McShann, Jay (January 12, 1916-December 7, 2006)
- Existence: January 12, 1916 - December 7, 2006
Born in Muskogee, Oklahoma, January 12, 1916, James Columbus "Jay" McShann was already a well-traveled musician when he settled in Kansas City in 1936. He taught himself piano as a child, despite his parents' disapproval of his interest in music, and began his professional career in 1931 playing with Don Byas. He studied at Fisk University and performed around Arkansas and Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1935 and 1936. In the late 1930s and early 1940s, along with his fellow pianist and bandleader Count Basie, the singer Joe Turner and many others, McShann helped establish what came to be known as the Kansas City sound: a brand of jazz rooted in the blues, driven by riffs and marked by a powerful but relaxed rhythmic pulse.
After a club where he was performing in Kansas was closed in a police raid, he boarded a bus for Omaha, where he had family. But during a layover in Kansas City he ran into some musicians he knew and, learning that work was available there, decided to stay. McShann played at the Monroe Inn on Independence Avenue. The following year he formed a sextet and began a residence at Martin's on the Plaza. In late 1939, McShann assembled a big band and played at the Century Room and Fairyland Park.
The Jay McShann Orchestra toured extensively and recorded for the Decca label in 1941. The band's most popular recording was a blues titled Confessin' the Blues, but the band performed and recorded many modern compositions which bridged traditional Kansas City jazz and bebop. This musically progressive band, whose oldest member was twenty-five, included Gus Johnson, Gene Ramey and a teenage saxophonist named Charlie Parker. Within a few years Parker would emerge as the leader of the musical revolution known as bebop, but it was McShann who gave him the training he needed in the basics of swing and the blues. Their recording of Hootie Blues was the first to document Parker's emerging genius. Although his presence would ensure the band's place in jazz history, it was Walter Brown's vocal on Confessin' the Blues, recorded that same year, that gave the band its first and biggest hit, making the ensemble best known for its blues records.
After a triumphant performance at the Savoy Ballroom in New York in 1942, McShann seemed poised to take his place among the leading swing bandleaders. While that never happened, primarily because he was drafted in 1943, he did have success in the field of rhythm and blues in the late '40s with, among other recordings, the first by the singer Jimmy Witherspoon. McShann returned to Kansas City in 1950, studied at the Conservatory of Music, and toured regionally with his trio and small groups.
His career picked up momentum following a successful European tour in 1969, and for the rest of his life McShann – working solo and leading ensembles of various sizes, this time handling the vocals himself – performed and recorded frequently, both in the United States and overseas. He was also featured in a number of documentaries, most notably The Last of the Blue Devils, a 1980 film about Kansas City jazz. Among the many honors McShann received late in his career were an American Jazz Masters grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in 1986 and a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1996.
McShann died December 7, 2006 at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri.