Jay McShann, like some force of nature, keeps rolling on. Yes, the calendar doesn’t lie: He’s 87 years old, and a few reference books claim he’s even older than that. But you’d never guess if you were talking to him, if you were looking at his photograph, or — most importantly — listening to his piano playing.
Jay McShann tells better stories than most — and he’s got dozens of stories to tell — and a conversation with him is a trip to the past that’s always firmly related to the present.
So, first, let’s talk about the present; we’ll get to the past in a moment.
Goin’ to Kansas City is McShann’s third album for Stony Plain, and his most varied (SPCD-1286). The 19 tracks (including an interview with label head and producer Holger Petersen and a conversation with fellow pianist Johnnie Johnson) cover a wide range of songs and musical lineups. There are tracks with the omnipresent Duke Robillard, some with his Kansas City colleagues Tommy Ruskin (drums) and Milt Able (bass), and a guest appearance by old pal Maria Muldaur, who recreates Jay’s first hit, Confessin’ the Blues, as a duet in her own inimitable style. Not to mention two duet cuts with Johnson, still remembered as Chuck Berry’s irrepressible piano man.
There are standards here like When I Grow Too Old to Dream and Trouble in Mind, the classic Leiber/Stoller title track, and some lesser-known tunes from his catalogue like Nasty Attitude, Wrong Neighborhood, Some Kind of Crazy, and The Fish Fry Boogie.
No question, the man’s still on top form — and he’s been playing festivals this year from Montreal to Newport and Holland to California, usually with Robillard, and always with an admiring audience of fans who have included, this year, the likes of Wynton Marsalis, Tony Bennett and Van Morrison.
The Oklahoma boy who became the king of Kansas City jazz
Born in 1916 in Muskogee (yup, the same town Merle Haggard sang about), McShann watched his sister take piano lessons, but his real education came from Earl Hines’ late-night broadcasts from Chicago’s Grand Terrace Ballroom. “When Fatha went off the air, I went to bed,” he told writer Stanley Dance, years later.
At Nashville’s Fisk University, he discovered he had a good musical ear, and he learned on the bandstand with a variety of different groups. His piano playing was tough, two-fisted, and it swung.
In the late ’30s, he moved to Kansas City, a wide-open hotbed of good times, after-hours drinking joints, ladies of very easy virtue and some of the best music in America. Bennie Moten’s band was rocking, Andy Kirk and his Clouds of Joy was a powerhouse, and people were paying attention to a young pianist by the name of Count Basie, who had just joined Moten’s band.
By 1940, Jay McShann had his own big band — and what a band it was. There were great singers — Crown Prince Waterford, Walter Brown, Jesse Price, Jimmy Witherspoon went through the group — and the bandleader has an eye for talent and a forgiving way when it came to dealing with unusually gifted people like the young Charlie Parker. Other soon-to-be stars included tenor sax genius Ben Webster, bassists Walter Page and Gene Ramey and drummer Gus Johnson among them.
There were hits, too — the versions of Confessin’ the Blues and Hootie Blues with Walter Brown, Get Me on Your Mind with Al Hibbler, and — after McShann moved to the West Coast — Ain’t Nobody’s Business with Witherspoon.
With his big band broken up by the requirements of the draft, he began to build a new repuation as a small band pianist and entertainer, but in the early ’50s dropped out to return to “go back to school” at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music. The lessons he learned there — particularly in the art of arrangement — continued to inform both his piano playing and the dynamics of the smaller groups he has been fronting since.
On dozens of labels over the years, big and small, he has been one of the most consistent performers in recorded history. He also learned to become an excellent singer, initially to fill the requests for the old hits and then to explore newer material, classic blues, and standards by the likes of Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. And Kansas City, the place where his music first flowered, has continued to be his home to this day.
Along the way, McShann had become a regular visitor to Canada. The Toronto Sackville label was the first to build up his catalogue again, with a fine collection of solo outings, small group sessions, and a roaring big band record.
But in recent years, it’s his relationship with the Edmonton-based Stony Plain label — and guitarist/bandleader/producer Duke Robillard — that has paid the best dividends to audiences who seek a touchstone with the days when jazz, the blues, and R&B merged together to help create the music we now know as the definable roots of rock and roll.
Robillard, the founder of Roomful of Blues, has always loved the quintessential Kansas City music, and the opportunity for Duke and his band to play with McShann at the Edmonton Folk Festival — at the suggestion of Stony Plain president Holger Petersen — was something that couldn’t be missed. After the Festival was over, a local studio played host to the band and its guest, and another strong collaboration was forged.
The result, 1997’s Hootie’s Jumpin’ Blues (SPCD 1237) was a landmark for everyone involved; Jay was back playing the music that had marked his early career, Robillard was united with a hero from his childhood, and Petersen had a record that would help spark interest in the great piano man once again. Two years later, McShann returned to Edmonton again, and another flavour was added to the stage (and the studio) — the vocal talents of another guest at the Festival, Maria Muldaur. The result was Still Jumpin’ the Blues (SPCD-1254).
Stony Plain has still more of Jay McShann’s music in its vaults, and future releases will see a flow of small band tracks, solo tunes, and more duets with Johnny Johnson. The music the label has already released, is — in Jay McShann’s own word — "cool". So — most definitely — is Jay McShann himself ... still one of the coolest musicians making music of the past sound like it was invented today.
© STONY PLAIN Recording Co. Ltd.