On September 23, 1923, the Bennie Moten Orchestra made its first recording consisting of eight songs. By strict musical standards, the songs themselves were unrefined and not much removed from existing blues music. But the Bennie Moten Orchestra would soon build upon its earliest recordings to develop a distinct Kansas City style of jazz that later dominated the jazz scene in the late 1930s and 1940s.
Bennie Moten, bandleader and namesake of the orchestra, was born on December 13, 1893. During his childhood, Moten's family moved into five different residences, all of which were on either Michigan or Woodland streets near the bulk of Kansas City's dance halls. Eventually dropping out of high school, Moten pursued a musical career. He learned ragtime piano and developed into a good (but not great) piano player. In 1918, Moten joined with drummer Dude Langford and singer Bailey Handcock to form Moten's first band, the B. B. and D. trio, or simply "B. B. and D."
B. B. and D. got started with a gig at the Labor Temple, an important gathering place for Kansas City's African American community as well as for local labor leaders, both black and white. Between 1918 and 1922, B. B. and D.'s performances became a staple of a thriving jazz scene that was a great source of pride within the black community. By 1922, the group seems to have changed its name to "B. B. and B.," and Moten was serving as its manager.
Moten shrewdly hired some of the most promising musicians in Kansas City to bring them within one band. Most notable among them were cornet player Lamar Wright, trombonist Thamon Hayes, clarinet player Woodie Walder, and drummer Willie Hall. In 1923 the group officially became the name "Bennie Moten Orchestra," Kansas City's first great jazz band. The well-known jazz artists who later joined Moten's band included Eddie Barefield, William "Count" Basie, Eddie Durham, Thamon Hayes, Joe Keyes, Harlan Leonard, Ed Lewis, Willie MacWashington, Dan Minor, Hot Lips Page, Walter Page, Jimmy Rushing, Buster Smith, Woodie Walder, Booker Washington, Jack Washington, Ben Webster, and Lester Young.
On September 23, 1923, the Bennie Moten Orchestra became the first Kansas City band to make a phonograph recording of its tunes. With the help of Kansas City's Winston Holmes Music Store, which previously concentrated on blues records, the orchestra arranged a recording session in Chicago with the Okeh Recording Company. The songs were an early form of jazz that really just added additional beats to blues songs. They included "Selma 'Bama Blues," "Chattanooga Blues," "Break o' Day Blues," "Evil Mama Blues," "Elephant's Wobble," "Crawdad Blues," "Waco Texas Blues," and "Ill-Natured Blues."
This first recording session would have been unremarkable were it not for the continued evolution of the orchestra's style after 1923. Moten continued aggressively hiring the best performers he could find, and their form of jazz matured into some of the best examples of big band swing. Their music became known as the "Kansas City style," characterized by complex rhythms, carefully restrained drum beats, and especially riffs. Riffs referred to the practice of using rhythms to accompany the soloists who became the main focus.
From the mid-1920s through the Depression years of the 1930s, Kansas City's nightlife thrived under the protection of political boss Tom Pendergast and gangster Johnny Lazia. They ensured that the police would ignore the illegal alcohol, gambling, and prostitution that permeated the night scene. Kansas City's golden age of jazz thrived in this environment. By the 1940s, the Kansas City style of jazz had spread throughout America, playing in important role in shaping modern music.
Sadly, Bennie Moten did not live to see his broader impact on jazz. Instead, he died at Wheatley-Provident Hospital during what should have been a routine surgery to remove his tonsils in 1935. Most of the musicians in the Bennie Moten Orchestra followed a talented pianist named William "Count" Basie, who himself had been a part of Moten's band. Count Basie and his bands went on to eclipse Bennie Moten's fame. In 1937, Basie moved to Chicago and then New York, bringing Kansas City jazz to national prominence in the process.
Basie carried on the Kansas City jazz style until his death in the 1980s. In the process, the Kansas City style blended with national jazz trends and inspired artists such as swing musician Benny Goodman and jazz musician Charlie Parker. Kansas City's nightlife declined precipitously after the fall of the Pendergast machine, and the golden age of jazz in Kansas City ended in the 1940s. Jazz historian Nathan W. Pearson, Jr. perhaps best summarizes the centrality of Bennie Moten to this golden age of jazz: "Among Kansas City musicians... the city, the style, and the era of its flowering are virtually synonymous with the Bennie Moten Orchestra."
Read full biographical sketches of Bennie Moten and his colleagues or rivals, prepared for the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the Kansas City Public Library:
- Biography of Bennie Moten (1894-1935), pianist and bandleader, by David Conrads.
- Biography of Minnie Lee Crosthwaite (1872-1963), social worker and community leader, by David Conrads; led fundraising campaigns for which Bennie Moten's orchestra played.
- Biography of Julia Lee (1902-1958), singer and pianist, by David Conrads; Lee performed in her brother George Lee's band, His Novelty Singing Orchestra, a main rival of Bennie Moten.
- Biography of Joe Turner (1911-1985), blues vocalist, by David Conrads; Turner was one of the greatest blues vocalists of all time; and performed for the bands of Bennie Moten, Andy Kirk, and Count Basie.
- Biography of Andy Kirk (1898-1992), bandleader, by David Conrads; Kirk rivaled Bennie Moten.
- Biography of Lester Willis Young (1909-1959), tenor saxophonist, by Jeremy Drouin; Young played with Bennie Moten before joining the Count Basie – Buster Smith band.
Visit Kansas City's American Jazz Museum.
View images of Kansas City Jazz that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- 18th and Vine: An Historical Map; viewable at the library; a map of KC's jazz district.
- 17th Street and Woodland, looking south; the neighborhood where Charlie Parker grew up.
Check out the following books, articles, and films about the Bennie Moten Orchestra, held by the Kansas City Public Library:
- "Break o' Day Blues: The 1923 Recordings of the Bennie Moten Orchestra," by Marc Rice in the Musical Quarterly (Summer, 2002); details the significance of the orchestra's first recording.
- "Kansas City Jazz: A History," by Michael T. White, in the Jackson County Historical Society Journal, Spring, 1987.
- Kansas City Jazz: From Ragtime to Bebop - A History, by Chuck Haddix and Frank Driggs.
- Goin' to Kansas City, by Nathan W. Pearson, Jr.; contains a chapter about the Bennie Moten Orchestra, pp. 121-134.
- Jazz Style in Kansas City and the Southwest, by Ross Russell.
- "Eyewitness to KC Jazz History," by William Smith in JAM (Jazz Ambassadors Magazine); recalls personal stories as a Kansas City jazz fan.
- "Five Decades Later, a Tribute Is Paid to Band Leader Moten," in The Kansas City Star (January 5, 1983).
- "Jazz, Kansas City-Style: The Beat Goes On," by Kevin Sink and Carol Moczygemba in Missouri Life (February-March, 2001); describes the new American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.
- "Last of the Blue Devils," VHS & DVD (1979, 2001), Rhapsody Films; a documentary of Kansas City jazz in the 1920s and 1930s.
Continue researching Bennie Moten using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
Charles E. Coulter, Take Up the Black Man's Burden: Kansas City's African American Communities, 1865-1939 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2006), 220, 222-225, 272.
Rick Montgomery & Shirl Kasper, Kansas City: An American Story (Kansas City, MO: Kansas City Star Books, 1999), 197, 218.
Nathan W. Pearson, Jr., Goin' to Kansas City (Chicago, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 121 (quotation used), 219, 135-136.
Sherry Lamb Schirmer, At the River's Bend: An Illustrated History of Kansas City: Independence and Jackson County (Woodland Hills, CA: Windsor Publications, 1982), 163.
Marc Rice, "Break o' Day Blues: The 1923 Recordings of the Bennie Moten Orchestra," Musical Quarterly 86, (Summer, 2002): 282-306.