Speaker: policies encouraged jazzNov. 11, 1998
BY MARY PHAM
John White knows his jazz.
Opening his lecture with works by legendary jazz artists Jimmy Witherspoon and Big Joe Turner, White expertly pointed out each musician, instrument, and their signature notes, with his head nodding and foot tapping to these all-too familiar pieces of music.
From the top-ranked Department of American Studies at the University of Hull in Great Britain, White came to give a lecture entitled 'The Other New Deal: Kansas City, Boss Pendergast and Count Basie' yesterday in the McCrary Music Building.
White was this year's featured speaker in the Emmy Parrish Lectures in American Studies.
White identified the relationship between music, the African American community of Kansas City and the administration of Thomas J. Pendergast. Kansas City of the 1930s was controlled very effectively by the Pendergast political machine.
'Pendergast basically controlled the night life of the city,' White said. 'He encouraged gambling, prostitution. During his heyday of power, Pendergast developed very extensive business interests.'
Thanks to Pendergast and his term of office in Kansas City, 'a whole new school of jazz was born in Kansas City.'
By the 1920s, the Pendergast machine had gained the loyalty and support of the city's African American population. Pendergast safeguarded the interests of black owners of saloons, and also refused to approve discriminatory legislation. Many of his policies provided relief, welfare, public works programs and other benefits to the African American community.
'The city and its music remained generally isolated from commercial pressures,' White said. 'The African American jazz musicians in Kansas City were largely free from the commercial pressures that certainly affected their colleagues in Chicago and NY. Kansas City musicians played what came naturally, the blues.'
By the early 1930s, a distinctive jazz style evolved in and around Kansas City.
'Music was literally everywhere in Kansas City,' White said.
There was enthusiastic support for black musicians, who survived by playing in the nightclubs and other city nightspots, sometimes playing for segregated audiences.
Kansas City District Attorney Morris Milligan later exposed Pendergast and he was convicted of tax evasion, and with his abolishment from office, Kansas City jazz declined after Pendergast was jailed.
White ended his lecture with a 1930s piece from the Count Basie Orchestra.
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