Jay McShann | Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

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Jay McShann


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As jazz impresario Joe Segal has reminded us for most of the last four decades, "August is Charlie Parker month," time to honor the signal genius of modern jazz; and what better place to start celebrating than at the beginning? The teenage Parker had played with a few other bandleaders by the time he joined the rollicking, jump-swing big band of Kansas City pianist Jay McShann, in 1940. But it was in McShann's band that Parker showed the first spark of what would become the most coruscating improvisational concept ever heard; and it was in McShann's band that Parker arrived in New York to stay, in 1942. To some extent, the reputation of the 80-year-old McShann still depends on his early employment of the young Parker. But he has maintained his career as a historical figure of another sort: the last of the authentic Kansas City bandleaders, whose simplified arrangements and reliance on soloists dominated the black swing sound of the 30s and presaged bebop. Like Count Basie, McShann used an airy sense of swing and relatively spare keyboards to drive his orchestra from the piano; today his playing still revels in blue hues and the boogie-woogie figures that provided much of its punch in the 30s. (And, for what it's worth, McShann was music's first official "Hootie," a consequence of his occasional youthful binges; that nickname is documented on such ancient classics as "Hootie Blues" and "Hootie's Ignorant Oil.") He still sings once in a while, evoking the high life in a reedy, pumiced-smooth voice that suggests he's spent some time getting to know his subject. McShann's local quartet stars the excellent saxist Eric Schneider; he blends the syntax of bebop with the swing rhythms that preceded it, and this style-spanning blend makes the perfect partner for McShann's piano as well as his past. Friday and Saturday, 9 and 11 PM, and Sunday, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 670-2473.


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Jay McShann by Marc PoKempner.

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