These two books cover the same historical material about Kansas City jazz but in two very different ways. Both contain specific factual information and present useful photographs, maps and other visual data that help define what "Kansas City Jazz" meant.
Pearson's book is a collection of oral history materials arranged rather confusingly as a sort of handbook or reference text -- mini-biographies of many musicians and mini-essays on specific bands, on ideas like "territory bands," on local history of Kansas City, on social topics like Prohibition, the city's notoriously corrupt machine politics (Boss Pendergast), etc. The topics are more or less separate and free-standing and thus hard to connect as you read. The text lacks a clear thesis or narrative direction, so it feels more like a research instrument than a book to read. Much is based on personal recollection, so varied and conflicting viewpoints clash throughout, not always clearly reconciled or integrated. Like all works based primarily on oral history, readers must temper it with a very large grain of salt.
Goin' to Kansas City, originally published in 1994 and now available in paperback, contains many entertaining anecdotes and memories, and it often catches the flavor of the 1920s and '30s in a gritty Midwestern metropolis with a large and exuberant African-American populace. The place was a prairie-cowtown version of Chicago, with closer access to New Orleans and the southwest as a gene pool for their music. The distinctive music that evolved there, from ragtime to jazz to hot dance music in the 1920s-'30s, was more clearly homogeneous than "Chicago jazz" or "New York jazz," and second only to "New Orleans jazz" as a clear and meaningful category. Pearson helps sort out the components and characteristics of the music and musicians that make the term useful to us today.
The agenda of Frank Driggs and Chuck Haddix's book is broader and more successfully achieved. For decades, Driggs was the premier chronicler of Kansas City jazz, amassing a huge collection of photos and documents and gathering history. After decades (beginning in the 1970s) of trying to amass his riches, Driggs teamed up with local jazz broadcaster and historian Chuck Haddix, and they pulled it together on the axis their subtitle describes -- "From Ragtime to Bebop -- A History."
Kansas City Jazz is comprehensive and follows a clear historical narrative, with details well coordinated and integrated. It contains a pocket history of K.C./Missouri ragtime, a connection with such jazz pioneers as Bennie Moten, the lineage of the Basie-Moten-Page-Leonard bands that are the backbone of the Kansas City style as it reached a broad jazz public and went national. It also details the city's notorious sociopolitical corruption, the background of Prohibition, the dance halls' role in promoting jazz, jam sessions, etc. The ragtime background gives cogent details of such important influences as Blind Boone, James Scott, Euday Bowman and other pioneers that paved the way for the bandsmen of the 1920s and '30s. It puts singers like Jimmy Rushing and Big Joe Turner into context and devotes considerable time to such key performers as the Coon-Sanders orchestra and its role in white jazz, bandleaders like George Morrison, Andy Kirk, Bennie Moten, Jesse Stone (known best as a key arranger of the K.C./Territory style), Walter Page, Mary Lou Williams, Harland Leonard and Bill Basie.
The density of this narrative is considerable, and sometimes chronology breaks down and obscures who did what, when and where, but the main outline of this intertwined history of illustrious soloists, ensembles, leaders and sidemen is fairly clear. Driggs' extraordinary photos illustrate the people and times vividly. Driggs uses excellent summary quotes from participants, like this description by trumpeter Lamar Wright of Bennie Moten's democratic leadership: "`The thing I liked about that band in those days was that it was a commonwealth band. Bennie got double for being the leader, but everything else was split right down the middle... to this day, there hasn't been a squarer leader in the game than Bennie Moten... '"
Driggs and Haddix are excellent in giving clear, jargon-free analyses of the music, as in this passage on Walter Page's Blue Devils and the basic K.C. Swing style: "The hard-swinging rhythm section, led by Page's pizzicato bass, is a hallmark in the development of a pure Kansas City style. Page's two-beat lines, contrast by the four-beat rhythm of the guitar and combined with [drummer] Alvin Burroughs' smooth cymbal work, first establishes the signature rhythm that provided the foundation of Kansas City's supple swinging style." The analysis is sparing but exact throughout and helps define the music lucidly without copious transcriptions or musical examples.
Kansas City Jazz ends with the stories of Jay McShann and Charlie Parker, on the verge of the bebop explosion, making clear how much that movement sprang fairly directly from K.C. styles and interests, from the thousands of hours of freewheeling jam sessions for which the city was known, as well as the musical discipline and energy of the big bands of the 1930s. It can be argued that Kansas City bands and soloists wrote a separate chapter from the rest of the Swing Era bands and musicians. When John Hammond brought the Basie band to New York, he was importing a long history and tradition with it. The band was exciting and energizing because it played and sounded different from the basic swing formulas of band like those of Lunceford, Webb, Goodman, etc. It dazzled both audiences and musicians with ideas long in practice in K.C. but rare or unknown in NYC. The head-composing of the Basie band, the lock-tight rhythm section, Basie's haiku-like, terse piano style all struck the New York (and via radio national) ear as innovation, freshness, young energy.
Driggs and Haddix establish a voice of authority and gravitas on K.C. music that Nathan Pearson never matches. Goin' to Kansas City seems patchier, less unified and in a few places error-ridden in comparison. One minor but obvious howler occurs in a caption to a photo -- the business card of The Maple Leaf Club, Joplin's old venue, in Joplin, Mo. The too-lengthy caption reads (in part): "Joplin's first published composition, 'Maple Leaf Rag' was written at the club. It was published late in 1899 and became the first million-selling piece of sheet music." "Maple Leaf Rag" was NOT Joplin's first published composition -- he had published a number of dances and piano pieces for over four years before. He published his first so-titled rag, "Original Rags" in March, 1899, and "Maple Leaf" in September, 1899. Second, no one knows how many copies "MLR" sold -- if a million, only over MANY years. Not a major error but one that saps confidence in the many other details packed into the volume. In sum, Kansas City Jazz trumps Goin' to Kansas City in many ways. Unless you want or need a mini-encyclopedia, go with it for pure reading pleasure and simple reliability. Much recommended.
Goin' to Kansas City is available from www.amazon.com. Kansas City Jazz can be ordered from https://www.us.oup.com/us.