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Celebrating 30 Years Of 'Fresh Air': Big Band Pianist Jay McShann


This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective. We return again to 1987 for this interview with Jay McShann, who was considered the last of the great Kansas City pianists. It was a thrill to have him seated at the piano, playing a few songs during the interview.

Jay McShann grew up in Oklahoma and came to Kansas City in 1937 when it was the capital for boogie-woogie, blues and swing. In Kansas City, he assembled his now-legendary big band. McShann had some great sidemen, but his most remarkable find was Charlie Parker, who got his start in the band and made his recording debut with McShann.

McShann's big band split up during World War II when he and most of his musicians were drafted. The jazz scene changed after the war, and listeners lost track of McShann. The '70s brought a resurgence of interest in the Kansas City style and in McShann. He went on to make solo and small-group records and was the subject of the documentary "The Last Of The Blue Devils." He was 71 when we spoke.


GROSS: Jay McShann, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's a pleasure to have you here.

JAY MCSHANN: Thank you, Terry. And it's a pleasure to be here.

GROSS: If I may, can I make a request for the opening? Could you open with one of the songs that you wrote and that is named after you, "Hootie Blues"?

MCSHANN: Be glad to.

(Playing piano, singing) Hello, little girl. Don't you remember me? Hello, little girl. Don't you remember me? Now, the time ain't been so long, but I had a little break, you see? Well, I'm doing all right. Well, I found a little kewpie doll. Well, I'm doing all right. Well, I found a little kewpie doll. Well, she lives three flights out, and she sends me with a smile.

(Singing) Well, she calls me her lover, yes, and a beggar, too. Well, she calls me her lover, yes, and a beggar too. Now, ain't you sorry, little girl, that my new little girl ain't you? Well, she calls me her lover, yes, and a beggar, too. Well, she calls me her lover, yes, and a beggar, too. Now, ain't you sorry, little girl, that my new little girl ain't you? Ain't you sorry, little girl, that my new little girl ain't you, ain't you?

GROSS: That sounds absolutely terrific (laughter). My guest is Jay McShann at the piano. Can we go back to around the period when that tune was written - back to the 1930s when you came to Kansas City and started putting your big band together? Kansas City was a real mecca for jazz then. What were your first impressions when you got there?

MCSHANN: Well, my first impression was I was excited and seeing all this happening and guys like Joe Turner, Pete Johnson playing all the boogie-woogie, Joe Turner singing blues right off the top of his head, you know, make up words as he'd go along and that are all these musicians playing all this swing music, you know, and musicians from north, east, south and west. And it was excitable. It was exciting.

GROSS: How did you decide to put together a big band? How did you go about starting to do that?

MCSHANN: Well, what happened? We had a small group at first, I imagine about four, five, sometimes six pieces. And then we got a job to play for a walk-a-thon. And that required about a - oh, about 12-, 13-piece band - big band. And so we took this job, and so quite naturally we had to have a big band. And the walk-a-thon lasted about - oh, I guess about four months. And so during the four months, that's how we got our book together and got the band together so fast.

GROSS: What would you do to go recruit musicians? Where would you go to hear who the best musicians were?

MCSHANN: Well, the way I did - I even went up to Omaha. And at that time, Nat Towles had one of the finest bands in the country. And I went up to listen to some of his musician play. And when I left Omaha, I left there with about four of them.


GROSS: Was that considered bad form - to steal musicians from somebody else's band?

MCSHANN: Well, no it's not bad form as long as - you know, if they owe the bandleader, then you give them the money to pay the bandleader and then bring them on. Really it's much nicer for them to give a notice, you know? But you know, guys do things like that.

GROSS: Probably the greatest discovery you made was finding Charlie Parker and getting him into your band. How did you decide to recruit him?

MCSHANN: Well, I just happened to be passing through the streets one night, and they piped all the music out in Kansas City. And I heard this particular sound, and so I went in to see who it was. And then so we met, and we talked. And he told me he'd been out of town. Because I thought - I just hadn't been in Kansas City very long, and I thought I'd met most of the musicians.

So he said he'd been down in the Ozarks with George Lee's band. And it's hard to get musicians to go down there because it's so dead, you know? And cats like to be around where the happenings is, you know? And so he said he wanted to do a little woodshedding so he went down there with George's band.

GROSS: Around - during the War, you were drafted, right? And a lot of guys in the band were were drafted. Did you realize that that was going to be the end of the band?

MCSHANN: Well, no, I didn't have any ideas that would be the end of the band because at that time we were booked about a couple of years ahead, and we were really stretched out. But they had been trying to catch up with me, and we was on the road traveling and they couldn't find me (laughter), so we'd play the one-night stand and so then they took me right on to Leavenworth right after that, during intermission.

GROSS: (Laughter). Did - was - what happened after the War when your big band had split up? What did you decide to do? Where did you go?

MCSHANN: Well, after the War, you know, most of the dance halls were made into...

GROSS: Clubs?

MCSHANN: Most of the dance halls, you know, were made where they, you know, throw these balls?

GROSS: Bowling allies.

MCSHANN: Bowling allies, yeah. I couldn't even think of it. And then it was quite expensive to move a big band then.

GROSS: Yeah.

MCSHANN: They had gotten quite expensive. And then people were buying combos - small groups, smaller groups - four, five and six-piece groups.

GROSS: So where did you go? Did you go back to Kansas City?

MCSHANN: Yes, I went back to Kansas City, and then I tried the big band again but it wasn't going to work. It didn't work.

GROSS: I think a lot of people lost track of where you were when you went to Kansas City. Did - did that bother you?

MCSHANN: No, it didn't, see because my kids at that time, see, they were getting around school age, and I knew I had to pick out some place for them to go to school. And so I decided to go back to Kansas City.

GROSS: It's difficult to have a family when you're on the road all the time.

MCSHANN: Yes, it is. And so I came off the road, but I worked around Kansas City, maybe within the radius of 600 miles, 700 miles and in Kansas City, you know? Continued to play, but I didn't get out and stay out on the road, you know, like, until after they were finished high school.

GROSS: We're listening back to a 1987 interview with pianist Jay McShann. We'll hear more after a break as we continue our 30th anniversary retrospective. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our 30th anniversary retrospective and hear more of my 1987 interview with pianist Jay McShann, who was in our studio, seated at the piano.


GROSS: Jay McShann, can I ask you to play something else for us? How about a standard? This isn't the kind of thing you used to play back in the old days.


(Playing piano, singing) When I grow too old to dream, I'll have you to remember. And when I grow too old to dream, your love will be in my heart. So kiss me. Kiss me, my sweet. And now let us part. And when I grow too old to dream, well, your love will be in my heart. So kiss me, kiss me, my sweet. And now, let us part. And when I grow too old to dream, your love will be in my heart. Well, your love will be in my heart. Well, your love will be in my heart.

GROSS: A beautiful version of that (laughter). You didn't really sing too much, at least not on your records when you had your big band and the singers were Walter Brown, Big Joe Turner. Al Hibbler sometimes sang with you. How come you never got to sing yourself very much? Or maybe you did in concerts, which I wasn't around for.

MCSHANN: No, I didn't. I wasn't - I didn't do any singing. In fact, I didn't do any singing at all. And I always felt that, you know, with a big band, you always - you wanted good singers (laughter).

GROSS: Wait a minute. You are implying that you are not a good singer (laughter).

MCSHANN: But then after the war, you know - and then I couldn't afford the good singers. And so I had to - you know, people would come up and ask for tunes, and they said, well, we want somebody to sing it. And so then I had to sing it, you know? So that's why I started.

GROSS: Can I ask you how you started to play piano, how you first started to learn the instrument?

MCSHANN: Well, you know, when you're in school, your parent - the band - the guy who got the band - school, you know, he wants you to get a instrument and play a instrument, you know. And my folks was too poor to buy me an instrument. And I wanted to either play trumpet, or sax or clarinet. But they didn't have the money, and so, consequently, I couldn't get no horn to play. So we had a old, beat-up Kimball piano there. And so I just started fooling around on the piano.

GROSS: And then you left home when you were pretty young to try to make it.

MCSHANN: Yes, yes - I guess 11, around 16, something like that.

GROSS: I think we can all hear your piano style a lot more now, too. Now that you're playing in small groups and playing solo, you can hear a pianist in a way that you can't when they're in a big band.

MCSHANN: Well, you know, when I had a big band, I always felt like that - you had all those horns up there. And I always wanted everybody to work. You know, I want to hear everybody working because it used to bug me to see maybe three-fourths of the guys standing up, holding their horns.

You know, and I always like to see them busy all the time. Yeah, our ensemble of something's going all the time, you know, with the big band. And so they always told me, though, I should've taken more solos, but I always liked that ensemble.

GROSS: It's really been very exciting to hear you play today. I've wanted to be able to hear you in person for many years. So thank you so much for coming in, for giving all of our listeners such a, you know, special opportunity to hear your music. Thank you so much for being here.

MCSHANN: Thank you.

GROSS: Jay McShann, can you play us out?


GROSS: This is a song that my guest, Jay McShann, co-wrote with Charlie Parker.

MCSHANN: (Playing piano, humming).


GROSS: Jay McShann, recorded in 1987. He died 19 years later in 2006 at the age of 90. If you missed any of our 30th anniversary retrospective and want to catch up on some of our interviews from our early years with Carl Reiner, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Patty Duke, Ronnie Spector, Ben E. King, Elia Kazan, Sidney Lumet, John Updike and others, check out our podcast, where, in addition to our retrospective, you'll find lots of our recent interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.


MCSHANN: (Playing piano, humming). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.