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Jay McShann

Jay McShann

Photo: LaBudde Special Collections, UMKC

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  • 1916 – 2006 

    James Columbus “Jay” McShann was a prominent and influential jazz pianist and band leader. Growing up in Muskogee, Oklahoma, he defied his parents’ disapproval of his musical inclinations and taught himself to play the piano. He stuck to his craft and began his professional career by the 1930s, touring with jazz groups in the South and Midwest. En route to Omaha, Nebraska, in 1936, McShann’s bus stopped in Kansas City, where he found there was work for jazz musicians in the city’s numerous nightclubs. 

    He decided to stay and eventually formed the Jay McShann Orchestra, a group that gave a young saxophonist named Charlie Parker his start. McShann helped develop what became known as the Kansas City sound, a jazz style heavily influenced by rhythm and blues and driven by catchy riffs. He continued to tour and record music, putting his career on hold when drafted into the U.S. Army during World War II. Along with other notable musicians such as Count Basie and Big Joe Turner, McShann was featured prominently in the 1979 Kansas City jazz documentary “Last of the Blue Devils,” exposing a new generation to his music.