Born James Columbus "Jay" McShann, January 12, 1916 in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Jay "Hootie" McShann began his music career at the age of fifteen with the encouragement of Don Byas, playing small clubs, dances, and parties in the early 1930's. Jay moved to Kansas City in 1936, arguably the center of the universe for jazz and blues at the time. After a few years he formed "The Jay McShann Orchestra", which had a string of hits for the Decca label in the early 1940's including the bands biggest hit "Confessin' the Blues."
Prior to the bands critically acclaimed New York City debut at the Savoy Ballroom, came the release of "Hootie's Blues", which was to become the very first recording of jazz legend Charlie Parker. After serving in the armed forces during the war Jay returned to a changing music scene, and by the late 1940's had formed a small combo with Jimmy Witherspoon, and together recorded and performed for several years. Jay has continued on with his passion and love of music over the years lecturing at colleges and universities around the country. He has received numerous awards, including induction into the Kansas City Hall of Fame. At the age of 84, Jay has slowed down a little, but is still recording, and performing. I had the opportunity to spend an evening with Jay at the Kansas City Blues and Jazz Festival this summer, as well as a few phone conversations. Following is some of what we talked about.
Michael: Hello Jay, It's very nice to meet you. And can I say right up front, that it's truly an honor to speak with you.
Jay: Thank you.
Michael: Well, sir, I'd like to begin with one of the many things I've read about, which is that your parents disapproved of your interest in music. Is that right?
Jay: Oh, my parents? Yes that's true. Times was hard in those days, you now. But life's funny. My folks, you know. When I went to make the gig, I didn't tell them I was going to play at these other jobs. I just told them I was going to do this one job. So they was expecting me to be back home, you know. They was out looking for me, combing the country for me. So finally when I got home, they was ready to tear me apart. So I didn't say nothing. So they was raising Cain and hollering and screaming and carrying on at me. So I just pointed out the money that we got paid, you know. And I just kept pulling it out of different pockets. After a while the old man says, "Say, boy, you gotta work tonight?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Y'all put that boy to bed and get him some breakfast." He was right funny. It tickled me. He told me, "Put that boy to bed and let him be, so he can get some rest cause he's got to work tonight."
Michael: Do you remember what type of music you listened to growing up?
Jay: Well, you know how it is when you're a kid growing up. You know, you hear music, but then you don't hear it. But what it is, that it's a matter that it catches you by surprise and then you find out, you think you find something that you do like.
Michael: Did you have a record player in the home when you were young?
Jay: Oh yes, we had the one of those old 30 inch record player with the horn
sticking way out.
Michael: Do you mean a Victrola?
Jay: Yeah, Victrola, yeah that's it.
Michael: Were there any particular artists or records that you listened to?
Jay: Well yeah. They used to play a lot of Louis Armstrong records, Ellington records, different artists, you know. But, you know how it is. You know when something you like, you actually know what you like, but you're just a kid.
Michael: You were a self-taught musician. Can you describe your early experiences with the piano?
Jay: Early experiences?
Michael: Yes, when you first started playing around with the piano, what brought you and the piano together?
Jay: Well, I'll tell you. What happened for me to start fooling around with
the piano is because when I was in school, see, the band man, the band teacher wanted me to play a horn. But I couldn't get a horn because my folks was too poor, you know. But we had a piano there at the house. So I just fooled around on the piano. But I always wanted to play a horn, you know. But I never did.
Michael: When did you realize that the piano was going to be your instrument to play?
Jay: Well, I'll tell you, when I realized it. Don Byas used to take me on gigs with him, you know. I wasn't playing no piano to speak of, just enough to get by, and Don Byas, he would tell me, "Come on, man, I want you to make this gig with me." So I'd just go to make the gig, you know. So we went, oh, let's see I think it was on a holiday like the 4th of July, pre-4th, we' re playing a pre-4th, I think it was a night dance and we went to another town about 30 miles away and played a breakfast dance. And then we had to
work that same afternoon for a private party. And then we had to work that night. Well, you see, I got a chance to make a little change, put a little change in my pocket, you know
Michael: What brought you to Kansas City?
Jay: Well, we get to play jobs, you know, like down in southern Kansas, you know, where we was there was no work in the different little towns, small towns. But you know, Kansas was dry then, see. Kansas was a dry state. So these guys in these towns, they'd come up to Missouri and different places that was wet and get their booze and back to these little small towns, these dry towns and open them a nightclub and people would, you know, just come. And so they had to have musicians, you know. So we got started playing those gigs like that. But when they made, the old sheriff made, he'd knock the joint off. When he knocked the joint off, you know, we's out of a job. Some of the guys, when the club would close, they'd ask each other, "Where are you going to go? What you going to do?" one guy said, "Well, man, I don't know. I ain't got no money today. I might go to Oklahoma City and try my luck there." Other guys said, "Well, I might go back to Charleston." Another guy might says, "Well, I'm going on back home." So I decided I had an uncle in Omaha and decided, well, I'll go to Omaha cause I have an uncle there. I didn't have that much money, you know. Punted. So I got on the bus and the ride stopped in Kansas City. And when I stopped in Kansas City I asked different guys about Count Basie, I had always heard about Basie and them guys broadcasting from the different clubs. And so he said the club is right around the corner, about a couple blocks. " We'll tell you how to get there." And at the bus station, I had a layover at the bus station in Kansas City. And so I decided I'd just walk around there, might run into somebody I might know. So sure enough I ran into a bass player cat I knew and he said, "Hey Mac, what are you doing in Kansas City?" I said, "Man, I' m on my way to Omaha. They closed the joint down there where I was working. So I decided I'd go up to Omaha; they've got an awful lot there and see what 's going on up there." He said, "You don't want to go to Omaha. Stop right here in Kansas City." I said, "Man, I don't have no bread. My bread is short." He said, "It don't make no difference about your bread being short." He hand me his key and said, "Here's my key. Take my room and you keep my room right there until you get a gig, until you get a gig the next 2 or 3 days."
Michael: That was nice.
Jay: And like he said, sure enough, I did get a gig in a couple days. So after that I said, "Well, I think I better stay."
Michael: Do you remember your first gig?
Jay: It was at the Monroe Inn. That was my first gig.
Michael: Do you remember what you were paid for that gig?
Jay: I think we was getting about $1.25 a night.
Michael: For the whole night?
Jay: Yes, for the whole night. See, we'd come in about 8:00 and played from 8:00 to 1:00, or 1:15. See, that was a neighborhood gig. But you see most of the gigs in town, when I first got here, most of the cats was working 11, 12 hours a day, a night. Some of them would go to work at 7:00 and get off at 6:00 in the morning. Or 8:00 and get off at 5:00.
Michael: You've been in Kansas City ever since, and call it home?
Jay: That's right.
Michael: I understand Pete Johnson was a big influence in your early Kansas City days.
Jay: Oh, yeah, Pete Johnson. Yes, no question about it. Pete could play.
Michael: Do you remember the first you heard him play?
Jay: Yeah, the first time I heard Pete Johnson, Joe Turner was singing, you know. I'd never been exposed to any kind of blues like that or anything like that. But doggone it, he was carrying on. And so old Joe'd get up to the mike and say "roll 'em Pete." Pete'd play about 15 minutes, Pete and the rhythm section, you know, and then old Joe would sing about 30 minutes. Then after Joe gets through singing, he'd tell Pete, "Roll 'em again, Pete." Pete and rhythm section would get another 15 minutes and Joe'd come back and sing another 30 minutes, and that was one number they played it went about an hour. And I'd never seen anything or heard of anything like that. I was sitting up there, I was wondering when these guys going to run out of words, or they gonna run out of music, or they gonna run out of something to play. You know, your fingers gonna do something.
Michael: Yeah, they just didn't get tired.
Jay: Yeah, I was wondering, but these cats didn't get tired. They started out, they went for blood and they just kept cooking. But I never seen anything like a marathon like that.
Michael: Did they do that a lot?
Jay: Yeah, back then, yeah. It depended on how they got wound up. If they got wound up there ain't no telling what they might do.
Michael: Did they call that jammin' back then?
Jay: Yeah, yeah. Yes they did.
Michael: They just trade off and play, everybody play off each other and big Joe would sing?
Michael: Can you tell me what was it about Pete's style that really caught your ear? What was there about Pete's style that impressed you the most?
Jay: Well, I'll tell you. Pete had that eight to the bar down and then Pete could slow it down and just plain play the blues, you know. Some guys could play the eight to the bar, but they couldn't play the blues. Some guys could play the blues, but they couldn't play the eight to the bar. But Pete could do both of them. And Joe would sing both of them right with him.
Michael: By the time that Pete left for New York with Mead Lux Lewis and Albert Amonds, you had already begun to develop your own style of boogie-woogie.
Jay: Yeah, yes that's right, but that was quite a thing, Amonds, Pete, and Mead Lux Lewis. They had three pianos going in there at one time and then they cut it back to two pianos, and then Joe would sing with them off and on.
Michael: How would you describe the difference between, say, your style of boogie woogie and that of Pete Johnson?
Jay: Well, I sort of followed along with Pete Johnson's style. I kinda followed it. Not too close, but you know close, just followed it close enough not to hurt it.
Michael: In the 1930s and '40s there had to be no place on earth that was jumpin' like Kansas City?
Jay: Well, you see Pendergast opened the town up, you know. Clubs was open all night.
Michael: You mean Tom Pendergast the corrupt city official during prohibition?
Jay: Yeah know the thing about it; you never did see Pendergast in these clubs. He didn't frequent the clubs. He had his business; he had his thing going with the city then.
Michael: Back in those days, what were some of the names of the bands and
musicians you'd find in the club district there?
Jay: Tommy Douglas, he had a band, he was known for having good bands. Tommy Douglas and there was Pete Johnson, and Joe Turner, There was a lot of guys
had a lot of good bands around Kansas City Oh, you can't forget Count Basie.
Cause that's the style from Kansas City. The style of Kansas City music.
Michael: It was around that time that you had a smash hit with "Confessin' the Blues." That had to be a big lift to the band.
Jay: That was a big lift for the band. It really was.
Michael: Did you know that Chuck Berry won a high school talent contest with a rendition of "Confessin' the Blues?"
Jay: Who did?
Michael: Chuck Berry.
Jay: He did? I didn't know that.
Michael: He won a high school talent contest with his rendition of your song, "Confessin' the Blues."
Jay: Well, I'll be dogged. He did a good job himself, with the blues, didn't
Michael: Yes he did, yes he did. He followed that little more rock and roll side of blues there.
Jay: Well, that's right.
Michael: In 1942, you went to New York to play the Savoy Ballroom. Can you describe what that was like?
Jay: Well, you know, they used to have some enormous crowds there, at the
ballroom. They had two bands, two great big bandstands. Each bandstand was, bandstand #1 and bandstand #2. Each bandstand would hold a whole big band like 5 brass, 3 trombones, and 5 reeds and a rhythm section. It would hold all them cats. And they used to have big crowds there; at least around 1,000 people every night, I'd bet it was 1,000 people.
Michael: Even on a weeknight?
Jay: Yeah. They'd get these bands up there and one band on #1 and one band #2 and doggone it, and they'd go at it, let 'em go.
Michael: After the war, you returned to Kansas City to play in smaller groups and combos, and around 1945 or so you found yourself having to replace Walter Brown. How did you come up with Jimmy Witherspoon?
Jay: Well, I'll tell you how. Well, I got out west, I went to California and I had a guy singing with me called Blues Bailey. And of course Walter Brown had left the group, so Blues Bailey was singing with the group and then he got a chance to join some group out there on the West Coast. So he joined this group, and so we was playing up they're at a town right out of Frisco and one night, and I ran into Spoon that afternoon. He came by and said, "Hey, man," he says, "who you got singing with you?" I said, "Man, I ain't got nobody singing right now." And he said, "Well, look, how 'bout lettin' me try?" So I just took him right over to the piano right there and tried him out and Witherspoon was singing some pretty good blues. So we went over a few things and I said, "Well, come and be to work tonight." And he said okay. He showed for work and the crowd liked him; they liked him. So he went right on with the group right on from there.
Michael: Witherspoon played with you for about 4 or 5 years, and then went out on his own, but you guys remained close, and recorded on and off together over the years.
Jay: That's right, sure it is.
Michael: As a band leader that gave Charlie Parker his start, do you ever get tired of Charlie Parker questions?
Jay: Well, you get a lot of them, they get a little tiresome, but I don't mind.
Michael: Over the years now things have kind of quieted down and, but you still haven't retired yet, you've enjoyed some recent success with recordings with Duke Robillard. What's that been like?
Jay: Oh, well, we've had a lot of fun. We've played some nice things together, me and Duke. In fact, we're here together here at this festival.
Michael: That's right. Saturday night. I'm going to be down there.
Jay: Well, good, I'm gonna' sure look for you.
Michael: Well Jay, thank you so much. It's been and honor and I really appreciate your taking the time.
Jay: Thank you. Goodbye.
This interview is copyright © 2000 by Michael Evan, and Blues On Stage, all rights reserved. Copy, duplication or download prohibited without written permission. For permission to use this review please send an E-mail to Ray Stiles.