Kansas City jazz is nothing without its women. Here are the musicians you need to know | KCUR 89.3
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Jazz is part of Kansas City’s DNA. But among the many artists of yesterday and today, how many women can you name?
From the inception of jazz in the early 20th century, through the height of the Roaring Twenties, and throughout all the decades since, there have been exceptional women in jazz – performers who not only had the ability to to impress, but also the stamina to endure the male-dominated field, challenging the inherent sexism and racism.
Carol Comer and Dianne Gregg founded the Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, seeking to celebrate, support and educate women in jazz. Held from 1978 to 1985, the festival brought national artists to town, as well as local artists and honored Kansas City’s jazz heritage. Kansas City writer Carolyn Glenn Brewer documents the festival’s history in her book “Change the melody.”
Jazz historian and percussionist Nina Cherry created the Countess Database to educate past and present women of jazz in Kansas City. The project is named in honor of “Countess” Margaret Johnson, a pianist who played with Count Basie and Andy Kirk’s Clouds of Joy, but died aged 20, unfulfilled potential. The database focuses on instrumentalists and composers.
Here is a selection of music makers who have made jazz and Kansas City even better through their talents and perseverance.
A popular Kansas City story tapped into the legacy of one of the area’s famous names, singer and pianist Julia Lee, who thrilled and outraged audiences with hits like “King Sized Papa” and “Snatch and Grab It.” Hear the story – and while you’re at it, subscribe to KCUR’s podcast A People’s History of Kansas City.
Known as the “Queen of the Blues”, Lee began playing piano with her brother George’s band, Bennie Moten’s rivals in the 1920s. She sometimes shared piano duties with Count Basie. The George E. Lee Singing Novelty Orchestra was first recorded by Kansas City’s premier black-owned record label, Meritt Records.
Lee began a solo career in the 1930s under Capitol Records, making her a national sensation.
Lee has lived most of her life in Kansas City, but has proven popular around the world. In 1995, a German label released a box set of all known Julia Lee recordings, called “Kansas City Star”, which included over 100 tracks. At the American Jazz Museum, she and her brother are honored with a special “George and Julia Lee” table in the Blue Room.
Lee deceased in 1958, the last of the great blues singers.
Although born in Atlanta, Georgia, and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when Marie-Lou Williams arriving in Kansas City, she absorbed and transformed this essential swing style, taking it on for the rest of her life as she traveled the world.
Williams returned to Kansas City in 1978 as the headliner of the fledgling Kansas City Women’s Jazz Festival, when her “Mass” was performed (Later in life, Williams became deeply religious and converted to Catholicism ). The choreography of “Mary Lou’s Mass” is part of the repertoire of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
“I went through four eras of jazz and I played the styles of each of them. The greatest era of all was Kansas City in the 1930s,” Williams said at the time. She was one of the first inductees into the American Jazz Museum’s Jazz Walk of Fame in 2014.
The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra paid tribute to Williams in 2018, with big band arrangements by her Zodiac Suiteeach sign linked to a jazz luminary.
Williams evolved throughout his career, incorporating musical styles ranging from blues and ragtime to the avant-garde atonal works of Igor Stravinsky and Krysztof Penderecki. An example of his creative and intricate style can be heard in the track “A Mushroom A Mungusrecorded on the album “Black Christ of the Andes”.
In her honor, Mary Lou Williams Lane runs between the Paseo and Woodlawn Avenue along 10th Street in Kansas City, Missouri.
Born in Bonner Springs, Kansas, but raised in 18th and Vine District, Myra Taylor started performing when she was a teenager. Although she traveled the world, she spent her golden years in Kansas City.
She started as a dancer, but made her career as a singer. Compared to Ella Fitzgerald, she learned to blaze her own trail and took the Kansas City style around the world, with hits like “dig it” with Harlan Leonard’s Rockets (remixed here by French artist Minimatic) and “spider and the fly” – although she was often cheated out of royalties.
She was an artist at heart, touring North America, Europe and Asia and settling in Frankfurt, Germany, where she owned a club in the 1970s. Her adventure-filled life inspired the musical comedy “Everything for a song.”
Shortly after returning to Kansas City in 1994, she formed a jazz quartet – the Wild Women of Kansas City – with Geneva Price, Millie Edwards and Lori Tucker. The band was featured on NPR”Day by dayprogram in 2007.
Taylor died in 2011, performing her last show aged 94 – the culmination of an 80-year career. Down at 18th and Vine, where it all began, she’s honored with a arch and historical marker around the corner from the old Attucks School and a medallion on the American Jazz Museum’s Jazz Walk of Fame.
The Wild Women still perform occasionally, most recently at Unity Temple on the Plaza for the Temple Lifetime Achievement Awards, where Geneva Price was one of the 2022 honorees, but the quartet is now a trio.
Myra, they felt, was irreplaceable.
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, Melba Liston was drawn to the trombone very early in his life and started playing when he was only seven years old. Her family moved to Los Angeles when she was young and it was there that she got her start in show business.
Eventually, the list of bandleaders she performed with included Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Charles Mingus, Quincy Jones, Dizzy Gillespie, Randy Weston and a host of others.
His only album as a leader, “Melba Liston and her bonesembodies his rich, lively and moving style.
She was also well known as a songwriter and arranger, and worked (credited and uncredited) in jazz, R&B, and Motown. Liston influenced the sound of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s more than many people realize. She was also the arranger of “Black Christ of the Andes” by Mary Lou Williams.
Often discouraged by the vagaries of the industry, she moved to Jamaica in 1974, where she taught at the Institute of Music. But she was convinced to come out of retirement for the 1979 Women’s Jazz Festival in Kansas City to headline an “All-Stars” band.
“Kansas City changed my life,” she told journalist Linda Dahl, who wrote “Stormy Weather: the Music and Lives of a Century of Jazzwomen,” published in 1984.
Liston was appointed NEA Jazz Master in 1987 and is also inducted into the AJM Jazz Walk of Fame.
Glamour Betty Miller was known as the “Queen of Kansas City Jazz” (after Mary Lou Williams, of course). She studied singing in college, earned a master’s degree, and continued her education in Philadelphia.
The pianist and singer began performing in Kansas City in 1953, where she met bassist Milt Abel. Together they formed a duo, later married, and became staples of the jazz scene with strong local followings and acclaimed performances out of town and at festivals.
Miller’s portrait hangs in the UMKC Music/Media Library, which houses the Collection Bettye Miller Milt Abel in the LaBudde special collections. The same image is used on his album cover, “A portrait of Bettye», a treasure from 1968.
She died of cancer in 1977 aged just 49. Abel survived him by 29 years, a list of awards and achievements attached to his career.
Miller’s daughter, Bettye Jo “BJ” Miller, is also a musician and played in bands in Kansas City in the 70s and 80s. She could play the keyboard with one hand and the valve trombone with the other.
Listen to this live performance by Necklace & Candied Yams, where BJ lays it on the trombone during “Kansas City (Here I Come)”. She continues to perform, even though she no longer lives in Kansas City.
Although jazz is far from fair, more women than ever have the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of these groundbreaking artists. Marilyn Maye is 94 and still selling shows. Deborah Brown was born in Kansas City, although she divides her time between here and Europe.
Grammy nominated Oleta Adams makes his home in Kansas City, Kansas. Lisa Henry, a Blue Room regular, has taken Kansas City jazz to faraway lands like India, Africa and Madagascar. Born in Kansas, Grammy nominated Karin Allyson launched his career in Kansas City.
Angela Hagenbach worked as a vocalist and bandleader for decades. A native of Weston, Missouri, she also became a historian as one of the founding members of Weston’s Black Ancestors Awareness Campaign (BAAC). The hometown of Hagenbach welcomes its second annual heritage jubilee june 19 on Saturday, June 18, which will feature music, poetry and storytelling, honoring the heritage of Weston’s African-American community.
singer/actor Eboni Fondren is, in a way, the face of Kansas City jazz for outsiders, featured on Visit KC’s Official Guide 2022. Fondren performs with the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra for the Kansas City PBS series KC performs. His band Eboni & The Ivories were voted the best jazz band in Kansas City by The Pitch readers’ poll.
The tradition and heritage of jazz is alive, from generation to generation.
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