Jay McShann

Pianist, Vocalist, Bandleader
Portrait of Jay McShann

Photo from 1944 advertisement, Wikimedia Commons


For better or worse, Jay McShann was tied to the legend of Charlie Parker. Parker's first real professional work was with McShann's Kansas City band, and McShann was credited with helping Parker to hone his talents. Arguably more important, McShann -- along with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy, the Bennie Moten Orchestra, and the great Count Basie bands -- shaped and developed the Kansas City swing sound that was so popular in the 1930s and 1940s.

Known in jazz circles as "Hootie," McShann is for the most part a self-taught artist, though he did attend Tuskegee Institute. He developed a piano style that drew heavily on blues and boogie woogie. McShann's earliest professional job came with tenor saxophonist Don Byas in 1931. Following his days at Tuskegee, McShann played in bands in Oklahoma and Arkansas prior to joining a trio with bassist Oliver Todd and drummer Elmer Hopkins in late 1936 in Kansas City.

In subsequent months, he worked with alto saxophonist Buster Smith and trumpeter Dee Stewart before forming a sextet in 1937. In late 1939, McShann put together his first big band. His recording career commenced in 1941 with the Decca label, records that often featured blues singer Walter Brown. McShann's first New York appearance, at the Savoy Ballroom, came in February 1942. His band during the height of his popularity included such notables as Parker, bassist Gene Ramey, drummer Gus Johnson, and saxophonists Paul Quinichette and Jimmy Forrest, all of whom McShann used brilliantly as soloists. Following service in the Army, McShann reformed his band, which played New York spots and traveled west to California. Towards the end of the 1940s, McShann's small band fronted blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon.

In the early 1950s, McShann moved his home base back to Kansas City. In the 1970s and 1980s, McShann experienced a bit of a renaissance, with increased recording and performing opportunities, often with Kansas City violinist Claude "Fiddler" Williams.

A biographical film, Hootie's Blues, was made in 1978, and he was featured in The Last of the Blue Devils, a film about Kansas City jazz shot between 1974 and 1979. In addition, he was one of the featured players in Clint Eastwood's documentary Piano Blues (2003).

Selected Discography

Blues from Kansas City, MCA, 1941-43
1944-46, Classics, 1944-46
Vine Street Boogie, Black Lion, 1974
A Tribute to Charlie Parker, Music Masters, 1989
Hootie!, Chiaroscuro, 1997