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Kansas City jazz owes so much to its women musicians

A woman sits inside a radio studio. She is gesturing with both hands and talking at a microphone with KCUR label.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
In celebration of Women's History Month, the American Jazz Museum is hosting the event Believe In: Women in Jazz. The fundraiser looks at some of jazz's biggest female artists and includes a performance by ARTEMIS, the all-female ensemble.

Kansas City is known worldwide as a jazz town, home to the likes of Charlie Parker, Andy Kirk and Count Basie. But what about the women who helped shape the genre? To celebrate Women’s History Month, Up To Date looked at some of the city’s most iconic female jazz luminaries.

Kansas City’s female jazz musicians have never received the same amount of praise or recognition as their male counterparts. But that doesn’t mean their influence is in any way less monumental.

Musicians Julia Lee, Mary Lou Williams and Myra Taylor, to name just a few, helped create the swinging, bluesy style of jazz that the city is known for today.

“Julia Lee was bold and brazen and a little risqué,” singer Eboni Fondren told Up To Date’s Steve Kraske. “She wasn’t afraid to have fun and be upfront and say what she wanted to say. I liked that.”

Lee, a pianist and singer, was known for songs like “Snatch and Grab it” and “King Size Papa,” both of which topped Billboard R&B charts despite criticism for being “too raunchy.” As KCUR's podcast A People's History of Kansas City detailed, Lee was also atrailblazer for Black women in a male-dominated music industry.

Rashida Phillips, the executive director of the American Jazz Museum, mentioned Myra Taylor as being especially important to the genre. Taylor wrote “Dig It” for bandleader Harlan Leonard, but was cheated out of royalties. She was born in Kansas and raised in the 18th and Vine District before making her career as a singer.

“Her spirit was so big and her sound and talent were so large that she found herself almost growing bigger than the city. But she ended up coming home toward the end of her career,” Phillips said.

Fondren and Phillips joined Up To Date to discuss how the city's female jazz luminaries helped shape where the genre is today.

Event details: Believe In: Women in Jazz, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, March 18 at the American Jazz Museum,1616 E 18th St., Kansas City, Missouri 64108

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When I host Up To Date each morning at 9, my aim is to engage the community in conversations about the Kansas City area’s challenges, hopes and opportunities. I try to ask the questions that listeners want answered about the day’s most pressing issues and provide a place for residents to engage directly with newsmakers. Reach me at steve@kcur.org or on Twitter @stevekraske.
As a producer for Up To Date, I create sound-rich talk show segments about the individuals and communities that call Kansas City home. Whether it’s a poet, a business owner or a local lawmaker, I seek out diverse voices to help break down the biggest stories of the day. After listening to the show, I want Up To Date listeners to feel informed and empowered to make decisions in their daily lives. You can reach me at claudiab@kcur.org
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