the late 1930s. McShann will be 76 on Saturday, Williams 77 next month.
"My folks, they were quite religious," recalls McShann, "and they didn't want me playin' that 'devil's music.' " One Sunday the blues-loving 12-year-old pretended to be sick so that he could stay home and practice on the family piano. But a neighbor dropped by that afternoon and asked, "Did you all go to church today?" McShann's mother replied, "Everybody except this boy. He had a stomach ache." The neighbor laughed and observed, "Well, honey, I passed by and somebody sure was playin' those reels!"
"So -- boom! -- I caught it again," chuckles McShann.
When he arrived in Kansas City in 1937, the place "was jumping," recounts the pianist. "The clubs stayed opened around the clock, and I didn't want to miss nothing. Some musicians worked from 8 to 5 in the morning, then the jam sessions took over."
McShann had already worked in several touring bands and briefly led his own group, but he had "never heard no boogie-woogie and blues like that." Of the many musicians he caught during those early years in the city that would become his home he was especially impressed by Basie, with whom he played duets, and the team of blues shouter Joe Turner and boogie-woogie pianist Pete Johnson.
Even if McShann were not a legend himself, he'd be remembered for discovering the great Charlie (Bird) Parker. "I'd been in Kansas City a couple of months and I'd heard someone blowing one night as I was coming by a joint called Barleduc," he says. "It sounded a little different, so I went in. When he finished I said, 'Man, I sure hope we get a chance to work together,' and he said, 'Well, good deal.' I got my first Kansas City job with my small group and Bird was with me."
The association continued through 1941, when McShann brought his big band to New York for an engagement at Harlem's Savoy Ballroom. Soon after Parker joined forces with Dizzy Gillespie and laid the foundations of a new musical style, be-bop. McShann returned to Kansas City, still his base for travels that have taken him all over the world.
Claude Williams for many years was compelled to double on guitar and banjo because the unamplified violin was hard-put to compete with horn sections. He served in a number of legendary southwestern bands of the 1930s, including those of Andy Kirk and Alphonso Trent, and worked for a while in Chicago with pianist-vocalist Nat (King) Cole before returning to Kansas City, where he resides to this day. He, too, spends a good part of each year performing abroad.
"There's an old saying: 'Don't forget the melody,' " Williams says, "and I believe in that. I don't care how I'm jazzing a tune up, you're going to get a little taste of the melody."