The Early 1940s — Kansas City
Harlan Leonard's Rockets, an offshoot of the original Benny Moten Band, was one of the premiere bands in Kansas City, after those of Count Basie and Andy Kirk. The Rockets had a long history in Kansas City, but not until late 1939 did they — and the Jay McShannn band — begin to be known outside of the Southwest. Much of the Rockets' growing visibility came thanks to some good press in Down Beat. In the October 15 issue, George Avakian wrote favorably of the band, and in the following issue, the magazine announced that Leonard had signed with Music Corporation of America (MCA). The promotion people at MCA went right to work, with Harlan Leonard's picture showing up in the December 1 issue of Down Beat and a "Season's Greetings" ad in Leonard's name in the December 15 issue. On January 11, 1940, the Rockets made their first recordings for RCA Victor's Bluebird label in Chicago.
From early February to late March, Leonard and the Rockets were in New York for an extended engagement at the newly opened Golden Gate Ballroom. This is where they crossed paths with Dameron. As Leonard recalled, "One day I ran into Tadd Dameron at the Woodside Hotel. He was broke and looking for work. I took him along with me to Kansas City and for awhile he played piano in the band as well as writing a lot of our arrangements." Leonard was going to need fresh material for the tours and recordings that he was anticipating, now that the Rockets were signed with MCA and Bluebird, and the eager young arranger was likely just the man he was looking for. With his next big job lined up, Tadd went back to Cleveland and worked with his brother for a few weeks. On their way back to Kansas City, the Rockets picked up Dameron in Cleveland. By the first of April 1940, Tadd, along with Marguerite, had taken up residency in Kansas City, where he lived for the next few months and wrote his first recorded work. His even briefer tenure as pianist must have taken place in June, for the Kansas City Call reported that he was introduced to Rockets' fans on June 9. Since William Smith is in the piano chair on all of the Rockets' recordings before and after that time, we are left to assume that he was unavailable for those few weeks, and Dameron sat in for him.
Tadd also met Charlie Parker while he was in Kansas City. Later, he recalled his first meeting with Bird:
Bird was cleaning up the club. I never knew he played horn until one jam session he pulls out this raggedy alto with this pipe tone he had then. I couldn't hear anyone but him because I could hear his message. So we got together and we were playing "Lady Be Good" and there's some changes I played in the middle where he just stopped playing and ran over and kissed me on the cheek. He said, "That's what I've been hearing all my life, but nobody plays those changes." So we got to be very good friends—heused to come over to my house everyday and blow ... And my wife would cook. And the people used to knock on the door, and I'd say, "Oh, I'm sorry we're making so much noise." "No" they'd say, "we want you to leave the door open" because he was playing so pretty.
Another friend Dameron made while in Kansas City was Mary Lou Williams, the brilliant and often overlooked pianist, composer, and arranger who was, in a way, the heart and soul of the Andy Kirk band. Williams felt that, "though very young, [Dameron] had ideas even then that were 'way ahead of his time." Suggestions of these ideas can be heard in the arrangements recorded by the Kansas City Rockets. In the collection of Mary Lou Williams's papers, there is a piano part for Dameron's "Rock and Ride," which shows moderate signs of wear and has a revised ending with the original crossed out in pencil. One has to wonder just how this got into Mary Lou's possession. Was it from the original parts for Leonard, or was it from parts for another band? It has been said that Dameron was under contract to Leonard, which would have made his writing for other bands unlikely. However, his relationship with Leonard was probably more open.
Excerpt from Dameronia: The Life and Music of Tadd Dameron by Paul Combs. Published by the University of Michigan Press, www.press.umich.edu