An Interview with Jay McShann

In this 1998 interview, Jay McShann discusses with Colin Davey how he developed his boogie woogie style in Kansas City, including the influence of Pete Johnson.


Biographical Sketch

Jay McShann is one of the true living legends of jazz. He started his piano career in the 1930's, and is still going strong. In A Left Hand Like God by Peter Silvester, he is recognized as a second generation boogie woogie player, along with Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis.

Jay "Hootie" McShann was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma around 1916. (Some sources say 1909, and others say 1917, but most say 1916). He taught himself piano by listening to recordings, and to his church-organist sister. In the 1930's, he toured with several bands.

In 1937, Jay moved to Kansas City, Missouri, where his career really took off.

At this time, Kansas City was known as a "wide open" town, and the "capitol of sin". It was ruled by a corrupt organization known as the Pendergast machine, named after Tom Pendergast. Although he held only minor political offices, Pendergast maintained tight control until he was imprisoned for tax evasion in 1939. Liquor was openly advertised during the prohibition era, and the bars were open all night. It was also known for gambling, gansters, prostitution and narcotics. As a result, the town was fairly prosperous, even during the depression.

Jazz really thrived in Kansas City during this period. On a typical evening, you could walk down 12th Street and hear countless top-notch jazz bands. These included the Orchestras of Count Basie and Bennie Moten.

While in Kansas City, Jay assembled one of the strongest bands ever to come out of Kansas City. The members of his band included Charlie Parker. In fact, Jay was Parker's first employer. During this period, Jay also developed his boogie woogie style, which is the topic of the interview below.

Jay remained in Kansas City until 1942, when his career took him to New York City to play at the Savoy Ballroom.

Jay was drafted in 1943, and when left the army in 1945, the big-band era was on the decline, and dance halls were being turned into bowling alleys.

Jay returned to Kansas City, where he raised his family, and played locally with small combos. During the 1950's, he attended music school at the University of Missouri, Kansas City.

In the 1960's, Jay resumed touring, and has been performing and recording internationally every since.

March 3, 1979 was declared "Jay McShann Day" by the governor of Missouri, and he has received many other awards and honors. He was the subject of the documentary film Hootie Blues (1978), and was showcased in the film, Last of the Blues Devils.

I spoke with Jay on Sunday morning, July 12, 1998.

The Interview

Jay First Hears Boogie Woogie

C: I'd like to start at the beginning. When was the first time you heard boogie woogie?

J: You mean the first time I heard Pete and those guys?

C: Well boogie woogie at all. I don't know if Pete was the first . . .

J: The first time I heard it was the first time I came to Kansas City.

C: So you hadn't heard it on any records before you went to Kansas City?

J: No, I hadn't heard it on records or anything. But the first time I came to Kansas City, Pete Johnson had a group that he used to back up Joe Turner with. So one night I was to meet some friends over there at the Sunset Club. So I asked them who's over there. They said Pete Johnson and Joe Turner. Well, Pete and Joe, that's the way they'd speak about Pete and Joe, Pete and Joe gonna be there. That's all that needs to be there. As long as Pete and Joe are there its gonna be jumping.

When we walked in the club, Pete was just kinda fooling around on the piano, just sitting up there. Wasn't no action going on right then. We walked in and I'd listen to a few little things that Pete was doing up there, just fooling around on the piano. So then finally they got ready to start playing. So when they started, old Joe was standing at the mike. He made some kind of announcement or something and then said "Roll 'em Pete..." and ol' Pete started with all this boogie woogie stuff and started moving and man it just caught my eye. I ran over as close as I could get to it and listened. And then he rolled em for about ten or fifteen minutes. And then Joe started singing. Joe sung for about twenty or thirty minutes and then he hollered back at Pete:

Roll 'em let 'em jump for joy. Yeah man, happy as a baby boy with a brand new brand new choo choo toy...

And I was listening to all those lyrics and trying to take in everything that was happening. I was just completely excited. It was one of the greatest exciting times that I had listening to music. And so it went on, and that one number lasted for about an hour. But I never thought that anything like that happened. Because I was sitting up there thinking, "now when is he gonna run out of words?" And then I was thinking "when is he gonna run out of something to play?" But they never ran out of nothing. And they kept building up and the thing was building all the time. And that was my first experience and oh man that just laid me out. I wanted to hear more boogie woogie. So I'd go down every night when I knew Pete and Joe was gonna be down there together. Sometimes before I'd get to the club I could hear old Joe singing, hollering. You know how he hollers on that mike. They had the music being piped right out on the street. People outside could hear. And I'd be three or four blocks from there and I couldn't get there fast enough because I'd hear old Joe holler them words. I'd be rushing to get there. It was exciting to me. I hadn't heard anything done like that.

Jay Moves to Kansas City

J: [While taking a bus to Omaha Nebraska] I had a layover in Kansas City, about an hour and a half to two hour layover and it must have been around nine o'clock, so I asked the guy that was driving the bus, I said "how far is The Reno Club from here", and he told me it's a couple of blocks. He told me how to get there. So I went around there. And when I walked in Bus Moten had the band there. Basie had just left and went east. So I looked up and I realized I knew some of the cats in the band. And it was Bill Hadnott that hollered, "Hey Mac come on back." So I came on back to the bandstand and then I realized there's another guy named Popeye, he played alto sax, he was there, and another guy named Luther West. And I said "my gosh, all these cats are here!" So they said "what are you doing here man?" And I said "well, I'm on my way to Omaha, I got a uncle up there, I had a gig messed up down there, so I decided I'd go to Omaha and listen see what the cats are doing there." They said, "no man you don't want to go to Omaha, you stop right here!" I said, "man my money ain't that long." So Bill Hadnott reached in his pocket and pulled out his keys. He said, "Here, man, there's the key to my apartment. You just keep my apartment till you get a gig and get straightened out and after you get straightened out just give me the key back. I'll stay over at my girlfriends house." So I couldn't turn that down. So I stayed. I went and got my things at the bus station.

C: Was that the first time you were in Kansas City ever?

J: It was my first time in Kansas City. So, sure enough, in about two or three days I had a gig. I had a gig at a place called The Monroe Inn.

C: That was your first gig?

J: Yeah, it was my first gig.

Discussion of Pete Johnson and the Boogie Woogie Trio

J: I heard him [Pete Johnson] later on after he and Ammons and Meade Lux got together. But, out of that trio, I always thought I liked Pete better. It was something that Pete had. As a rule, back in those days, guys who played boogie woogie, they didn't fool around with too much popular music. But Pete could play both. A lot of people never knew that. But Pete, he could play popular music as well and he also played boogie woogie. But, I just liked the way he approached it and the way he told a story. All the other guys, they were good too, no question. I couldn't say that Ammons and Lewis wasn't as good. Maybe they were better than Pete. But just speaking about myself, to me the way it came across.

C: Well, how many different times did you hear him in your life?

J: Well, I used to get the chance to catch Pete quite a bit because at that time Pete and the group that they used to work with, they used to play the clubs in town. So every chance I'd run down there and listen to 'em. There was about five or six of 'em. And I'd listen to 'em. They always featured Pete on blues somewhere. So I'd always try to get down there so I could here 'em play the blues. And the good thing about it was Pete enjoyed playing the blues, yeah Pete loved to play the blues. That was the good thing about it.

I remember when John Hammond came down. The night that Pete was playing for Hammond. John Hammond came down and Pete really enjoyed playing the blues for John Hammond that night. I was there that night.

C: Were they playing especially well for Hammond?

J: Yeah Pete was in good form. And then they left Kansas City. John took him out of Kansas City and put all three of 'em [Ammons, Johnson, and Lewis] together. And they worked the Café Society. They was a big rage there in New York.

C: Did you ever see them at the Café Society?

J: No, I didn't, see because I was still around Kansas City. I didn't get to New York until 1942.

Jay Develops His Own Boogie Woogie Style

C: After you heard Pete when did you start developing your own Boogie Woogie style?

J: Well, after I heard Pete, every once in a while somebody would come along and ask you to play the blues. And so I realized I had to start playing the blues. I had listened to Joe Turner, and then sometimes on the jobs that I'd be playing, they'd book Joe Turner on the job as a blues singer. Well, then I had to learn how to play the blues. When they'd book Joe there, I'd play the blues behind him. And then, there was other blues singers that they'd bring in. Because people around Kansas City, they wanted to hear the blues, and they was boogyin'. They just wanted to boogie a little bit. So, that's the way it just happens. You'd be sitting at the piano. You might have played four or five tunes. Some guy'd be sitting up there. He calls you "Hey man. Look here, would you play the blues for me tonight?"

C: So did you learn it while you were performing it or did you sometimes just practice by yourself? Did you have a piano at your home?

J: No, I didn't. But what I would do, I just . . . well you know, you're around it and your around guys . . . and most musicians played the blues because Kansas City was a blues town. And so wherever you go you could hear it and you'd see it, so you just go and get with it.

C: You just get with it?

J: Yeah. I'd get a request. You say [to your band], "Man I got a request for the blues, I ain't no blues player." [And they would say] "Man just go ahead on, you just go ahead on, start it out, you start it out man. Just pick it up." That's how that started.

C: I had heard you listened to blues records when you were younger.

J: When I was young, the only blues record I ever heard . . . my dad used to work at a furniture store . . . and the only blues record I ever had was Bessie Smith. She had a blues that she did with, I believe it was James P. Johnson. What did they call that? Uh, Mississippi Delta Blues, I think they called that.

It rained five days and the clouds turned dark that night. Trouble in the lowland that night.

And then she'd sing on down and holler "mmm I can't sing no more." And all that stuff. She had it put together beautiful. And he was playing some nice blues behind her. And you see what happened, we had an old Victrola with the old bulldog they used to have there. The horn would come out. Yeah, we'd call 'em "gravinolas" back then. We had that old Victrola, so that stuff that the furniture company would throw away, well he [Jay's father] would bring it home. So they didn't have no use for this Victrola, so he brought it home. And Once in a while there'd be some records in there. And during that time you'd hear everybody singing "Molly and me and the baby makes three," and all that stuff. And so my daddy spoke about that record, he said "that's a good record yeah, that's a good record." So he brought the record home and I'd play, "Molly and me and the baby makes three." But there was some broken records, that they was throwing away. And he had them in the truck. So I went out there in the truck and I picked up this record by James P. and Bessie Smith. And when I heard her, I was a kid in school. But when I heard James P. on that record, I knew right then that I liked that. But I was never exposed to any of that, see, because my family was a Christian family. And I wasn't exposed to none of that stuff until I got to Kansas City. But I had heard it when my dad was working at the furniture store and I was in school.

C: Even though you heard the record when you were young, you didn't start playing the blues until you got to Kansas City?

J: That's right. Yeah it was something like a delayed action.

C: I, see the seed was planted . . .

J: Had I been around it earlier, I would've taken up with it earlier. I could tell that you now. But after I got to Kansas City, I'd be glad to play the blues. I had to get to Kansas to play the blues.

C: So you never heard Ammons or Meade Lux Lewis play until later?

J: No I never heard Ammons and Meade Lux until they and Pete got together and then after I got to New York.

C: So, Pinetop Smith's "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie", had you heard that?

J: No, I hadn't heard Pinetop.

C: So it was just pretty much Pete Johnson. You were just picking it up off of what you heard from Pete Johnson.

J: Yeah Pete was the first one I actually got a chance to hear, just be around. I never got to catch Pinetop in person. But I know he was around in Chicago. I read a lot of books and a lot of things about down around Chicago and different groups around Chicago.

C: But you never had an opportunity to hear his record until later?

J: Not till later, yeah.

C: So, you told me the last time we spoke that you don't play much boogie woogie anymore. Is that true?

J: No, I don't play it that much now.

C: When did you play it the most?

J: Well, actually when I played it the most was when I was around Kansas City. After I got my band together I started playing jazz. Well, every night, at a certain time during the night. Sometime during the night I always played a little boogie woogie and a little blues. We didn't let a night go by that we didn't play it. We played a little boogie woogie and then we'd play the blues. We'd play a lot of jazz tunes and after maybe about an hour or an hour and a half or couple of hours, somebody would want to hear the blues. "Play the blues, man." So, we'd go on and play the blues. Or "hey, give me some of that traveling music." Well that's boogie woogie.

C: Oh, "traveling music". I see.

J: So, we'd kick right on off into boogie woogie and play the blues. And we'd do enough of that in one good big set, you know. Do enough of it and then we're through with the blues, now we're going back to jazz. Go back and play jazz probably the rest of the night. Unless there's some live one in there and he wants to hear the blues again or wants to hear some boogie woogie again. And if he did, he'd come up with one of them tips, and we'd get carried right off with it, roll right on.

C: Once you were in New York [1942], you were playing less boogie woogie, than in Kansas City?

J: No, I didn't play it as much as I did in Kansas City, but we'd always do it. We'd put it in a set. We used to play the Savoy Ballroom and we always had a boogie tune in the set. If you stop and remember, the bands like Tommy Dorsey and a lot of them bands used to do a little boogie woogie. The big bands. In fact I remember the boogie woogie tunes that I heard Tommy and them do. They called it "boogie woogie". And then they'd play the blues too, all kinds of blues.

C: Boy the forties, that was over 50 years ago.

J: Yes sir, yeah that's right. If you stop and think about that it'll scare you to death. You get to thinking real hard about that, it'll shake you up.

Interview Summary

Jay McShann was first exposed to blues when he heard a recording by James P. Johnson as a child. At that time, a seed was planted that came to fruition when he moved to Kansas City in 1937 and heard the blues and boogie woogie of Pete Johnson and Joe Turner.

In 1937, Jay was taking a bus to Omaha, Nebraska, where he was planning on living. When the bus made a layover in Kansas City, Jay decided to take a walk around town. He ran into some musician friends at the Reno club, and they convinced him to stay in Kansas City for the music scene.

When he first heard Pete Johnson play boogie woogie, Jay became very excited, and immediately began to master the style. He heard Pete Johnson play many times in Kansas City in the years 1937 and 1938.

In late 1938, Pete Johnson left Kansas City. He went to New York City to join Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis in John Hammond's Sprituals-to-Swing concert in Carnegie Hall. Johnson remained in New York to preside at the Café Society night club with Ammons and Lewis.

Jay remained in Kansas city until 1942, when he moved to New York City.

McShann mixed boogie woogie piano into his jazz and blues sets through the boogie woogie craze of the 1940's. When the boogie woogie craze ended, he continued to play it, but he did so less frequently.