The KC Monarchs

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Ain’t no man can avoid being born average, but there ain’t no man got to be common.     Satchel Paige

If you are ever visiting Kansas City, make sure to visit the Negro Baseball Leagues Museum on East 18th Street (it is next door to the American Jazz Museum, so it’s a great chance to kill two birds with one stone). From the late nineteenth century to 1947, when Jackie Robinson signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, African-Americans were informally banned from playing major league baseball. Jim Crow laws and pervasive racism kept the majors all white, and denied black ballplayers the economic and social benefits of playing at their sport at the highest level. But as with so many areas of cultural achievement, African-Americans turned a negative into a positive by creating their own leagues, their own brand of exciting play (which has enormously influenced the modern game), and a history that is both uniquely black and uniquely American.

The Negro Baseball Leagues Museum pays tribute to this achievement. And it is fitting that the museum is in Kansas City. A key moment in the history of black baseball was a meeting at the Paseo YMCA in KC in 1920, when the Negro National League was formed in the Midwest under the guidance of owner and former player Rube Foster. Soon, rival leagues formed in Eastern and Southern states, and black baseball became a countrywide phenomenon.

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The most successful African-American team of the new league and one of the greatest teams ever to play baseball was the Kansas City Monarchs, who won ten league championships before integration and triumphed in the first Negro League World Series in 1924. The Monarchs featured such stars as Hilton Smith, Bullet Rogan, Satchel Paige, and Jackie Robinson. After Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the Monarchs would send more players to the major leagues than any other Negro League franchise, until the team was disbanded in 1965.

David Halberstam’s book October 1964 tells the story of the 1964 World Series, when the upstart St. Louis Cardinals beat the mighty New York Yankees. The Yankees had been the last team in the majors to accept black players on to their roster, whereas the Cards had a progressive, racially integrated team. It was an important moment for African-Americans, and one that built on the achievements of the great black teams of the first half of the twentieth century.

The Pendergast Machine

I’ve been called a boss. All there is to it is having friends, doing things for people, and then later on they’ll do things for you.    Jim Pendergast

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From the late nineteenth century to the eve of WWII, the city of Kansas City was run by an Irish family using timeworn Irish political methods. Jim Pendergast developed the Democratic machine that created the power base, but it was his brother Tom who took it to the next level. Like Jimmy Walker in New York and James Michael Curley in Boston, Tom Pendergast used the party machine to control elections, dispense favors, and ultimately enrich himself and his cronies. The line between the legal and illegal was slowly rubbed away, and under his watch Kansas City became a wide-open town, as famous for its brothels and gambling dens as for its art museums and civic buildings.

At its height, the Pendergast machine had immense influence, not just in Kansas City but in the state of Missouri and beyond. It was also immensely corrupt. The machine controlled elections, much of the city’s business, and the police force, which itself was corrupt, taking kickbacks from organized crime, which ran the music clubs, the numbers running, and the prostitution. The New Deal, which spelled the end of many urban machines, actually benefited Pendergast – the machine controlled the distribution of welfare benefits created by Roosevelt’s administration. A huge, complex organization with control of significant patronage and privilege, in 1935 the Pendergast machine appeared invincible.

But a political organization built on corruption and deceit, no matter how noble its beginnings, is bound to collapse. Tom Pendergast’s fall from grace was swift. Electoral and insurance fraud, his own gambling debts, loss of Roosevelt’s support, and opposition from the Kansas City Star contributed to his undoing. By 1939 Pendergast was in prison and the Democrats were swept from office. An era was over.

Though fiction, Reach the Shining River faithfully recreates the politics and culture of Kansas City in 1935. The Pendergast insurance scandal and police corruption are key plot points in the novel, which is must reading for anyone interested in the history, politics, or music of the time and place.

Kansas City Jazz

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Kansas City is a cellar, a dark place where the best wines are kept. And the music is different there, too.    Art Tatum

The first thing you have to know about Kansas City in 1935 was that it had one of the best music scenes in the world. KC jazz was unique: steeped in the blues, loud and brash, with a big-band style that depended on danceable riffs and competitive improvisation. New York and Chicago had the reputation, but Kansas City had the groove and the musicians who knew how to play it – Count Basie, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Mary Lou Williams, Big Joe Turner…

Kansas City, Missouri, was at the center of America’s wheat and cattle market, an economic crossroads that attracted business from all over the midwest. In the thirties it was governed by the Pendergast organization, one of the great Irish-American Democratic political machines that governed big American cities for most of the century. Pendergast and his cronies liked to bend the rules: during Prohibition the liquor flowed, and throughout the Depression KC remained a wide-open town with a red-light entertainment district featuring cabarets, gambling halls, bars, brothels, and restaurants, most of them operated by organized crime figures who were paying off the machine.

And these places needed music, so musicians from all over the country flocked there for the jobs and for the quality of the jam sessions. It is said that one night in 1934, Coleman Hawkins – the leading saxophonist in jazz – was challenged by a trio of KC tenor men, Lester Young, Herschel Evans, and Ben Webster, all unknown at the time. The session, or “cutting contest” as these competitions were called, went on all night and all the next day and left Hawkins battered and defeated, and he burnt out the rods of his Cadillac racing to St. Louis to get to his next gig.

These jazzmen (and women) played in clubs with names like the Cherry Blossom, the Sunset Club, and the Reno. As word of their skill got out, the talent scouts descended, men like John Hammond, who signed Basie to Decca Records and moved his band to Chicago in 1936. Between this flight of talent and the fall of Pendergast in 1939, the KC scene fell into decline. But for a few shining years it was a glorious, unknown source of some of the best jazz ever played.

Check out Count Basie as he would have sounded at the Reno in 1935: