The slow twang of heartache and love, failure and success, never-ending journeys and awaited homecomings has long entranced the souls of Kansas Citians. Rooted in the Deep South, blues music made its debut in the Kansas City area in the 1930s and 40s. Strongly influenced by its jazzy predecessor, Kansas City blues music resonated in illicit nightclubs, cabarets and speakeasies. One of the more notorious areas for blues musicians was the 18th and Vine District, where all-night parties went well into the day.
Several musicians found fame in the Kansas City blues scene and names such as Big Joe Turner, Jay McShann, Julie Lee, Little Hatch, Cotton Candy (known as Kansas City’s queen of the blues) and Bennie Moten became legendary. Jazz legends like Count Basie and Charlie “Bird” Parker were regular performers. The area of 18th and Vine was a hopping locale and the social center for folks of color for decades and a regular hangout for Kansas City Monarchs players, when they weren’t on the field for the great Negro League team that brought several championships to town. When Major League Baseball established a Triple-A team for the New York Yankees in Kansas City, it was named the Kansas City Blues.
This city of fountains, forever is memorialized in blue notes, not only by its notable artists, but also in songs like Jim Jackson’s “Kansas City Blues.” This rich history is fervently preserved by the Kansas City Blues Society, founded, in part, by Cotton Candy. Wilbert Harrison made the area famous all over the world with his 1959 hit song written by Lieber and Stoller “Going To Kansas City,” where he was “gonna be standin’ on the corner, 12th Street and Vine, with my Kansas City baby and my bottle of Kansas City wine.”
For live entertainment, The Phoenix, Blue Room, B.B.’s Lawnside BBQ, Chesterfield Club and several other locations can whet one’s whistle while satisfying the craving for blues music.
Additionally, every year, Kansas City hosts the 18th and Vine Jazz Festival (April 20-22, 2017), the Kansas City Jazz and Heritage Festival (May 26-28, 2017), and the Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival occurring in October.
Kansas City jazz is a style of jazz that developed here during 1930s and marked the transition from the structured big band style to the musical improvisation style of Bebop. The hard-swinging, bluesy transition style is bracketed by Count Basie, who in 1929 signed with the Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra and Kansas City native Charlie Parker, who was to usher in the Bebop style in the 1940s. The Jazz tradition was memorialized by the American Jazz Museum which opened in 1997 and is a must-see for Kansas Citians. Today the legend continues through the great Bobby Watson who teaches at the UMKC Conservatory of Music. In 2014, the 18th & Vine District unveiled the American Jazz Walk of Fame.
The Kansas City blues scene continues to enjoy worldwide recognition with hundreds of establishments and numerous annual music festivals devoted to the performance of blues music.
- Brynne C. Brown