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Jay "Hootie" McShann on Piano Jazz

Jay McShann.
Jay McShann.

Pianist Jay "Hootie" McShann was one of the legends of the Kansas City jazz scene. Born in Muskogee, Okla., in 1916, McShann picked up the piano as a young boy, following his older sister to her piano lessons and picking out tunes he heard on the radio. Though his parents discouraged his interest in music, McShann continued to play and picked up on the stride style of Fats Waller and Earl "Fatha" Hines. By age 15, McShann had landed a gig playing with a fellow Muskogee native, tenor saxophonist Don Byas. In subsequent years, he found work with bands throughout Oklahoma and Arkansas, and attended the Tuskeegee Institute before finally landing in Kansas City.

When McShann arrived, the scene in Kansas City was thriving — "wide open," as McShann was fond of saying — with a bustling nightclub scene populated by such jazz greats as Mary Lou Williams, Lester Young and Pete Johnson. McShann was soon one of the top players in town and he quickly began performing regularly with his own small group. By 1939, the small group had turned into a full-fledged big band, The Jay McShann Orchestra. The group, which included a young sax player named Charlie Parker, had several big hits, including "Confessin the Blues" and "Hootie's Blues."

In 1944, McShann was drafted into the Army for two years. When he returned from duty, the scene had changed. Big bands were out and smaller combos were the order of the day. Unable to re-form his big band, McShann shifted his focus to leading smaller groups. With the smaller groups, McShann introduced audiences to singers Walter Brown (his co-writer on "Confessin the Blues") and Jimmy Witherspoon, who gained a hit with "Ain't Nobody's Business."

In the 1950s, McShann's fame began to wane among the wider jazz audience, though he continued to perform in and around his adopted hometown of Kansas City. While he spent time raising a family, he also studied arrangement and composition at the University of Kansas City-Missouri Conservatory of Music. A renewed interest in the Kansas City sound among jazz lovers in the late 1960s led to McShann's comeback. He was soon performing again on a regular basis in festivals and clubs throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. With the "rediscovery" of McShann and his music came numerous awards, including the Jazz Master Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Jazz Era Pioneer Award from the National Association of Jazz Educators, and the Kansas City Jazz Heritage Award.

Originally recorded Dec. 16, 1979. Original broadcast Nov. 9, 1980.

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