Photos by Kenzie Petty, Green Lady Lounge and Bruce Mars
Since the 1920s, jazz has been the genre which spearheaded the development of many more, including swing and blues. It has carried an influence in American culture, and throughout history, jazz has developed a few hubs in the Midwest.
Though jazz found its original home in New Orleans as a pastime historically rooted in African American culture, it has slowly concentrated in other places like Kansas City and Chicago, where many cultures now enjoy the music.
Chicago is one of the more popular hubs for Midwest jazz culture. One of the world’s most famous horn players, Louis Armstrong, arrived by train to Chicago in the mid-1920s and joined one of the country’s hottest jazz ensembles, Creole Jazz Band.
“Jazz may have been born in New Orleans, but it grew up here, in Kansas City,” —Lonnie McFadden
But Kansas City has a jazz base of its own. In fact, “Kansas City jazz” is a separate genre that developed in the Midwest barbecue hub.
Today, Kansas City is praised for its jazz legacy and how it continues to flourish. In the city’s jazz district alone, there are over 20 clubs.
Lonnie McFadden, a Kansas City music icon says, “Jazz may have been born in New Orleans, but it grew up here, in Kansas City.”
McFadden is a Kansas City native with extensive knowledge of the world of jazz. His passion for the music has given him the opportunity to represent Kansas City all over the world performing on stage with some of the biggest names in the business: Wayne Newton, Sammy Davis Jr., Tony Orlando, Lee Greenwood, Gladys Knight, and the Count Basie Orchestra.
McFadden thinks Kansas City jazz is special because the area developed a new model for swing rhythms.
“I think that the most prominent thing that happened here in Kansas City was the rhythm sections started playing with a 4/4 beat feel, where the bass is walking on all four beats, which is the most common way that musicians have played to swing in jazz ever since,” he says.
“Jazz attracts all ages, ethnicities. Kansas City jazz feels good. It is sophisticated yet unpretentious,” —John Scott
McFadden is actually known as “Mr. Kansas City,” says John Scott, the owner of Green Lady Lounge.
McFadden and Scott have worked together at Green Lady for many years, pulling in diverse audiences to enjoy their music.
“Jazz attracts all ages, ethnicities. Kansas City jazz feels good,” Scott says. “It is sophisticated yet unpretentious.”
Green Lady is one of the more popular jazz venues, grossing nearly $2 million in sales last year and had a jazz musician budget of over $500 thousand, even with a ‘no-cover-ever’ policy, according to Scott.
“Kansas City is perhaps the greatest true jazz city in the world,” Scott says.
And thanks to some of that Kansas City influence, jazz is finding hotspots in many more Midwest cities.
“I’m all for growing [jazz] in general in the Midwest,” says Max Wellman, part owner and performer at Noce, one of the first jazz clubs in downtown Des Moines. “If we value the arts, we’ve got to do what we can to support and grow the various pieces of our culture we want to stick around.”
Wellman opened Noce alongside Maria and Bob Filippone, two Des Moines arts contributors.
“There are actually way more professional musicians than people would guess, but it’s a bit of a secret around here,” —Max Wellman
Noce is unique in many senses, but one particular highlight is its emphasis on Midwestern performers. Even if they aren’t Iowa natives, Noce attempts to hire a regional lineup.
Though Kansas City and Chicago are typically considered jazz hotspots, other Midwestern cities shouldn’t be counted out.
“[Iowa] has a small but mighty jazz community,” Wellman says. “There are actually way more professional musicians than people would guess, but it’s a bit of a secret around here. All we need now is the people of Des Moines to take pride in their arts scene,”
And as Midwesterners continue to take pride in their arts scenes and pay homage to their regional artistic history, the scene will only continue to flourish.
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