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Student Handout

The Story of Jazz (Unit 3)

Kansas City jazz could be blue
Bennie Moten, Count Basie, and the great Mary Lou
It would give such a thrill
You just couldn't sit still
Every day they would play something new.


We have traveled by river boat on the inland waterway to reach Kansas City, Missouri. Another state has a city called "Kansas City." It’s right across the river from Kansas City, Missouri. Which state is it?

Pick one:

If you picked Kansas, you are correct!

Did you enjoy hearing Fate Marable play the calliope? The calliope was operated by steam and the keys would get so hot musicians often had to wear gloves to play it. Mr. Marable also led jazz bands that played for the river boat passengers to enjoy on their journey. Many important jazz musicians, including Louis Armstrong, improved their skills while playing in Fate Marable’s river boat jazz bands.

We have arrived in Kansas City in the 1930s, where many important jazz musicians got their start. Our first stop will be the Reno Club and where the Count Basie Orchestra is playing one of their big hits, "One O’Clock Jump," as people dance to Swing style jazz (click here to listen). The melody of this tune is made up of repeating melody patterns called riffs. Play "One O’Clock Jump" again and listen for the riff that sounds like "Count Basie." Let’s call this Riff #1. Play the tune once more and find the riff that sounds like "Dance along while the Count Basie Orchestra is playing swing." This will be Riff #2. OK, one more time and find "You gotta dance, just take a chance." That’s Riff #3.

Experience the Music: Now you can be the musician and play call & response by clicking on Riff #1, #2 and #3. See how many different ways you can play them (hint: fast, slow, decide which is call and which is response, etc.).

During the 1930s Kansas City was thriving economically even though the most of the United States was suffering from the Great Depression which followed the 1929 stock market crash. Because of the booming economy in Kansas City, musicians were able to find work in the city’s many clubs, cabarets and dance halls. Eighteenth Street was alive with entertainment establishments such as the Hey-Hay Club with customers sitting on hay bales. The band playing is Andy Kirk’s Twelve Clouds of Joy, featuring their pianist Mary Lou Williams, who was not only a terrific piano player, but wrote great arrangements for the band to play as well. Check out their performance of "The Lady Who Swings the Band," a song written about her (click here to listen).

Our next stop will be Dante’s Inferno. Their waitresses wear some really unusual costumes. A cutting contest is taking place today. The saxophonists trying to outdo each other are Herschel Evans, Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young. Click on each performer below to listen to his sound and style. You decide who wins this contest. Listen as
Herschel Evans plays a solo over Count Basie's "Doggin' Around",
Lester Young plays a different solo over the same tune, and
Coleman Hawkins plays a solo over Lionel Hampton's "When the Lights Are Low'.

If we take the time machine back to the 1920s we can find Bennie Moten’s Kansas City Orchestra performing "Moten Swing" (click here to listen in). When Bennie Moten passed away, many musicians from his band began to perform in Count Basie’s Orchestra.

Let’s listen as Jimmy Rushing sings "Good Morning Blues" (click here). What is Jimmy doing now? He’s asking you to come on stage and sing the blues. Go ahead – you can do it! You just need to know a couple of rules. Read the rules below and listen to Jimmy again.

Lyrics of tunes constructed in the 12-bar blues form almost always use the following pattern:
1st phrase (makes a statement): Good morning, blues. Blues how do you do?

2nd phrase (repeats first statement): Yes, good morning blues. Blues how do you do?

3rd phrase (completes the thought): Babe, I feel all right but I’ve come to worry you.

Now play once more (click here) and listen to how the clarinet plays a response to fill up the time. Singers often were improvising lyrics of the blues, telling a story about something in their life.

Experience the Music: Think of two sentences that tell something you have done today (got dressed, ate breakfast, walked to school, etc.) Try to make your sentences rhyme. Now say or sing your sentences along with the band (click here to hear the band).

Now jump in the time machine again and visit the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City today. One of the first things we see here is an exhibit that demonstrates the journey of Africans in America. Another exhibit we must check out is for Charlie "Bird" Parker, who was born in Kansas City and went on to be one of the founders of Bebop (click here to hear "Bird"). You will hear and see much more of him when we visit 52nd Street in New York City. And here is Lisa Henry singing a song about Kansas City. Listen to see if it is in the 12-bar blues form (click here to listen). Is Kansas City in 12-bar blues form? If you answered Yes, you're correct!

Well, here we are back in the early 1930s and just in time to catch an airplane to Harlem in New York City. This is a really special opportunity because commercial flights of propeller-driven airplanes have just recently begun to carry passengers. See you in the Big Apple!

The Great Depression

During the 1920s the nation’s economy was booming. Many people had high-paying jobs due to the development of manufacturing plants. Production of the automobile created many new jobs plus the need for gas stations, tire plants and other auto-related businesses. Author F. Scott Fitzgerald referred to this time as “The Jazz Age,” while others called it “The Roaring Twenties.” People were convinced the economy would continue to grow, and began to invest heavily in the stock market, sometimes even with borrowed money. The economic boom ended suddenly in 1929 when the value of stocks declined rapidly, causing many people to loose everything.

During the Great Depression many people lost their jobs and their homes, and often didn’t have enough to eat. U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created many new employment opportunities under programs he called The New Deal. But even this didn’t solve the problem. Many recording companies went out of business as record sales declined and people began to listen more to the radio. Radio presented no color barriers and people all over America began to hear jazz for the first time. The excitement of swing music gave people hope for what America could be again. Even with almost no money, people would save their pennies to go to a dance when one of their favorite bands was in town. For an hour or two they could forget about the difficult circumstances of the time. Big band swing jazz thus became the most popular music in the country.

For more in-depth information, visit the Jazz Resource Library on this website and read about Blues. The blues in this unit are “Classic Blues.” For background on Big Band Swing, visit the Jazz Resource Library's Style Sheet on The Swing Era.


Bebop: A style of jazz identifiable by unusual rhythms, dissonance and lots of improvisation.

calliope: Musical instrument consisting of steam whistles, played by means of a keyboard.

cutting contest: Musical game of one-upmanship where the performers attempt to outdo each other.

Depression: Decrease in business activity for an extended period of time.

improvising: Creating music spontaneously.

inland waterway: A canal, river or lake that can be used by boats, barges or ships.

New Deal: The policies and measures proposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a means of improving economic and social conditions during the 1930s.

riff: Short fragment of melody, usually repeated many times.

stock market: Place where investors may purchase “shares” or small increments of a business.

Swing style jazz: A style of jazz in which the eighth notes are played unevenly (long-short) and syncopation is employed. Great music for dancing.

twelve-bar blues: A popular form for jazz compositions usually consisting of three phrases. The first two phrases are most often identical with the third phrase contrasting the first two.
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