There are some Jazz musicians who are not fully represented by their recordings alone. These musicians have qualities when you see them live that cannot be transferred to a recorded medium. I don’t mean that they have an engaging stage presence or a striking look that you can’t see and therefore is not represented on record, but rather that there is a reaction between them, their instrument, and the people in the audience that cannot be fully realized in a recording, be it audio or visual. Their recordings offer us a shadow of their true sound, of their true swing, a shadow of the drama they are able to transmit to the listener. I have experienced this a few times in my life: Frank Wess, Clark Terry, and Jay McShann.
Jay McShann (January 12, 1916 – December 7, 2006) is a pianist and singer from Muskogee Oklahoma who is probably best known for hiring Charlie Parker and recording him in the early 1940’s. I knew about Jay’s music my entire life, not only because of its historical significance, but because my onetime saxophone player and friend David Bull Stewart played a few gigs with Jay around Kansas City in the 1980’s. I was only able to hear Jay in person one time, and that was in Oklahoma City in October of 2001 at the Deep Deuce Jazz Festival. (Incidentally, the concert was held in the parking lot across the street from the church that Frank Wess attended as a child.)
I will always remember that day because Jay’s music was overpowering. I had never experienced such swing and such feeling from a piano trio in my entire life. I was blown away. Jay made it seem as if the entire world was a party, the swing coming off that bandstand made every single one of us present feel alive and rejuvenated; it was a feeling of invincible happiness.
Watching him I remember him smiling while he played and I remember his feet tapping like crazy under the piano, like he was dancing. He was so kind to everyone there – giving interviews and taking pictures with us.
We spoke that night and I told him I played piano and was thinking of moving to New York. I asked him if I could call him at his home in Kansas City and after he said yes we spoke on the phone a handful of times. At one point I interviewed him for my Oklahoma History class and asked, among other things, “Who is your favorite modern pianist?” I meant “contemporary” when I used the word “modern”, but Jay just laughed and said “Art Tatum is pretty modern to me.” When I explained myself he admitted to liking Benny Green’s records (also a favorite of mine).
His recording, “Last of the Blue Devils”, ranks in my top 10 favorite recordings of all time, and there are also a wealth of cool videos on youtube including this great documentary from the 1970’s : (Featured here in two parts. If you have any information as to how I can acquire a copy of this, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org)
And this trio recording from 1945:
I was really fortunate to get to know Jay when I did, because he passed away in 2006 at the age of 90. As I spend more time involved with this music, I have come to admire Jay more and more, not only for his historical impact as a pianist and bandleader, but for the longevity he displayed in his artistic career. Jay was on the front lines of the Kansas City piano style as a young man, and when he passed away he was perhaps its last survivor. He kept working and playing piano for 70 years, enduring cultural change as the public moved away from big band Jazz and even enduring change within the Jazz community itself, as the music moved away from the aesthetic of swinging and blues that he represented. Throughout all his life Jay kept the torch of Kansas City swing alive and as a fellow Oklahoman and pianist, I admire and appreciate him for it.
Share your thoughts about Jay McShann and his music in the comments below. Thanks for reading!