At 74 years old, Kansas City pianist Jay McShann was still performing the joyous music that had entertained audiences around the world for decades.
One of those concerts was in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990, where a woman named Yoko Takemura was in the audience.
“People should know Jay McShann much more,” says Takemura, a devotee of Kansas City jazz.
In the city's jazz heyday, McShann competed with the likes of Count Basie as the city’s top bandleader. His stature faded with the popularization of Charlie Parker’s bebop and the advent of rock and roll, but he kept performing as the leader of small groups until a few years before he died, at the age of 90, in 2006.
Takemura knew that McShann's 1990 concert in Tokyo had been recorded by the expert producer Taka Watanabe. In the decades that followed, the busy Watanabe shelved the pristine recording, but he and Takemura never forgot about it.
Now, with the approval of McShann’s estate, "Live in Tokyo" has been released in Japan (and is available at the American Jazz Museum).
Takemura has dedicated much of her life to preserving Kansas City’s jazz history. Inspired by the documentary "The Last of the Blue Devils," Takemura began making annual trips to Kansas City to immerse herself in the jazz scene. She admits that pursuing her passion has sometimes been a challenge.
“I’m an Asian, small person, a woman — it is not easy to go to center of America by myself,” she says. “I fell in love with Kansas City on my first trip, then I decided I’m going to stay in the town every year.”
She says "Live in Tokyo" is an important addition to Kansas City's jazz legacy.
“Jay McShann’s music on this album (is) full of the joy and the soul of Kansas City jazz. It makes me very, very happy and comfortable,” Takemura said. “There is no difficult logic on this CD.”
In citing “difficult logic,” Takemura is alluding to the abstract concepts instituted by the sax genius Parker, who made his first official recording in McShann’s band back in 1941 (the famous track "Swingmatism" hints at the revolutionary changes Parker would soon institute as a solo artist) and Parker's countless acolytes. McShann rarely strayed from the gospel-informed blend of jazz and blues that’s at the core of the sound of Kansas City jazz.
Filled with artful playing, "Live in Tokyo" documents McShann’s jubilant style. He sings with gusto, plays piano with youthful fervor and generously provides solo showcases for bassist Lynn Seaton and drummer Chuck Riggs.
McShann's daughter, Jayne McShann, has a theory about why it still sounds fresh.
“It's definitely foot-stomping music, feel-good music, it's also dancing music,” she says. “He was happy doing what he was doing, which made other people feel good.”
McShann’s other daughter, Linda McShann, is pleased with the new attention for her father.
“We're still amazed how people recognize the name," she says. "It's not so many young people anymore.”
But some younger jazz players are well aware of his name.
McShann’s approach had a profound impact on 33-year-old Champian Fulton, an in-demand swing revivalist based in New York.
“I am from Oklahoma like Jay McShann," Fulton says. "Even though most associate him with Kansas City, he was born in Muskogee and I am from Norman. I really hope to continue the jazz piano legacy of my Oklahoma roots from Jay McShann.”
At a "Live in Tokyo" listening party at the Blue Room in Kansas City’s Jazz District on a rainy afternoon in May, about three dozen of McShann’s family members, friends and admirers smiled as they heard the lively recording. The old-school radio personality Groovy Grant hosted the event, presenting Jayne McShann with photographs of her father and lamenting the historical amnesia of area residents.
“We’ve got a lot of history here in Kansas City that needs to be told,” Grant said.
Thirteen years after Jay McShann's death, "Live in Tokyo" adds to that story.
KCUR contributor Bill Brownlee blogs about Kansas City's jazz scene at Plastic Sax.