Jay McShann, a jazz pianist and bandleader who helped define the Kansas City jazz sound and was the first to employ saxophonist Charlie Parker, died Dec. 7 in Kansas City, Mo. He was 90.
Born in Muskogee, Okla., he taught himself how to play piano as a teenager by listening to radio broadcasts featuring Earl “Fatha” Hines.
At the age of 20, after working with Don Byas, the club he was playing in Kansas was raided and he started to head to Omaha, Neb., where he could live with an uncle. He stopped in Kansas City to see Count Basie’s band at the Reno Club where a musician offered McShann his apartment.
A few days later, he had a gig. His blues-based style, like that of Baise, defined Kansas City music. “They knew it on the East Coast. They knew it on the West Coast. They knew it up north, and they knew it down south,” McShann told the Associated Press in a 2003 interview.
McShann heard Parker in a local club in 1937 and the two started a nearly five-year working relationship. Parker recorded with McShann at a Wichita, Kan., radio station in 1940 though those recordings were not released until the 1970s; Parker’s official recording debut was on McShann’s “Hootie Blues” in 1941. “Hootie” was McShann’s nickname, short for “hootenanny,” and it refered to an incident in which the teetotaler was slipped a drink and was unable to play a show one night.
McShann served in the army in 1943 and 1944 and after being discharged moved to Los Angeles where he led combos front by the singer Jimmy Witherspoon. He rarely recorded or toured and in 1969 moved back to Kansas City and resumed a touring career that was active deep into the 1980s. He was a regular at jazz festivals into the mid-1990s. “Hootie Blues,” a docu on his life was made in 1978.
He was inducted into the Blues Foundation Hall of Fame in 1987 and received a Pioneer Award from the Rhythm and Blues Foundation in 1996. In 2000, the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City named its outdoor performance pavilion for McShann.