The great pianist Jay McShann died yesterday, December 7, in Kansas City at the age of 90. Though he will always be known as the guy who introduced Charlie Parker to the world through his killer 1941-'42 output for Decca Records, he had plenty of his own style and substance. Unlike his immediate K.C.-scene predecessor, Count Basie, who fashioned a sleek, stripped-down strain of swing that moved with the force of a locomotive, McShann held tighter to the blues—the fantastic singer Walter Brown appeared on many of those crucial sides—and many of these tracks split the difference between boogie-woogie and nascent R & B.
McShann arrived in the city in 1936, just as Basie, Lester Young, Big Joe Turner, and Mary Lou Williams were making history. After serving in World War II McShann returned to Kansas City and formed a new big band, but economics forced him to downsize, and for the rest of his career he led small combos. I got the chance to see him play just once, at the Jazz Showcase—in the late 80s, if memory serves—and while his playing was still steeped in the sound of his early days, his charisma and ebullient solos had no problem connecting with the audience. If you want hear the glory of those early recordings, you might pick up this budget set.