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Paris of the Plains

Jazz in Kansas City

Sara Berthiaume, Elise Eagan, Jackson Graves, Adrianna Pulford, Ajani Santos, Author

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African Americans in Kansas City

Jazz culture, particularly within the African-American community, was able to flourish, in part, because of the political and socio-economic conditions that supported and sustained it (VISITKC 2015).  The history of African-Americans and the African-American community is very important to the history of Kansas City. The first people of African descent were slaves brought into Kansas City before the Civil War. African-American communities were found along the east and west end areas of the city. Large groups of African-Americans migrated from Mississippi and Louisiana. From 1910 to 1930, the Black population nearly doubled, swelling from 25,000 to almost 50,000. Cities throughout the North and Midwest experienced similar population booms, as millions of African-Americans fled the Deep South, a phenomenon known as the Great Migration (Vinson 2007).

Causes for the Great Migration are many.  Many African-Americans needed a way of escaping all variations of Jim Crow practices. There were also a large number of sharecroppers, who were compelled to migrate due to a boll weevil infestation of cotton fields. After the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, many African-Americans found themselves homeless. In the arts community, many African-American musicians made their way to Kansas City through the Theatre Owners Booking Association (TOBA), which happened to be the largest black vaudeville circuit in the county, of which Kansas City was one stop. Due to the steady work that could be found, countless TOBA musicians decided to stay, including William Basie, who later became known as “Count” Basie while serving as the pianist in Moten’s band (Vinson 2007). However, while many were able to escape the ways of the Jim Crow South, discrimination and segregation were attributes still very prevalent in Kansas City. Many violent threats and other external forces pushed African-Americans to live exclusively in a single area. There were many bomb threats made as well. At one point there was even a proposal made to tear down more than 50 African-American homes to make a park, which was a disguise for further distancing the black and white communities. As a result of these blatant acts of discrimination and segregation, African-Americans developed a very strong sense of racial pride within their community. Blacks built their own civic organizations, businesses, and institutions, such as the NAACP, the Young Negro GOP Club, the Homer Roberts car dealership and the Kansas City Monarchs, the Negro League baseball team from which a young short-stop named Jackie Robinson would emerge mid-century (Vinson 2007).

However, of these establishments, the most important was the church. It became the center for all sorts of activity. A huge part of the Black church experience was in fact the music. All sorts of genres: blues, jazz, hip-hop, and others could find their roots in the gospels and spirituals of the church. The churches in Kansas City were hot spots for young musical talent, especially during the Sunday worship services. There were other events associated with the church as well which provided room for live musical performances. According to the 2000 census, one third of the population of Kansas City was African-American, with 137,870 residents in the region (VISITKC 2015). The growth of African-American population and jazz have gone hand in hand as both communities continue to flourish.

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