Among the cities associated with the development of American music in working-class Black communities—such as in New Orleans, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles—Kansas City, Missouri, is often overlooked. And yet, this early-20th-century frontier oasis helped give birth to the cool aesthetic, the bebop revolution, the electric guitar solo, even rock-’n’-roll. Billie Holiday flourished there, as did Lester Young, Ben Webster, Big Joe Turner, Bennie Moten, and the city’s homegrown musical genius, Charlie Parker.
Kansas City was also an anomaly: a prosperous city during the Great Depression. It was the Las Vegas of the 1930s, a wide-open bazaar of gambling, alcohol, and prostitution under the political machine of Tom Pendergast, the city’s mayor and main liquor distributor. “If you want to see some sin, forget Paris and go to Kansas City,” Edward R. Murrow wrote during Prohibition, referring to the city’s near-naked waitresses and all-night entertainment catering to rich cattlemen, middle-class whites, and working-class Blacks. It was still a strictly segregated city: Black bands performed for white audiences, but there was little fraternizing offstage.
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